It is New Year's Eve, 2005. A cold rain lashes skid row at the corner of 16th and G Streets. David Ross, aged 71, pulls to the stoplight and hears a voice from the darkness at the base of the Ducati motorcycle shop. The voice echoes from within the walls of an indentation in the building, where an air-conditioning or heating unit once might have been, a concrete cavity barely out of the wind and wet.
"Dada da da...something something about bein' tired or whatever, I couldn't make it out. I had my dog with me [a one-eye-dancing, white bichon frise named Topspin], on a pillow with a blanket."
Some eight months later, Ross is recounting a pivotal event in his recent life from the driver's seat of his Hyundai, which he spent five years paying off. It is just after dark, and he has started his rounds, delivering water, chocolate bars, socks, shoes, blankets, whatever he can beg from his tennis pals or anyone else to donate to the homeless on the mean streets of San Diego. In the present, it is a muggy August night, but Ross is reliving the events of that rain-blown night. Time is inadequate to erase the images.
"I'm used to voices downtown, of agony and pain and just dysfunction, and I had the window down a little so I could hear. I look and there's a guy laying right in that opening. The wind was blowing so hard, but I made out this old brother with a ratty-looking hat on and some tattered glasses. I called out, 'Say what?' Now the light had changed, but there was nobody around. It's almost midnight. People are all partying down at the Gaslamp, but there's nobody around here." Ross gestures to the streets that form a rough radius around Smart & Final. " 'Hey, I'm sorry, but I didn't hear ya,' I yelled to him. He called back, 'Yo leff tire in da front be low. Ya need to check on da air. You need to watch out for dat.'
"I was so shocked, I said, 'Say what?' And he said it again, curled up in that cavity. I'm starting to roll, so I called out, 'Thank you, my brother, I really appreciate that.' He said something like, 'I didn't mean to cause no...' as I was driving away. I got down the block to the gas station [Ross spends about $600 a month of his own Social Security money on gasoline], and I said to myself, 'Whoa. Wait a minute!' I did a U-turn at the gas station and drove up next to him. As I came back, he's still laying there in that cubbyhole in the freezing cold on a thin blanket and concrete. I said, 'Hey, my man, what's up?' Now I'm thinking to myself, 'I've got a blanket in the back, a comforter in the back...' I never have any money, but...I had four dollars, and I'm thinking, 'I'll give him two dollars,' and then I thought, 'Oh shut up, Mister Big Shot, you've only got four.' So I said, 'Hang on, my brother, I've got something for you.'
"He said, 'No, no...I didn't mean nothing.' He's thinking I'm mad at him or something. I'm thinking, 'Here I am in my warm car, with a heater and my dog, and I'm about to go home, and here's this homeless man laying in a hole in a building in the freezing rain, yelling out to me that my tire is low.' That whole thing was just so unreal. He started to get up..."
Here Ross gets out of the car to re-enact the scene. The street is deserted on this block, but we're close enough to the police station and we've seen enough passing squad cars that I, sitting in the passenger's seat, wonder what the hell Ross is doing laying himself out on the concrete in imitation of the man he met that night. Emmett, as it turns out, was his name.
"I'll be him in this cavity," Ross explained from the sidewalk. "He's trying to get up, and I see he has one of those colostomy bags below his waist with tubes coming out of it, but he finally got up. I said, 'You stay right there, brother. Just wait a minute.' I got the comforter out of the back. I laid it out beneath him, he was still standing. I went back for the blanket. I asked him what happened to him, and he said, 'I was up in the hospital there and they let me go. I didn't have no money to pay.' He's standing there with this bag, fluids draining out of his body. I asked him if he'd been eating, and he said, 'Well, I had this bag of stuff and somebody took it.' Somebody stole his food. Anyway, he told me his name, and I asked if he had a blanket, and he said, 'No, they be takin' that.' This guy's hopeless, he's helpless, and they be takin' everything from him. I go to put the four dollars in his hand, and he says, 'No, I can't be takin' your money.' I told him, 'I'm an old Detroit gangster, my brother. I may be white but my game is tight. Now if I was out here and had some situation, would you help me?' He said, 'Oh yes, I would.' I said, 'Well, you already did that, baby. We doin' bidness.' Then he took the money. I made him put it in his shoe. His shoes were so bad, nobody would steal them, I figured. Then I remembered something. Topspin had this nice pillow he sits on in the passenger's seat.
