In 1999 I started college, about 12 years late. In 1985 my family was in economic turmoil. My mother was raising two kids on her own, and when my grandfather, who had helped as much as he could, died when I was 14, our financial situation deteriorated rapidly. By 15, I was out of high school, and spent my teenage years alone in a motel room while my mom worked. Whenever I tried to find work, I had no luck. My clothes were in terrible condition, and I became increasingly depressed as the months turned to years.
After many difficult years, I managed to enroll in a community college, and did really well! This is when I learned piano, at age 30. I did well in school, and received an acceptance letter from California State University, Northridge, I just needed to complete 17 more units. No problem! I was getting good grades, but when I was about 5 units short of completion, I lost my apartment and became homeless.
I found myself in a cold winter shelter with my mom, who had been previously living with a relative, but was asked to leave. So we were both homeless. My mom and I had to deal with many terrible moments, sometimes apart, some times together, and all of it unfair. With no one to help, we watched each other’s backs. We were afraid, but it soon got better. My mom found a shelter that offered beds to senior women. She was safe.
And me? Well, I had some ideas!
A friend of mine at the chess club mentioned a doughnut shop called Tang’s in Hollywood where they played chess all night. He didn’t know I was homeless; he just mentioned it in passing.
That night I went down. On Saturdays really strong blitz players would show up, I heard one was an International Chess Federation master, but who knows? On a typical night it was just us mere mortals playing. I remember a lot of trans sex workers would come in, get some coffee and doughnuts, and go back out. The shop was run by an Asian immigrant family. They were always so nice to everyone. Don’t get me wrong, it was a tough neighborhood—you’re not coming in there acting like a fool and getting away with it—but they always respected their customers. There was a homeless man who came several nights a week. He had his things in a large trash bag. He just put it in the corner, bought some coffee, maybe a doughnut, and played chess.
We played and talked all the time. He didn’t know I was homeless, no one did. I was in college just that previous semester. I went to the showers at the gym on campus and kept my things in a locker.
I remember talking with him one day, and he told me I could never understand his life, because my life was perfect. He wasn’t upset about that—he liked me, we talked all the time. I didn’t tell him I was homeless, I just said my life isn’t even close to being perfect, and he looked surprised.
I have many fond memories of that place, and many friends. There was Kamikaze, whose real name I never knew. He was about 80, and he was once in the army in China. He was so nice to me all the time. We mostly played chess. But his favorite game was Go—oh my God, so boring! But I played him anyway because he was my friend. Once I wanted to play chess instead, and he bribed me with some coffee. And there was Key, from Vietnam, who was about 70, and Frank, who a few years later died of cancer—I think he was about 85.
Of course, they would usually leave earlier, but Walter was about my age. We would play blitz chess until the sun came up! He was an engineer from South America. He couldn’t find work because no one would accept his credentials in Los Angeles.
I was homeless for nine straight months, and that place was like my home. I would play all night, sleep on the Redline until about 10 a.m., take the bus to Pasadena, where they have one of the best soup kitchens ever! The place is called Union Station and, oh my God, the food is so good! The meals are cooked by volunteers from various churches. After that I would head to the public library to use the computer, trying to figure a way out of this mess my life is.
Then at about 6bp.m., I would practice piano, in a classroom at the Humanities Department of CalTech! I looked like a student, and everyone just assumed I went there and was just practicing between classes. There was a professor who liked to grade papers there. And without me asking, he would immediately leave, with a smile, so I could practice. It was amazing!
I would play until about 7:30 or so, and take the bus to Hollywood and play chess all night. For those nine straight months, my very soul was saved by music and chess.
I want to tell you about a friend of mine, George Butau. He runs a chess club for kids in South Africa on a shoestring budget. Recently he took the kids to the South African Open Chess Championship 2022. The kids played so well, and they had a great time! If you would like to donate to his club, you can scan the QR code at the bottom of this article, or visit bit.ly/chessfunds.
I would love to see a similar program in San Francisco. Just imagine: a chess and music center, open 24 hours a day, where anyone can play piano or chess. I have been homeless before, and I know that draining feeling: always tired, always hungry, always scared, always lonely. A homeless person can be in a crowded room and still be lonely, because no one will talk to them, and no one cares about them. Chess and music are food for the soul, there’s nothing like it! When I play blitz chess online I listen to Trivium, my favorite metal band. We could even provide headphones with music. We know homeless people need food, but they need their minds fed as well! I actually feel better when I play chess, as it feeds my mind and gets me going! Chess is a valuable resource for a homeless person. I want it to be accessible to everyone.