A man holding a stack of clothes, a slurpee cup and a blunt stands outside his tent construction

“I’m not,” he said, “gonna smile.”



Roberto looked around, nervously, and motioned to me with his finger over his lips as we approached the entrance to his home: a small, worn pathway that led into a dense bamboo forest.

“They’re always watching, listening,” he said.

Besides the semblance of parting stalks, one couldn’t see anything but a dense thicket of long, green cylinders from the street.

I took a deep breath, and followed him in.

There, maybe two yards into the urban jungle, he had built a hut — made from boards and tarps and crates to hold his mattress above the foliage-laden floor.

He looked back at me, and my camera. The single tattooed tear beneath his left eye drooped from wrinkles; the products of years and stress.

“I’m not,” he reminded me, “gonna smile.”

I had met Roberto at the nearby Valero gas station an hour earlier after he offered to wash Bertie’s windshield, which was filthy with bug residue from our latest drive, to Dallas from Tulsa.

He generally made enough to survive this way, and by washing windows and navigating plumbing issues for the station and a couple nearby businesses.

Roberto — originally from Corpus Christi —had struggled for many years with crack and meth addictions. He had gone to prison, years ago, for robbery. It was a convenience store, and there wasn’t much to be had. He made off with $97, a case of beer, and some peanuts for his niece. He was slapped with seven years.

When he got out, he found housing, and a job at the Dallas convention center, via a former offenders’ program, where he worked up until the start of Coronavirus this spring.

After he was laid off, Roberto lost his housing; that was part of the deal. He stayed as long as he could with family, but when he felt his welcome grow stale, he collected objects from road sides and dumpsters, and built a hut in Oak Cliff, near Hwy 35E. When he was kicked out, he built another. And another.

Finally, he had found a refuge in this bamboo grove behind a Burger King; a sanctuary where the core was dark enough that he could see nearly to the road, but no one could see him.

That was how he wanted it.