" 'Wait a minute,' I said, and I swear, my dog looked up at me as if to say, 'Oh, damn. No. There goes my pillow.' 'That's right, baby,' I said to Topspin. 'Tough shit.' I knew he was thinking, 'It's all right to help, but don't go crazy, man.' So I get over there and get Emmett situated. He's sayin', 'Oh, that be feelin' good.' I went back to the car and found some paper and a pen and immediately began to write to someone I knew at Saint Vincent's Clinic."
Ross had been a case manager at the Paul Mirabile Center at Saint Vincent's for 11 years before computers coolly edged him out, as did the robopathic administrators who lovingly imitated the computers. The PMC is the first phase of Saint Vincent's program for the homeless. It is, in effect, a warehouse for dysfunctional bodies, the mentally ill (but not too mentally ill or they can't get in), the addicted, and the generally psychosocially screwed. The rows of bunk beds and the smell of the bedclothes of the incontinent mixed with that of long-defunct footwear and socks, feet, stale beer, and new beer (the PMC is only nominally a sober environment), and other ineffable smells approximate the fragrance of dead rats kept for too long in a jar.
Ross wrote: "I found this man at the corner of 16th and G Street on New Year's Eve. He's very very ill. He has a colostomy bag, some injuries, he's been released from somewhere and he has nothing. The man is dying."
"By the way, I knew, John, that no one would come down right away and pick him up. You gonna call the police? Ooh, we can't take him to jail." Ross shivers in mock revulsion. "They don't want him. The hospitals don't want him. Saint Vincent de Paul won't want him inside because he's too dysfunctional. There's no mental hospitals anymore except CMH [County Mental Health]. They might keep him overnight, but...nobody wants Emmett. NOBODY. I can't just put him in the car and admit him to a hospital. That would be like some movie. So I wrote on the note: 'I'm going to take him down to you at 8:30 in the morning. You need to take care of him! He said he had been there and been turned away. You need to take him, or there is an extreme chance of legal exposure. He could die.' And I underlined die. 'I'm sure Saint Vincent's does not want to be responsible within this dynamic.' I signed it and put my number on there.
"I got Emmett a shirt out of the trunk, found some old cardboard on the street that looked like they had motorcycle parts in them recently, and I covered him with those, so he just looked like the pile of garbage anyone would expect to see, but it would keep the wind and rain and cold maybe tolerable. Maybe.
"I told Emmett, 'Remember, I'm a Motown boy, baby. Ain't nobody gonna be comin' here stealin' no cardboard. They ain't gonna get a chance to see that Marriott comforter you got now.'
"'Ooh, das smart,' he said. I talked to him a little while, and he wanted to know what I was doing out here in the middle of the night on New Year's Eve, when I should be home with my family. I told him he was my family. 'We're brothers by different mothers. Okay, Emmett?'
"'Thanks for the love, brother,' he said. 'Thanks for the love.' " Ross's voice breaks and he stops talking. Ross likes to talk the way lonely men sometimes do. This was the first silence he had allowed during the interview (later there would be another long one), because, for the moment, he just didn't have anything else. "I stopped the car one more time as I was pulling away and honked the horn. He waved. A block away, I pounded the steering wheel and said to myself, 'That's it! That's what I'm gonna do!' I'd been feeling so sorry for myself, so depressed that I wasn't in that building anymore [the PMC at Saint Vincent's, where Ross had been a case manager], but I realized that if I were, I'd be at their New Year's party with their little refreshments and a funny hat and the whoopdeedoos, while I was meant to be on the street with Emmett. And how many more Emmetts are out there?
"So from the worst night of my depression after leaving Saint Vincent's -- and it was really severe, I think -- I went to 'Thank you, Lord. Now I know what I've got to do.' "
Ross returned to 16th and G the next morning and Emmett was gone. He was not at the clinic either. He later heard that someone had seen Emmett at the clinic, but it was thirdhand information, and Ross was not exactly the flavor of the month among the staff at Vinnie's, and he never could confirm it. He never saw Emmett again.
