The following is an excerpt from a chapter from my book, "Don't Look Now..." and tells how my perceptions of the homeless changed because of one man...
CHAPTER 13 “The purpose of human life is to serve, and to show compassion and the will to help others.”
~Dr. Albert Schweitzer~
For me, it all started with Earl... the guy on the corner where I'd drive by on my way to work each day. The first day he came by my car, carrying his “God bless you” sign, I found myself doing what so many of us do... hoping he wouldn't come near me. Then I felt guilty for having the thought and rolled down my window. I motioned him over and asked his name. He looked a bit puzzled for a moment—as if it had been a long time since anyone had wanted to know—and then said, "My name is Earl, Miss." I asked him if he was hungry and he said yes. I handed him the lunch I'd made for myself and told him to take care. He smiled and said, "God bless, Miss" and I went on my way.
I started thinking about Earl and wondering what brought him to his current condition... and started wondering about what makes us recoil when we can't avoid the Earls of the world. I think it's fear, but the fear that... of... what? The fear that they might be crazy and do us harm? The fear that we're just a paycheck short of being on the corner ourselves? I didn't know... I still don't… but I still believe the underlying emotion is fear, regardless of what the fear(s) might be.
I started making an extra lunch each day... keeping things for Earl more to the soft side, since I could see he was missing a few teeth.
Soon after, I started seeing other folks at the corner... it seemed there was a little community under the freeway and they'd take turns standing out there, and then would share whatever they got with the others.
I met Rusty—kind of the dad of the group, even though he wasn't the oldest. Then there were Dottie and Randy and Miranda and a few others I met as time went by.
One day, when the rain was threatening, Rusty asked for money—something he never did—and said he was planning to go over to a sporting goods store close by and get some tarps so they and their belongings could say relatively dry. I asked him how many he needed, he told me, and then I said I'd be right back. I got the tarps, brought them to Rusty and went on to work... albeit a little late. I lied (something I hate doing) to my boss—a decidedly uncompassionate sort—saying that I'd gotten stuck in an awful traffic jam—and at the time, being one of the only people in L.A. without a cell phone, couldn't call him. Oh well... he got over it, and Rusty and the crew were dry during the downpours over the next few days.
They did some cleanup work for a little cash while the construction folks were doing work nearby—some of the workers got together and helped them out that way, paying Rusty and his "crew" out of their own pockets.
I’ve noticed over the years that those who have little seem to do a lot for others, and it appears to be true—a former co-worker who was with the United Way said that the people who gave the highest percentage of their salary to the United Way charities were in the $20-$25,000/year bracket. Those guys helping Rusty and his little family knew what it was like to have little, and gave out of their pockets to those who had less. I’ve looked at those workers a lot differently since then.
One day after work, I parked the car and walked over to the area, wanting to actually talk at length with the people of this community and find out more about them. I was introduced all around, and got to hear their stories... and quite a few different stories, they were—everyone's was different, yet none of them asked for pity. None of them cried "poor me". They were, however, flabbergasted that someone actually wanted to know, so they opened up a lot more than I'd anticipated. Earl introduced me to his girl friend, Miranda (now how many of us think of the homeless as having girlfriends?), and Darla brought out her little mutt, Sophie, whose whole rump wiggled as she wagged her tail. Sophie adored everyone, but especially Darla, who doted on her.
Dottie had gone straight from her abusive home to an abusive marriage. Her husband beat her regularly, and had knocked out a couple of her front teeth. He'd just picked up where her parents had left off—making her believe she was nothing—worth nothing—and that no one would ever think she was something... and she believed him, just as she'd believed her father and mother before him. When her husband died in a drunken brawl, she was left with nothing—no home, no money, no friends, no self-worth... so she ended up on the street. She had no education—she'd dropped out of school to get married, had never been in the work force and had no life or occupational skills. She was ripe for falling through the cracks, because no one ever knew she was gone...
Randy was a Viet Nam vet and said he couldn't handle the work environment after he got home... he was claustrophobic and couldn't stand being inside for any length of time. He said he found life on the street preferable to "being trapped inside four walls." It was hard for Randy to focus on anything for a prolonged period of time, but he was Dottie's champion. He said he hoped "that bastard died painfully" when speaking of her dead husband, and was like a big brother to her. I knew that as long as Randy was around, no one would ever beat Dottie again.
Rusty was an affable, friendly sort, but quick-tempered when his "family" was threatened. He didn't get too specific, but he'd had some trouble in his hometown and came to L.A. to "get away". Who knows what the trouble may have been... but one thing for sure—he took his job as their protector very seriously. He was the one to organize day labor work things (such as the cleanup crew), etc., and was the one who made sure they all had something to eat each day.
Darla had come to L.A. from Wisconsin to be with a salesman who had been "real friendly" to her. Yep, another "traveling salesman" story come to life. She hated the cold and her life there, and wanted "sunshine all the time". She wasn't particularly smart when she packed up and left home at 18—with no high school diploma, because she'd skipped out before her last semester of school to be with this guy. When she got here, she discovered that the guy had moved, left no forwarding address, and the phone number she'd called only two days before was disconnected. She wasn't able to get work, since she had no address or phone—and no high school diploma. She said she didn't mind being homeless, but she still dreamed of getting off the streets, getting married and having kids. She said she’d rescued Sophie from the “doggie version of my life”.
