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  • AUTUMN CRUZ / acruz@sacbee.com

    Mark Bell earns a paycheck stamping lunch tickets at Loaves & Fishes in Sacramento, where he spends much of his day. Meeting a reporter and photographer last week, he was dressed in a crisp dress shirt and tie. "I'm homeless," he said, "but I don't have to dress that way. ... I'm able-bodied. I want to work."

  • AUTUMN CRUZ / acruz@sacbee.com

    One of Mark Bell's prized possessions is this cat figurine - left behind, he said, when all of his other belongings were stolen.

  • AUTUMN CRUZ / acruz@sacbee.com

    Mark Bell, with his cats Lil Bit and Scamp by his side, wraps himself in a red blanket recently to write poetry in his tent along the American River Parkway. Homeless for eight years, Bell has switched his focus from drinking to writing. He also works at Loaves & Fishes stamping lunch tickets.

  • AUTUMN CRUZ / acruz@sacbee.com

    Mark Bell walks home to his tent along the American River Parkway. The nature surrounding him offers inspiration for much of the writing he does there in late afternoons.

Homeless Sacramento poet climbs out of liquor bottle into bottle of ink

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Sunday, Feb. 19, 2012 - 11:57 am

Mark Bell has climbed out of a bottle of liquor and into a bottle of ink.

Homeless for eight years, Bell was drinking heavily for much of that time, but he has switched his focus to writing.

If he had a street nickname, he said it would have been "Half Gallon" for his copious drinking.

"I was drinking at least a fifth or more a day," he said.

Then he started writing.

One of his most effective poems, "So Sad," is an ironic love poem. Its last three lines are:

"I drink deeply of your love this well-mooned night.

And soon, exhausted, you lay silent,

Another empty whiskey bottle in an old man's tent."

He explained: "It means I like to drink. I liked to drink." Past tense.

As much as he enjoyed drinking, he realized he loved writing more, and the drinking interfered.

After a night of drinking, he said, he would have great thoughts and write them down. "When I go to read it the next morning, I can't make heads or tails of it," Bell said.

So he changed. He hasn't quit drinking entirely, but he no longer lies down in his tent with a bottle of liquor when he goes "home."

Instead, he puts on his reading glasses and writes in a red notebook until it gets too dark.

Then he lights a candle.

Bell's home for most of the past eight years has been a tent under a scraggly tree, surrounded by high shrubbery in the American River Parkway.

He is close enough to Cal Expo that – while walking to his campsite – he waves his arm at the fairgrounds' giant electronic sign and quips, "That's my television."

Arriving at camp in the afternoon, he feeds his two cats, Scamp and Lil Bit, and opens up his tent.

The years he's spent here are among the most stable of his 48 years, 49 this month.

He was born in Indiana and lived in Connecticut, Scotland, San Diego and Ohio because his father was in the military.

His family broke with him for reasons he prefers not to discuss, and he wound up in Sacramento, working as a chef at Jim Denny's, among other places.

Bell had a stable home in midtown until his friend and roommate got sick and died in their apartment.

The landlady, he said, never cared for him and doubled the rent. He hung on until he no longer could and he said the landlady evicted him.

Another of his wry poems sounds like an ode to a lover who left him eight years ago, only to have the reader realize it's not a lover he's speaking of.

"For now I have regained another love in my life, and I proudly walk, hand in hand, with a new paycheck."

Bell is earning a bit of a paycheck nowadays, stamping lunch tickets at Loaves & Fishes, where he spends much of his day.

His bosses say he's very reliable since he stopped the constant drinking and began to volunteer.

"Even when he was not getting paid, he'd show up every day," said Garren Bratcher, co-director of Friendship Park.

His writing talents stood out at work one day.

A white board by the service counter lets people know what number ticket can be stamped.

Bell started to add sayings below it.

"They're witty," said Mark Hawkins, another supervisor at the park. "They're never the same twice."

"The world is flat. Pass it on!" Bell wrote one recent morning.

He gained broader attention when he produced an ode thanking donors for giving a big coffee maker to Loaves & Fishes, where guests will often line up for coffee before they'll line up for food.

"Especially in this weather," he said. "They want to wrap their hands around that mug."

The ode about the coffee urn was printed in The Bee.

He'd like to publish more and was intrigued to read in the newspaper about the Sacramento Public Library's I Street Press and its Espresso Book Machine for self-publishing.

Bell's best work features humor, though he's also a strong observer with a tendency to make sharply philosophical statements.

One of his poems refers to leaving his tent with his pride still asleep on his pillow.

Despite his circumstance, he has pride.

When he met a reporter and photographer, he was clean-shaven and dressed in a crisp dress shirt and tie.

"I'm homeless," he said, "but I don't have to dress that way."

And he doesn't aim to stay that way. "I'm able-bodied," he said. "I want to work."

It's not easy to sell himself to an employer without an address or phone number. He only recently recovered an official identification card.

He might get work, said Bratcher and Hawkins, who was himself homeless for a couple of years.

So Bell continues to prove himself at Loaves & Fishes, reading assiduously when he's not working or volunteering, and making occasional forays into downtown for "snipe hunting."

That's picking up cigarette butts, to use any leftover tobacco for new cigarettes.

And at the end of the day, it's a three-mile journey by bike back to his tent.

"By the time I get home, it's about 3 and I can write until 5," he said. That's dark this time of year.

"I always feel like Abe Lincoln," he said, reading and writing by candlelight. "This is how it used to be done."

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Carlos Alcalá



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