"It's hard to describe what happened when I gave her the water. She slowly, shaking, upended it into her mouth. Her hands were covered with the socks I had given her, and it looked like she'd gagged, and I thought she wasn't going to be able to drink this water. She kept turning the bottom of the bottle up and up in her little hands, until it was straight up and she had finished it. She put the bottle down real slow with both hands and went 'Aahh...' with a great smile and closed eyes. I swear it was like a blood transfusion to her. It was like life breathed into her. It turned out she hadn't had a drink of water in two days. It's raining and it's nasty, I'm standing there in that underpass, and I thought, 'That's it! Water!' I went directly from there to the first 7-Eleven I found, and I bought about 30 or 40 bottles of water. I went back to the bridges and started passing out water. I would go where people were just heads peeking out of blankets. I called out, 'Anybody need some water?' Well, hands came out. Everybody. Faces I didn't even see. 'Oh, thank you, thank you,' and another one, 'Thank you, can I have one for my daughter?'
" 'Oh sure, where is she?'
" 'She's under here.' And there would be this creature, this baby girl under the blanket, under a bridge in the January night. I handed out what water I had and realized later that not one single person turned down water. The next day I started going down to Costco, Ralphs, and Smart & Final, getting the best deals I could. I've been doing this now for nine months, and I have never, ever encountered anyone who didn't want a bottle of fresh water. Old people, young people, drug dealers, alcoholics, whatever their condition is, they'll see me and say, 'Here come da water man.' No one says, I've never had anybody say, 'I don't want a bottle of water.' It all started with that little lady. She must have been horribly, horribly dehydrated. There are no water fountains out here in the ghetto. 'It would just encourage them,' the city, the cops, whoever, the powers that be -- that's what they think."
Ross is known on the streets and at the Volunteers of America where he speaks as "the Water Man," "Motown," "White Bread," "Detroit," just "Bread," and more commonly, "Super Dave." He winces at that last one and shrugs.
These days (that is, as of September 2006), Ross donates at least an hour, and usually more, to addressing the Ten Day Residential Drug and Alcohol Education Program at the Volunteers of America at 1111 Island Avenue -- a location slated for the wrecking ball as of December 31, 2006. No new location (as of this writing) has been established.
Never having been either an alcoholic or drug addict himself, Ross addresses "life" from the point of view of the streets: his experience dating from his childhood and his home on Second and Blaine in East Detroit. "Always a tough area, but nothing like it is now. Now it's like the South Bronx." Ross's combination of humor, grit, street jive, and pathos strikes a chord at Ten Day. These are a few of the letters he has received from the streets and from Ten Day residents.
Thank you for coming into my life. I will never forget that day you came up to me when I was moping and I said, "Dave, I just don't think I can do this." You said, "You didn't say, 'I can't,' but 'I don't think I can.' So there is the thought that you think you can make it, and you will." After that, my whole outlook changed. Now I know I can make it and I will, thanks to you. I am going to keep in touch with you because I want you in my life.
What's up, Dave? It is I, Mario. Of all the people in my life, you are one of the few who made a difference. If I grew up with someone like you, the way you are now, I would have learned to cope with my life.
Life is a jagged and bumpy road. Step carefully, step lightly. To trudge recklessly would be foolhardy.
Before you came to my attention, I thought I was open-minded, but in my open-mindedness, I became close-minded. Just listening to you talking is mesmerizing and impossible to ignore.
I am sorry I cannot express more articulately what I am trying to say, but the way you have changed me is beyond verbal expression. All that I can say is, YOU HAVE CHANGED MY LIFE.
I wish you the best of luck; You're beautiful, man. Don't ever change.
To my brother Dave Ross,
Thank you for all you do for me and everyone in here. I just wanted to say I never had a role model: my Dad left me when I needed him most. All I remember is the first time I hug [sic] him was when my brother died. Now I have a new brother and role model. I choose you. I hope to have a heart like you and do whatever I can to help others in need. I can only write this so well. It goes much deeper. You are not only my brother, but I choose you as my father. May God always bless you and your kind heart and thank you so much. I will always remember you in my heart and prayers.
-- Your brother and son, Ron.
Please call me if there is anything I can do for you, or even just to say hi and talk. You have helped me to believe in the goodness of people again and the goodness within me. Thank you again, I love you.