I first meet Dwayne in my garage. He’s sleeping in the carport below my apartment, sprawled out on a generic grey wool blanket Christian missionaries and local shelters hand out day after day, and tucked into a purple sleeping bag. It’s late. The streets are quiet and cold. He doesn’t panic as my headlights wash over him illuminating rose-colored cheeks, skin browned with soot and dust. I can see dirt in the stubble of a grey beard so jagged it’s surely capable of drawing blood. He tugs at the charcoal beanie snug over his ears. In the months that follow, even in the summer heat so alive it swims through your eyes and lungs, I will never see him without this hat upon his head.
“It’s okay,” I tell him. “Don’t get up.”
“I was just looking for a place to rest my head. I’ll get out of your way.”
With the Great Difficulty that often accompanies the sudden awakening from an alcohol-induced slumber, Dwayne struggles to gather his belongings. It doesn’t amount to much. A backpack full of holes. A sleeping bag. A plastic jug filled with what I presume is water but will quickly discover is vodka. A Tom Clancy novel.
“You can sleep here. I don’t mind.”
“Seriously. Stay. My car will cover you.”
He stays skeptical, propping himself up with an elbow as if posing for a painting. He can’t understand why I’m not calling the police, kicking him out. He pops the lid on his jug. His fingers are fat and red like overcooked hotdogs, the cracks in his skin now black with pollution. He says he is going to have a drink. Do I mind if he has a drink?
“No,” I say. He takes a swig, passes me the jug. I kindly decline.
“You sober?” He asks this like it’s the only logical explanation as to why I would reject sharing a bottle with him. I look at the white saliva gathering at the corners of his lips.
“I try to watch my alcohol,” I say.
He nods. Smiles. His rudolph nose glowing stop-light red. With a rumble in his throat, he sucks back the snot driven out of it by the cold. “God bless you. This shit will kill you.” His words are stained with liquor store vodka. I can taste it in the air. “Best decision I ever made, going sober.”
“Are you drunk now?”
He tries to sit up. The question makes him uncomfortable like he’s been asked this too many times by too many people he’s loved. “I’ve had a few tonight. But I’ve got my wits about me.”
During the duration of our friendship, the timeline will forever be fractured as to just how long Dwayne has been drinking and how long he’s been sober. Some days he’s ten years sober. Others, he hasn’t been sober in ten years.
I ask the man if he needs anything. Dinner? New blankets? He asks for pasta. “Any chance you have some pasta? I’ve got some Italian in my blood.”
I do. I invite him inside for dinner. Tell him he can even take a shower if he’d like.
He declines the invitation to come inside. Says it makes him uncomfortable. “I’ve been on the streets so long. I don’t remember how to use my inside voice.” So I tell him to wait there while my wife and I cook up a pasta dinner inside. We make up plates for ourselves and him. We gather in the garage and eat together. “Do you mind if I pray a blessing over the meal?” I ask.
He doesn’t. He respectfully bows his head. Waits to eat until our prayer ends. I catch him mumbling a blessing my parents had us recite night after night in my home: Bless us oh Lord for these gifts which we are about to receive, from they bounty, through Christ, our Lord, Amen. Then with his fork he carefully stabs one noodle at a time.
I inquire about his prayer. I will soon learn that Dwayne grew up in Youngstown, OH. “No shit!” he will exclaim when I tell him that’s where I was born and raised too. “The rough and tumble town of steel,” he says. “They’ll kill you faster in Youngstown than they’ll ever kill you here.” We talk about the old streets we’ve both walked on, and the neighborhoods we’ve lived in. I shake my head in disbelief. “What are the chances of all the carports in all of Los Angeles that you would end up in one belonging to some guy from Youngstown?”
Friends will later tell me it must have been a God thing. It was certainly some kind of thing.
Dwayne would eventually marry a girl from there, but the alcohol will get the best of their relationship, as it will every relationship after her. She will gamble away every cent that is his in Vegas, and so will begin his journey on the streets.
“Going on twenty-five years now that I’ve been on these here streets.” There’s a nonthreatening roughness to his voice. He speaks like a man who has seen it all and is ready for it to all be over.
Dwayne asks if he’s allowed to rest his head. He’s tired. I clean up our dishes, leave him with an extra pillow. I make sure he knows he can stash his belongings here as long as he’d like. “They’ll be safe,” I promise. He slurs out a thank you, tucking the pillow beneath his head, slipping into his sleeping bag and then into darkness.