Earl said his story was "nothing special... just a black man from the South..." who had come to L.A. hoping for a better life, but didn't get it. He said work was just as hard to find here as it was "back home" and eventually, things got the better of him and he "took to the drink". He said he struggled with it every day, so asked the rest to make sure that any cash they took in didn't get into his hands and tempt him to hit the nearest liquor store. He was very matter-of-fact about it, and there was no self-pity for the hard life he'd lived. Miranda, his girl friend, was from a large family. She'd been booted out at fifteen to make her own way, and ended up as a prostitute "till Earl came along". He was never one of her tricks—he told her that she was too good to be selling herself to "the likes as what's lookin' for fun" on the street. Their romantic relationship didn’t begin till over a year after they’d been friends. Earl attributed his then 10-month stint of sobriety to Miranda's influence, and Miranda considered Earl her savior—taking her "off the streets" (interesting how that term means different things for different reasons...) and giving her a sense of self-worth.
At Christmastime, about nine months after first meeting Earl, I got large fanny packs for each one of them, embroidered their names on them, and then filled them with toiletries, aspirin, band aids, soap, tissues, etc. and wrapped them up with the fanciest paper & ribbons I had. I got lots of oranges, tangerines, apples, grapes and bananas—and prewashed & peeled carrots and other veggies and packets of dressing so they didn't have to worry about spoilage. I got a couple of cases of canned juices and bottled water, dog food & vitamins and flea medicine, plus new doggie dishes for Sophie (with her name on them). I baked fresh muffins and cookies, and filled up my car. I carted the first load to their little spot they called home, they all came back to the car and we trotted the rest of Santa’s bounty over there, and then we had a lovely little celebration. Dottie and Darla cried, the fellows kept shaking their heads saying they couldn’t believe it, and Earl just looked at me and asked, "Why did you do this, Miss? God bless, God bless." And you know... I didn't have an answer for him... I had to really think. I had been so busy doing that I hadn't thought about the why... and then realized it was simply because I could.
I was later reminded of my thoughts when watching The Breakfast Club again… The Molly Ringwald Prom Queen character is primping Ally Sheedy’s Plain Jane character, and when Ally asks “Why are you being so nice to me?” Molly’s reply is “Because you’re letting me”.
I never could get Earl to call me by name, though—even after that year's Christmas celebration. "I'm just a poor black man from the South, Miss, and old habits die hard" was all he said when I pressed him about it.
One day, Earl wasn't there. He wasn't there several days in a row and neither was anyone else. I was worried about what might have happened to them. A few days later, I saw Rusty and asked him what happened. He said Earl had been arrested for vagrancy, and as is the case with so many of these small homeless communities, the police had rousted them all out one night. They trickled back for a short period of time, but because the construction in the area was done, and the brush area under the freeway had been cleared, thereby making their little community visible to everyone, they moved elsewhere... an unknown elsewhere to me...
I never saw Earl again—or the others who had become family to each other—and who had made such an impact on me.
I changed jobs and stopped driving in that area, but a couple of years later while on the way to an appointment, saw someone I didn't recognize on the corner. All I had was a bottle of water and a banana, but rolled down my window and gave it to the fellow there. He didn't know Earl or what had become of the previous group of people who’d been there, but said if he ever ran across them, he’d tell them I’d asked for them.
Nanny (my maternal grandmother) had always said to us that when someone did us a good turn, it was highly unlikely that we'd be in the position to help them in return, so it was our duty to help others when we saw them in need (she was “Paying it Forward” before it was trendy). She didn't mention how joyous it could be, or how much we learned about ourselves and others in the process... just that we should always do as much as we could to help others—after all, if not us, who?
I think a lot about Earl, Rusty, Dottie, Darla, Randy and the rest and wonder whatever happened to them—individually and as a community, and realize I will probably never know.
What I do know is that Earl made me look at myself differently. He made me look at my fears and prejudices we have about the homeless... and how easily and quickly we generalize and compartmentalize people we come across in our lives.
That was over fifteen years ago, and I still look for their faces every time I see someone on the corner. I keep looking for “God bless you” on a sign, hoping to see Earl’s bearded face, but nothing so far. It’s become a habit to take a couple of bottles of water and some fruit with me when I drive—just in case—and when I see someone on the corner, I stop, roll my window down, and ask them if they’d like some water and fruit.
The answer is always “Yes… and God bless…”
And it all started with Earl…
[Author's Note: There is an organization which has taken the idea of providing daily necessities and supplies to the homeless on a much larger scale. They're called The Giving Spirit.]
[95% of all donations goes directly to helping the homeless. I encourage all to support their efforts—whether it's by donating money to them, working as a volunteer or doing similar work in your own neighborhoods... because there will always be another Earl.]