Ross had been making his rounds nightly for several weeks before the sad epiphany regarding his mainstay delivery item occurred to him in the form of a small woman on the street, shaking with the cold, dehydrated and diabetic. "I was giving out a couple of blankets and sheets one night, and shirts and socks and whatever else I could beg. I'd given everybody most of what I had, but there was this one lady, I think in her 60s, but she could be 40. Two or three years on the street, you're going to look 60 no matter what. I'm sure this woman was a dual diagnosis [substance abuse and mental illness]. I gave her the last blanket, and I had a pair of socks that I put on her hands. You would have thought I had given her a new outfit from Nordstrom's. Standing there, she said, 'Do you have any water?' and I said, 'No, honey, I don't bring any water with me. But I've got some water of my own, there's not much gone from it. Let me give you that.' She said, 'No, no, no. I can't take your water. You need that water.' Here she is, under a bridge -- at route 5 and Imperial Avenue -- and she's cold, she's shivering, and it turned out she had diabetes badly. She had no socks, and her first thought was that she did not want to take my water out of my nice warm car and deprive me. 'It's no problem,' I said. I didn't know what to say. It was one of those occasions that fill me with such sorrow and such joy at the same time.
"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.
-- Mary M.
I'd like to thank you for helping to revolutionize my attitude. Prior to seeing you I felt helpless and full of self-pity. But listening to you, walking with you, caused me to look at my sissy, pitiful attitude where all I was doing was thinking of my sorry ass on the pity-pot, wondering how I got there and what's gonna happen next.
Your stories of Arthur Ashe, Nelson Mandela, and sports metaphors to life and often other inspirational words of wisdom with deeper undertones of a well-life meaning made me really think about the truth...
I prayed God that he would please send His son Jesus Christ and all his legions of angels to help me thru my desperation -- get me out of the pit of hopelessness and despair -- and help me to learn to live again. And then you appeared...
You spoke of love, dignity, respect, character, behavior, hope, faith, selflessness and giving to others and so much more that pulled me out of that darkness and put me into the light. And I was filled with the power of the Holy Spirit.
I want to thank you for all you do for so many people...a smile that truly cares. And I want to thank you for all you've done for me. You've made me strive harder.
-- Matthew W.
Someone just copied a passage out of the New Testament: James 2:14.
"What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? (15) Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food? (16) If one of you says to him, 'Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed' but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? (17) In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by acts, is dead."
While Ross is certainly not in it for the money (there is none, only expenses), neither is he in it for the halo. "I just have to do this. I don't have any choice. I have absolutely no illusions or delusions that what I do out there every night is going to rectify this problem, eradicate this problem, or make this problem go away in any sense. Because it is not and it will not, and it will always be the same while I'm on this earth. What I'm doing is not the answer, but it is the answer that night when somebody needs a bottle of water."
Ross was a sales manager for Pontiac, and then Mercedes-Benz, for 25 years. Eventually, Pontiacs were dumped. "All hands were lost, and I was the last soul on that dealership." Ross then jockeyed himself into running what became the number-two Mercedes franchise in the United States. He was at the helm of dealerships in Dallas, San Francisco, Houston, and Los Angeles. The transition from Dallas to San Francisco was precipitated by the death of his 31-year-old wife of a brain aneurysm. Ross had two children at the time, now grown. "I used to think then," Ross remembers, "that somebody would come along on the lot and say, 'Aren't you little Davy Ross from Second and Blaine? You're running around in a Mercedes-Benz?' I ran that one for ten years.
"After my wife's death, I couldn't stand to stay in Dallas with my kids. There were just too many memories. She was the only person in my life that I was ever involved with as far as women are concerned. It just tore me up. Anyway, how I finally got out of the car business was I had a heart attack and a stroke right on the showroom floor in 1989. I went to work and started bleeding from my nose and fell down. Next thing I knew, it was four days later and I was in intensive care at UCLA. Came real close to dying. Twenty-five years of a whole lot of pressure and a whole lot of stress. I made a whole lot of money, but in that business, you're expected to perform all the time, and if you don't, you're gone. Your job-life expectancy is very short. It's heartless.
"During the time I ran that last dealership in L.A., I had started going down to help pass out sack lunches in South Central."
"Why?" This question provoked Ross's second longest pause.
"You know, I used to go into the dealership, and I was never, ever happy in the place. Because my mom, Catherine Hayes-Ross, taught me the way she did. I could play the role, because she taught me how to do that. But I really didn't like anything about the business. It's a lying business; it's a diversionary tactic business, a business of illusions. The whole thing is built on a foundation of mirrors, and it was contrary to everything my mom taught me. On the other hand, I was making these big checks even though I wasn't even a good salesman. So I became a general manager. When I told my mother that, she said, 'So now you have other people lying for you.' I said, 'Mom, give me a break!' She was so right.