He will last one week living in our carport. Dwayne will be gone during the days collecting cans and bottles and change where he can, always looking for the next drink to keep him warm. We will exchange hellos and stories at night as our lives intersect when the sun sets until the day I come outside and find his pillow, his blankets, his backpack gone, cleaned out by the property’s owner. “I’ve invested a lot of money into this building,” the landlord will later tell me after a future incident with Dwayne. “I installed new lights in these carports to keep men like him out of here.” It’s finally spring, but I won’t see Dwayne again until the summer. Until then all I can picture is Dwayne returning home late one evening to find everything he owns has been taken from him. Again. I pray for his safety, that he doesn’t hold me responsible. I pray that we can still be friends.
My wife, Lauren, bakes two batches of fresh cinnamon rolls on Thanksgiving morning. We set out into the cold November sun with fifty bottles of water in our trunk and four cases of blueberry muffins in the backseat.
“Dwayne!” I shout when we reach the corner of Melrose and Vine. “Happy Thanksgiving.”
“Happy Thanksgiving, brother.” We shake hands. Lauren hands him a plate of cinnamon rolls. He’s acquired a red shopping cart from Target. It’s filled with books and blankets and beer. “Beautiful day, isn’t it?” He puts his head back, soaking in the sun, his face flushed out with red. He introduces us to the man next to him. “This is Thomas.” Thomas is a tall, muscular black man with a black beard wearing black sweats and a black jacket.
Dwayne asks what our plans are for the day. He compliments Lauren. Tells her she is beautiful. Thanks us for breakfast. When we ask if he’s getting dinner anywhere, he says he and Thomas know of a few shelters serving hot turkey. “We’re going to be just fine.” He tugs the beanie atop his head down over his ears.
“You fucking piece of shit nigger. Get the fuck out of here you fucking bitch. You dirty piece of shit. Get out. Get out. You don’t belong here. Nigger.”
“Is that Dwayne?” Lauren asks, sitting up in bed. Our apartment faces the backside of another complex, creating an alley that ricochets sound like gunfire. It’s hard to identify the origin – our building or the one across the way – but you never miss an argument, an orgasm, a breakup.
I stick my head through the kitchen window, look down. Red shopping cart, charcoal beanie, bottle of Vodka. “It’s Dwyane,” I say.
I close the window.
“He’s going to get the cops called on him. You should check to see if he’s okay.”
I put on a jacket and shoes. Grab a bottle of water from the fridge. “I’ll be right back, okay? Just listen. You’ll know if something goes wrong.”
I go out the back door, step into the alley. Dwayne has his back to me, sitting on an orange and black tiger print fleece blanket, hand gripped to a bottle. “You stupid nigger! You think you can cross me like that?”
I whisper his name. He turns, startled, eyes wide. A dangerous combination of cold and alcohol has turned his face into a stop sign. He smiles. Dwayne’s teeth are surprisingly white for twenty-five years without dental care. I assume the vodka keeps his mouth cleaner than toothpaste.
“Max! I see you fucking everywhere, man.” He reaches his hand out to shake mine.
Does he even know where he is? Of course he’s going to see me here. I put my finger to my lips, kneel down. “You’ve got to be quiet, man, you’re scaring people.” I hand him the bottle of water. He snatches it up, nearly rips the thing in half removing the cap, and downs the contents in one miraculous swallow. The whole thing is rather like watching a gorilla eat a banana on the Discovery Channel. “Is everything okay?”
“Yeah, man, yeah. Just this fucking guy…” His words come out with the clarity and proficiency of a man who has had twenty-five years to perfect the art of speaking under the influence.
“Ah, he’s gone, man.”
I’m not sure he was ever even there. “Look, Dwayne, you’re scaring people. You’ve got to keep quiet. Someone is going to call the police.”
“Mmhmm.” He passes me the bottle. “Drink?”
“Not tonight Dwayne.”
“Mmhmm. I haven’t been sober in eight fucking years, man. I’m tired.” He digs through his shopping cart, pulls out a magazine, sets it before me. “Want that?”
A naked latino woman in red lipstick and black heels graces the cover, legs spread wide. It’s not the kind of pornography you should be proud to put on display, but shame isn’t exactly a thing someone in Dwayne’s position is familiar with. I want to ask him what the hell he is doing looking at that, but the last thing he needs in this moment is a lesson on the dangers of pornography.
“I haven’t been with a real woman in twenty years. You think I’m gonna sleep with these prostitutes on the street out here?” He shakes his head. Takes a drink. Takes the magazine back. “Gotta have someone to keep me company. Do you have any idea how long I’ve been on these streets? Fucking concrete. Everything is cold concrete.”
