Editors note: we are thrilled to have Jens Erik Gould join our writers to share the stories and films he produces in his project Bravery Tapes. This is the first in a series and we hope you enjoy them as much as we do!
Early one morning last June, I had plans to interview Harriet Kilgore, a homeless singer-songwriter on the Venice Beach boardwalk. When I arrived, I found her alone, half-naked and plastered between a flattened cardboard box and a tattered blanket in an alley.
There was nothing pretty about it. She was bawling and she was desperate, a speck of yellow crud lodged in the corner of her eye and her body and clothes soiled from the dirty, morning concrete. “This is really not good, Jens,” she wailed. “My hip is crushed.”
In the middle of the night, a man had demanded sex from her as she lay in a makeshift bed. When she said no, he kicked her relentlessly until fracturing her pelvis. None of the other homeless sleeping there tried to help. The police attempted, but Harriet refused an ambulance because she would have to abandon her dog, Queenie.
Six hours later, I arrived and called 9-11. As firefighters loaded her onto a stretcher, Harriet’s screams and deep moans intensified and then went silent as the ambulance took her away.
I was left holding her stuffed Winnie the Pooh bear in one hand and a leash attached to Queenie in the other.
Harriet doesn’t think she’s been brave. But for her, courage doesn’t have the same meaning as it does for most people. That violent morning wasn’t the first hardship she had endured.
Harriet began living on the streets after running away from her adopted family’s home at age 12. After getting her life together, marrying and having five children, her house burned down in 2001. Since then, she has lived outdoors, sleeping on the concrete, lugging her personal belongings around with her in a bicycle carriage. She has overcome drug addiction, survived attempted rape and endured assaults.
Music has helped Harriet through all this strife. Through it all, she’s blossomed into a talented singer, writing lyrics about helping the world.
When I first met her, she performed regularly at local cafés in Los Angeles with a Janis Joplin-like voice as solid as a professional musician’s, trying to earn enough money to get off the streets.
I happened to perform at one of the same venues, and was shocked to find out Harriet would spend the night in it’s in parking lot after her shows. “That lady has had a life. She lives outside,” the amazed host of an open mic at the café told me after Harriet performed one night. “No one else in her circle does things like this.”
I was so impressed with Harriet’s voice and her life that I asked her to compose and record a song with me. I came up with some chord progressions and a melody, and she wrote the lyrics one afternoon as we sat in a local park.
She named the song “Trials,” and it was about the struggles of her life. “Like a wildfire out of control, I would rage and scream life had taken its toll,” the song began. “I was afraid of everything lying in my soul. When all I really wanted was a love to make me whole.”
Days later, I drove her to my recording studio, her dog in tow, to lay down the tracks.
A couple of months later, Harriet was assaulted in the alley. It was a huge setback because she been making more money and playing more gigs. It could have been an event that sent her back into drug addiction and despair. But Harriet kept pushing forward. She spent two weeks in the hospital, and nailed down a weekly gig as soon as she was released.
Soon, I met her again, gave back her Winnie the Pooh bear, and we played “Trials” together for the first time at an open mic.
“Everything I’ve been through in my life — and I’ve been through of lot of stuff — I’ve gotten this far and I feel good about myself. Why would I give up now?” she told me. “It’s about having a beautiful day no matter what. We don’t have to be miserable. It’s a choice.”
This kind of wisdom has made me think twice when I see someone living on the streets. I didn’t used to have much compassion for homeless people I would see wandering the beaches or begging on a freeway off-ramp. In fact, when a man took up residence in a van parked outside my home and began yelling every night, I called the cops on him.
But Harriet showed me there can be beauty in a rough exterior, and that the homeless can teach us a lot about what it means to be human, about aspects of ourselves that we don’t always want to see. Listen to Harriet’ chorus from “Trials”:
Hard trials came / Hard trials went / And the lessons I learned were lessons well spent / Looked in all the wrong places / Searchin’ outward all around / When at last I looked inside love overflowing all around.
Now, I ask myself what would have happened if I had asked the man outside my house if I could help him. What if we all humanized people who are less fortunate and treated them as people?