"After years and years of this, one Thanksgiving, about two years before I had my heart attack, I so wanted to go do something. I drove around in South Central, and I saw this ratty-lookin' place with a bad sign on it that said, 'Saint Francis Food Center.' I ended up going down there and met this Franciscan brother, Brother Paul. I said, 'I want to help. What could you use?' So me, Mister Well-Intended-Mercedes-Benz, who is really Mister-Second-and-Blaine, I'm thinking, 'I'll do a Donald Trump. I'll do a drive-by.' I bought, like, 40 frozen turkeys. I went down on Thanksgiving morning in my black Mercedes, and I've got 40 frozen turkeys. What are you gonna do in a little homeless shelter with 40 frozen turkeys and no way to cook them? That's how detached I'd become.
"Still, he [Brother Paul] was so grateful...just the thought. Then I started going down there twice a week, then three times a week, passing out sack lunches that someone from the church would bring. There were some seriously hurting people in South Central that make this ghetto here look like Disneyland. When the dealership was closed, I'd go in the back to the used cars and find some old beater car and put on some old clothes. I'd be out of Beverly Hills and into the ghetto in ten minutes. And I loved it. I'd be so happy.
"All of a sudden, I was totally relaxed. It was a frightening neighborhood, but I was never afraid. I was out there with people that looked like Mike Tyson -- and those were the women, hah hah. I'd tell them, 'Here come Mister Detroit, baby. I may be white but my game is tight. Mess with me and I'll slap ya till yer whiter than Michael Jackson.' Somehow, from my childhood in Detroit, I had that game, you know? So when I finally had my heart attack -- thank you, Jesus -- I knew in my head that that's what I wanted to do. I also knew in my head that I was out of the car business, whether I wanted out or not, because I was damaged goods. I would be eased out.
"When I got out of the hospital four months later, I went to get my piece of the action in the dealership, two hundred and some thousand dollars, and lost every penny of it, because they will steal your money uptown the way they steal your drugs downtown. It was the best thing that ever happened in my life."
The death of a young wife, a heart attack and stroke, and financial ruin are not the only ingredients in the unlikely Samaritan Ross has become. Another element is his insomnia.
"My father left us when I was seven years old; my sister was eight. My father was -- and my mother didn't know this -- a member of 'the Purple Gang.' It was the enforcement offshoot or artery of the Mafia. It was the guys who weren't Sicilian. They were Jewish or Irish guys. They did all the dirty work, but they were never to be confused with the Sicilians. They were infamous in Detroit as being the roughest guys. My mother had no idea. When he left, my mother got a job, as the war years were starting, as Rosie the Riveter. She worked in the car factories that at that time were turned into ammunition factories: guns and tanks, what have you. General Motors, Ford Motors, Chrysler were all shut down, and there were no cars made during those years. If you had the luxury of someone in your family that could take care of your kids, then you could go to work, no problem. Well, we were living in a place called the Cass Corridor in Detroit; it's a very rough, tough immigrant neighborhood. I was a slum kid.
"They had these homes: one for boys, one for girls. They would send kids to these places during the week if their mothers couldn't afford someone to take care of them. They were called 'holding homes.' We'd stay in these homes all week long until she could maybe pick us up for a few hours on Saturday or Sunday, then we'd go back to the home. There must have been five or six hundred kids. It was run like a reformatory, a prison. You had a lot of juvenile delinquents. We were intermixed. If you wet your bed -- and you had a lot of frightened, disconnected kids in there -- they would come and take you out of bed, take the sheet you had urinated on, and take you to the 'pee room.' They would wrap you in the sheet, and you would have to stay that way all night, standing wrapped in the pee-soaked sheet all night. I don't sleep well at night, and I know that part of it is my upbringing.
"I grew up half on the streets and half in that home. I ran away from home when I was 16. I told my mother I was going to do it. I hopped a freight with another kid, and we made it to Gary, Indiana. We thought we were going to Chicago. They caught us and put us in Juvenile Hall in Gary, then shipped us back to Detroit. I found my birth certificate in my mother's stuff, and I took it to this guy who changed my age to 17 on the thing -- you could get anything done you wanted in my neighborhood -- and I practiced signing my mother's name, because even at 17, you needed your mother's approval to join the Navy. My mother was okay with it. She knew I had to get out of there.