Patrick Ersig, founder and leader of the Jonah Project in downtown LA, a homeless shelter empowering men and women to get off the streets, find work, and turn their lives around once told me, “Have you ever stayed up all night? It’s extremely difficult to function the next day. Now imagine you have to go to into work. Wearing the same clothes you stayed up in and without a shower. And when you come home, you’re locked out of the house. So you have to sleep in the driveway. It’s cold outside. You don’t have any blankets. And you’re on the concrete. Now you might be so tired from the night before that you sleep for an hour or two, but the rest of the time you’re scared. You’re alone. What if someone tries to take advantage of you? Rob you? The next day you go back to work. Still in the same clothes. When you come home, you have to sleep in the driveway again. And you sleep with one eye open. To protect yourself. And so you don’t miss the locksmith. Now imagine doing this for a week. A month. A year. You’d start drinking and slip into insanity too.”
“Dwayne, can you stay quiet for me?”
“Yeah. Yeah. Sure man. Bring me some pasta?”
“I’ll give you pasta if you agree not to say another word tonight.”
He nods. Tosses the magazine back into his shopping cart. Rests against the wall. Mouths a “thank you.” Closes his eyes.
Back inside Lauren will tell me our neighbor, Alice, has texted her. Alice wanted to know if that was me she heard outside, and wasn’t Lauren scared? Lauren says, “I told her, ‘No, no I’m not scared. It’s just Dwayne.’ A few moments later, me boiling penne noodles, Lauren in bed, there is a knock at our door. It’s Alice. She doesn’t understand why I went out there. “You’re putting everyone here in danger,” she says. “What if you got stabbed?”
“I wasn’t going to get stabbed. It’s just Dwayne.”
“And what are you going to do when Lauren is here and you’re not around to be the White Knight and protect everyone?” She turns to Lauren. “Are you not scared?”
“I didn’t go down there to be a White Knight. I went down there for him. Not for you.”
“What are you going to do when Lauren gets attacked because you socialize with them? Or one of the other girls in this building. You’re putting us all at risk.”
“What kind of misguided mindset do you have about the homeless?”
“I come home to find shit and piss in my parking space. I’m trying to be the good neighbor here. But you guys aren’t helping. I’m trying to rally everyone, to call the police when they are around.”
“That’s fine. You should call the police if you feel threatened. I will never stop you. But I will also never call the police if I see a homeless person digging through our dumpster or sleeping in the garage.”
“Great,” Alice says. “Because I called the police and they are on their way.” She tells me she won’t hesitate to call the landlord too. I can’t tell if this is a threat to have us evicted, to scare us into no longer helping the homeless.
“He’s not going to bother anyone anymore. He’s my friend. He’ll stay quiet.”
The officers who arrive on the scene to quiet down Dwayne will tell me there is nothing they can do to the homeless. Not anymore. “We used to tear down their tents, beat them up. Not anymore. Not since the new civil rights bill passed stating that the homeless have just as much of a right to engage in life-sustaining activities on public property as you do. So. We can’t stop them from sleeping on benches or sidewalks anymore. And as far as this guy being in your alley, well, we say ‘Out of sight, out of mind.’ Would you prefer to have him here in the alley or on the sidewalk out front? Because if we ask him to move, we can’t tell him to go any farther than that.”
When the police leave, instructing me to call if there are any more issues (they will make him pour out his alcohol and move on), I give Dwayne his pasta. He kept his promise. Even under the pressure of the police, he didn’t say a word.
The following night I find Dwayne sleeping behind my car, tucked deep inside his purple sleeping bag. The porn he offered me by his side. I kick his boot. “Dwayne. Wake up.” He lifts his head. “Put that shit away.” He slides the magazine under his sleeping bag. “Listen, I am never going to ask you to leave, but I want you to know after last night the people in this building don’t want to see you around here anymore. If they see you, they are going to call the cops. I don’t care if you are here, you are always welcome in my home, but I just need you to know it’s going to get us both in trouble, having you around.”
Alice had followed up on her promise. Earlier in the day I’d been instructed by our Landlord to no longer interact with the homeless on his property. I don’t tell Dwayne this. I just tell him to keep his wits about him.
“I get it man, I get it. I’ll leave.”
“No, that’s not the way it is. I just wanted…”
“I get it. I’ll be out of your hair soon.”
He closes his eyes. Our conversation is over. I get in the car and as I pull out of the garage he raises his hand, offers me a peace sign at the end of his fully extended arm. The shadow of his body splashes across the wall in the wake of my headlights. I crack the window. “Peace, brother.” An entire year now passed since the night we first met in this garage. And as I pull away, I have no idea it is the last time Dwayne and I will ever speak.
I will find him dead on the sidewalk outside of my house a week later. I will think he is only drunk, or perhaps, at the worst of it, injured. Causing a scene. But there are too many cars and not enough commotion. I won’t be able to see his face, not from where I stand, but his red santa clause belly and blue pants will creep out from behind the white unmarked police cruiser labeled “coroner.” And his red Target shopping cart, parked and toppled over, spilling the purple sleeping bag I’ve come to recognize will tell me all I need to know. I will want to go inside, crumble to the floor, and tell myself it is someone else. That whoever it is isn’t even dead, and I can go about my day. But I force one foot in front of the other. I already know it’s him before the name, “Dwayne,” escapes from Officer Kim’s lips.
“Did you identify him yet?” I will ask. “Do you know who that man is?”
“Yeah. We got a name. Dwayne. Did you know him?”
The syllables sound foreign. I will need the officer to repeat himself. “No. No. No. It can’t be. I was just with him last week.” There is nothing that can prepare the mind to better process death. To face a body once full of life you’ve invested in. The world, it seems, isn’t quite on the axis it used to be.
My wife is only feet away. She doesn’t know. She can’t know. I need to turn, to go, tell her it’s not him. It’s someone else we haven’t met, but she’s there, she’s touching me, and all I can say is, “It’s Dwayne, it’s him, it’s Dwayne. It’s him.”
And maybe Lauren will ask if I am serious and maybe the blood will drain from her face as Officer Kim tells me Dwayne drank himself to death.
They will grab his ankles and his head, a human lollipop, a man now dressed for halloween as a ghost. The coroners heave his lifeless body into the back of an ambulance.
“He’s my friend,” I will say. “We used to eat together. Did he have ID on him?”
“We found a prescription pill bottle in his pockets,” Kim points to the liquor store just a few doors down from my place. “The owner was the first to identify him. Said he’s been buying alcohol right here every day for twenty-five years.”
“He’d been on the streets a long time.”
“Twenty-five years,” an aging Mexican man creeping along the edge of the crime scene in a white cowboy hat and wooden walking stick will confirm. “He was so friendly. Used to see him all the time. Said he’d been sober for ten years.”
Kim nods. “Often when these guys relapse, they relapse themselves right into the grave.”
How perfectly fitting, I will think, for Dwayne to come to a stop here, on my street, beside the only place left in his world that may have felt like home.
I try to convince myself he finally grew too tired to take one more step and decided to sit down, just for a moment, to get a little bit more of that rest he was always talking about, and close his eyes for good. I want know that he heard God’s voice calling to him, “It’s time to come home, son. There’s no more pain here.” And did he know that when he went he wasn’t alone? God, please don’t let him have believed he died alone. Did he know he had a friend two doors down? Was he crawling to me? I cannot know. The truth is I am blind and he is gone.
I will cry at home. I have no idea where he is now. He has no one to mourn him. No one to celebrate his life.
I spent an entire year with him and never once do I ask Dwayne if he knows Jesus. I will cook him dinner and eat with him in garages. I will invite him in to shower and rest in warm blankets. I will buy him breakfast on Thanksgiving, and will console him when he is drunk. He will tell me his stories and I will listen, but I will never try to save him. I will grip my wife’s arm as I cry that I have failed, that I could have done more, and now I will never know. I didn’t want him to feel like I was just another white Christian Evangalist on the streets of LA trying to save souls. I wanted him to know I was a friend. I just wanted to be his friend. And now he is gone and I want so badly to believe he is in the arms of a savior. That he’s drinking wine in heaven without pain or sorrow.
But I just. don’t. know.
“He was on the street for twenty-five years,” Lauren will say, her fingertips in my hair. “We’ve met so many homeless men and women of faith. I do not believe – I cannot believe – he spent all those years on the streets without once hearing the Gospel.”
Today his shopping cart haunts my sidewalk, left behind for city officials to clean up. I photograph it. It’s all of Dwayne that remains. I never took a picture of him. I can’t remember his last name. I search the Internet and papers for a write-up about his death, his life, but discover nothing. There is no evidence of his existence beyond these words. His son, his ex-wife, a long lost friend will have received a call by now informing them he’s passed. The police will say he’s left them nothing. They won’t mention the shopping cart. His sleeping bag crawling with bugs or his wool blanket. The six-hundred page novel by Tom Clancy. They won’t mention the discarded vodka or the porn magazine shoplifted from liquor store shelves, the prescriptions in his pockets.
A shopping cart taken from Target now a digital tombstone on the Internet. I want to celebrate his life incase no one else ever does. So he will live on here forever. And maybe here he can have the life he never did. Maybe now he can have the friends he thought had all abandoned him. Maybe here he can be remembered as something more than homeless. Something greater than an addict.
As he took his last sip, his last breath, I want the world to know he died not a drunk or a failure, but as friend. A neighbor.
copyright March 2013 Max Andrew Dubinsky, All Rights Reservered