"My mother taught me integrity, honesty, commitment, respect, and character, all the things I talk to these groups about. My mother never married again or fooled around with men. She took care of her responsibilities, while that replica of a husband of hers did absolutely nothing. She made sure when I left that I took my integrity and my honesty with me. She gave me the foundation to do what I did later."
What Ross does now, instead of sleeping, is tour the wasted streets: National, Imperial, and Commercial Avenues, Market Street, Island, and the blocks between G and J streets from 13th to 19th, crawling through ruptured fences at the sides of underpasses beneath I-5, entering abandoned buildings, and even into holes in the ground, where the faceless and hopeless have gone to ground.
"It has taken me many months," Ross explains, "but when I drive up to any corner now, somebody will recognize me. If there are 4 or 5 guys out of that 10 or 12 on that corner that don't know me, they're totally relaxed because the others acknowledge me." Ross was hesitant to bring anyone along on his route: any stranger is suspected of being a cop, representing the City or County or State. When asked about my presence, Ross would dismiss me from the sidewalk with a backward glance to the passenger seat, saying only, "Oh, that's my dog." He encounters anywhere from dozens to close to a hundred men, women, and children, seven nights a week. "I figured out that the homeless don't have weekends off," he says. As he steps out of the car, figures supine on the halogen-washed concrete will emerge from tattered blankets or what look to be piles of discarded clothing. Several will inevitably hug Ross; he will almost always offer a joke with a bottle of water or a S'mores bar: "You just say chocolate around women, my man, and they will follow you to Detroit!" None of it need be hilarious; it is acknowledgement of the Gray Ones, the Invisible, their tenuous humanity that is the real commodity Ross provides.
Ross's long association with Father Joe's Village raises the question regarding his personal relationship with the priest. "There isn't one. I never really had a relationship with him. He's too busy. He's a slick operator, but the things he's hustled for are all good things, so I'm okay with that." This is Ross being polite and diplomatic. "But he's built this goddamned elephant, and now he's trying to put it on a diet [the recent closing of the shelter during the daytime], and that just doesn't work."
When asked about his tenure as a case manager, Ross falls uncharacteristically silent for an awkward moment. When he speaks, his voice is no longer steady.
"I left Saint Vincent's in December because I just couldn't take the corporate feeling that was happening over the past few years there. It became a numbers game. When I was there, the first nine years, I was at the BMC [Bishop Maher Center], which is a two-year program. Before residents can get in there, they have to do the four-month program at the PMC. That is not a clean-and-sober program. You have 300 men on the third floor, bunk to bunk to bunk. Seventy percent of them have a drug or alcohol situation of some sort, and theoretically, they have that period to address their problem and good luck. On the other hand, at the BMC, the two-year program, you are individually case-managed, and I was a case manager. I loved every minute of it, until the computers came in and there was so much documentation, so much administrative work to do that I would find myself taking time away from my clients. Normally, I would spend an hour with a guy, or an hour and a half, whatever it took. It got so regulated that you had 20 minutes for the client, 20 minutes for the computer, 20 minutes for this form and that form. I was totally ill at ease with that. Ill equipped to do it because of my history of no computers. But the most significant part was that I found myself rushing through my clients. 'How are you doing, John?' and I'm hoping you'll just say, 'Fine,' because I've got five clients lined up behind you. I started going home very depressed at night, knowing that if I'd gone to see John in his bunk at night, if I'd sat down there and talked to him, I'd find out he's not even close to being fine.
"I was getting behind on the computer. I was getting migraine headaches. The place that had become my home started feeling like a job again. I was torn between getting caught up in this corporate environment all of a sudden -- which was fine when I was with Mercedes -- and, 'David, have you got a minute?' Well, no one ever wants just a minute. John has just lost his wife, his children, he's about to relapse, John is sick. And everybody who knew me from previous years knew I'd stop and talk to him or her. Well, I got so far behind in administrative stuff.... No one would ask you what you were doing anymore, just as long as you had those reports in the machine. If you were efficient and on time with your information, then that would presume you were a good case manager. When they gave me that computer, I said, 'I don't want it on my desk. You can put it behind my desk.' I don't want to look at a computer while you're sitting across from me, and you're no longer John, you're number 867.1, so we can dispense with the John and David. I was so disoriented, I said to them, 'I can't do this anymore. It's not me.' I felt like an old cowboy who was still riding his horse, and you come to work one day and there's this Jeep, and now you're supposed to round the horses up with a Jeep. They said they would send me to computer school.
"I did not want to go to computer school. I was 65 years old or whatever I was. They said, 'You can pick it up really easy. It will make your job easier.' What they meant was 'It will make your job faster. It will help people accumulate more statistical information.'
" 'That,' I told them, 'does not mean it's our friend. We are dealing with human beings here, not automobiles. I do not want to go to a school that is going to keep me from reaching out, from talking to people. I can't do that. I'm not doing justice to my clients. I would rather see five guys a day and spend as much time as it takes to make contact with them and show them I cared, without looking up at the clock and knowing you're out of time, like at a psychiatrist's office. And I'm not going to do 20 people, because I'll get too far behind on the machine, and then I'm going home at night with a headache, wondering if I'm going to get in trouble the next day because the input wasn't in the computer. 'Well,' they said, 'we don't have a place for you.' I said, 'I'll make it easy for you; I'll go back to the PMC.' They said they didn't have an opening there. I'm ten years at Saint Vincent de Paul's and they don't have an opening. I said, 'I don't care what you pay me. Pay me minimum wage.' They said, 'We can't spend money on any more personnel at the PMC.'
"Not right. It's like Mercedes-Benz saying they can't afford something. Say you don't want to, say you aren't going to, but don't tell me you can't afford to. Don't insult people by saying you can't. You choose not to. 'Okay, I'll go over there as a volunteer.' I was making $11.20 an hour for the past 11 years. They were baffled. They were trying to figure out a way for me to gracefully go away. I said, 'If at some point you feel you can hire me in some capacity that has benefits, then you can let me know.'
"They're thinking: 'We're getting the guy for nothing, everybody seems to like him and all he wants to do is talk to people. Maybe we'll give him an office -- no, a table in the back.' My job became what they call a transition coach. I would just talk to people about how to endure that PMC with that dynamic up there that's so negative. Like, you're trying to get clean, and a guy is coming in with a bottle of booze underneath you, and suddenly you're just pulled back into that scene. It goes on constantly, because it's a terribly dysfunctional environment there on that third floor. What I did was basically repeat, 'Hang in there, baby. I know it's tough. Hang in there.' And then take them on tours across the street from the BMC, so they could see a light at the end of the tunnel. I'd see a guy that I knew was just hurting so bad, and I'd go to his bunk and just stay there and talk to him. So sometimes I wouldn't get out of there until 12 or 1 in the morning. They found out I was staying so late, and one guy said, 'What are you doing up there so late? The computers aren't even running then.'
"They told me I'd have to go home at nine o'clock. By the way, no one ever came over from the corporate office to see that terribly dysfunctional third floor. They knew it was there, but they didn't want to see it. The beds were horrible; the sheets were stinking from people puking on them, and they'd give them to somebody the next day after being roughly washed. The beds were in disarray. The people up there were schizophrenic, diabetic, dually diagnosed, alcoholics, just out of prison or on their way to prison, skinheads, Crips, Nazis, 300 dysfunctional people, and sometimes at night I was the only staff member up there. They might have some girl on the computer locked in the intake room, and I'd be the only one on the floor. It was like a prison with one guard. How many fights I stopped, I can't tell you.
"Finally, I said, 'No, I can't do this anymore.' I had a meeting with the corporation people and said, 'Shame on you.' " Ross's voice is faltering badly now, his eyes tearing. He falls silent and the Hyundai is filled with the sounds of the street: sporadic traffic; distant, intoxicated voices; a dog barking a few blocks away. The traffic lights on Market Street can be heard clicking: green, yellow...red.
"It got so they couldn't stand it. 'Why is everybody going to this guy? David this and David that...' "
At this point, two men approach the car, one black and one white. They are not together. David seems to know the black man. "How are you doin', my man?" Ross asks. "Need some water?" Ross is rapidly regaining his composure.
"Yeah." The man looks curiously at me. I flash him the peace sign, hoping it still has some kind of juju. The guy looks like a mahogany fireplug. The white guy remains in the background. His hair is blond, dirty, and wild above wide, unfocused eyes. He looks like a more shot-out Billy Idol or a demented Rod Stewart. He clutches a filthy windbreaker around his chest. From his waist to below his knees, he is wearing a tight black skirt slit up the side. The white man asks for a dollar. "Sorry, my man. I don't carry any money with me."
"I'll take your check, Dave," the black man says.
"You'll take my check? Man, no wonder you're livin' out here."
The man laughs and does some footwork, putting up his dukes like a mock John L. Sullivan. Ross does a slow little three-step move. "Oh Brother, and we are brothers, just from different mothers, you do not want to throw down with me. How many moves did you just see me bust?"
"No, my man. That was six. With those two moves you didn't see, I would have slapped the black off you until you were whiter than Michael Jackson."
"Oh, that's good!" the man howled, laughing. "Hey, Dave, can I have two bottles of water?"
"I can't do that, brother. What if I run into a sister out here tonight, and she's got a little one and she needs two bottles of water, and I ain't got none cuz I gave 'em to you."
"Oh, that's right, Dave. I understand."
The white man accepted a bottle of water and looked at it as if it were an alien artifact. He upended it and drank it slowly all the way down. His eyes seemed to refocus. "How long has it been," asked Dave, "since you had any water?"
"I don't remember," he said and asked again for a dollar. I gave him one and then wondered if I was doing Ross any favors.
Back in the car and Ross picks up where he left off. "Where was I? The PMC: Filthy. People peeing on your blanket and stealing your clothes, shitting on the floor of the bathroom." Ross was immediately emotional again. "That's all part of that life. I told these corporate people at that meeting: 'I never saw you there at night when someone would be crapping in their bed or someone would throw up on the guy under him. Or when an alcoholic and a drug addict were fighting each other, trying to kill each other, and there were drugs all over the place and schizophrenics wandering around that can't even find the damned bathroom.' I was the guy walking the halls, looking for these people and talking to them.
"Oh, they hated me, these corporate types. No, they were never around at night. They were all home tucked in their beds, secure in the fact that the numbers were in the machine. But those numbers are people, and those numbers fade away. Why? Because nine guys like John relapsed, and another nine guys went crazy and went back on the street. I told them: 'You people don't see them. It's so nasty, isn't it? Nobody wants to see it. Well, shame on you for not knowing what I was doing. And shame on you for not making that part of our outreach more significant rather than less.' They just sat there and listened to me. I said, 'I'll tell you what, I'm gonna make it really easy on you people in this room. I know that no one wants to be the one to pull the plug on me, because it's a very uncomfortable thing to do. You people know that my heart is in here...' " Ross is having more difficulty, speaking with a broken voice. Tears have formed at the corners of his eyes, gathering on his lower eyelid, poised to descend along the right-hand line of his nose.
The third pause: a full minute of silence.
"I've been in this place for ten years," he said, as if addressing an impassive board of administrators, "and I had hoped that they would carry me out of here, because the people that I love and care about, the residents, are still here." The "here" Ross is talking about isn't exactly here -- he's back in a meeting room in the administrative wing of Saint Vincent's, several months ago. The people he is addressing are not present either, but those he is speaking of are within hailing distance, no farther than the phrase "Water Man!" can carry. Addressing the board in memory, he continues. "You make it sound like I don't fit in anymore. I know I fit in. We have the same sort of people we had ten years ago, with the same sort of struggle, the same sort of agony, and the same sort of uncertainty. Why don't I fit in? Because I can't use a machine? These people don't need a machine. Shame on you, all of you in this room, because you know me and you put me in this position of having to leave here -- and I am going to --- but please, do me a favor and do not disingenuously reach your hand out to me as I am leaving. You're forcing me to leave this building, but I will never leave the people that are here. I will be out on those streets somewhere, helping those people. If it means sitting on the corner at 16th and Imperial, then that's where I'm going to be."
Not far at all from the spot he mentioned on Imperial, Ross holds up a piece of paper. The 71-year-old has been challenged, punched, and cursed out by street "residents" who now greet him with smiles and hugs, but until recently, he has never had to worry about the police. What he is holding is a ticket.
On August 23, 2006, at 1:15 p.m., at 16th Street and G, Ross was ticketed, cited, technically arrested, and detained for 35 minutes beside his "Homeless Hyundai" by SDPD Sergeant Laura Santiago. He was about to give water to two men, one of whom Ross knew to be diabetic. Ross describes the scene:
"I was standing there with two bottles of water in my hands when I heard the short whoop-whoop of a police siren, and this squad car pulls up on the curb behind me. They've got me fixed in this spotlight, but the two homeless guys were still difficult to see, just bundles in the shadows. People walking back to their cars from the Padres game went by, and they must have wondered what the deal was. Here's this old white guy in half a tennis outfit, holding bottled water, and he's getting jammed up by the police under this bridge. Remember, you can't really see anybody else back in there.
"I hear this woman's voice. 'You! What are you doing?' This cop must have made out the other two guys, because then she says, 'You, back there! Get moving! Get out of here!' So they start getting up, bundling their blankets and everything else they own, which is not much, but it takes a minute. 'Hey, hold on,' I said, 'I'm going to get this water to you.'
" 'Oh no, Dave. We don't want you getting' any more jammed up.' Here's this guy and his friend getting rousted with everything they own, with nowhere to go, and they're worried about this skinny old white guy in his tennis clothes with his five-year-old Hyundai. 'Just stay right there,' I told him.
" 'You stay where you are!' the cop, a woman sergeant who was partnered with a younger female officer -- probably a rookie -- was yelling at me. And then she told the other guys to get lost again, and they were on their way, but I wasn't going to let them go without water. I turned my back on the squad car and went over to them and handed them the water. This really got to Sergeant Santiago. 'What are you doing?' she asked me in the most abrasive way. Her whole manner was abrasive, hostile, and rude, completely unprofessional."
Ross was kept waiting by the side of his car, "for at least a good half an hour, while Santiago tried to find something to book me on. Meanwhile, I was talking to the young officer, explaining to her that one of those guys was diabetic, and he had no means of getting water, etc. Santiago called out from the squad car, 'If you have something to say to me, you can say it to my face.'
" 'Well, I'd be happy to,' I said, and she walked over with her pad of tickets. She was writing. I told her that, without water, the one guy would die. 'That's not the issue here,' she said, and I so wanted to ask her, 'What is the issue?' Instead, I showed her my other card -- not the one I wear around my neck that's written in Crayola -- the one that indicates my association with the police department HOT [Homeless Outreach Team] squad, and I mentioned my relationship with Sergeant Rick Snell with that outfit and asked her: 'I just want to know. I was told to show this to any police officer if there was any question as to what I was doing. Does this mean anything at all to you?'
"She handed me the ticket to sign. 'Can you write while you talk?' she asked and then she said, 'No, not tonight it doesn't.' " Ross was cited with violation #54.0122: Distribution of Food and Beverages. "She locked eyes with me and I locked eyes right back with her. She said, 'You...have... a...good...rest...of...the...night.' Still unblinking, looking right back at her, I repeated exactly what she had said, and I said it exactly the same way."
The following week, Juliette Vara at Channel 10 News picked up the story and ran it in two segments, along with a brief interview with Ross and attorney Scott Dreher, who took on the case pro bono when he heard the item.
"We have this other case," Dreher said over the phone, "a homeless case that challenges the ticketing of people for sleeping in public when they have no other place to sleep, and so maybe Juliette Vara heard about me because of that. I'm happy to help him [Ross] out. That's bullshit. They should never give out tickets for that. She cited him not because he was doing anything wrong but because the police department has a policy of 'Don't let anyone help the homeless; it encourages them to stay around, and we don't want them staying around. They smell bad and they're dirty. We can't have that; this is America's Finest City. And you can't drive them away by bringing them water.' That statute, by the way, is so broad and vague as to be meaningless. It was originally put on the books to protect kids from getting hit by traffic when running out to an ice-cream truck. It remains on the books as a lever to keep people from helping the homeless. This fits in with police objectives and the Centre City Development Corporation objectives.
"The constitutional-law term is 'vagueness.' People are entitled to know in advance what's illegal and what's not. The statute ought to be thrown out, and we'll sue to have that statute overturned. A jury trial is another issue. David has this pending criminal citation; we have to appear in court on October 23, I think. On that occasion, the city will have the opportunity to say, 'Judge, we dismiss the case.' And that's what they've indicated they will say. But until then, they haven't done it. They could also say, 'Screw you. We've got to teach you a lesson. We're going to go to trial.' In which case, we'll say, 'Bring it on.' "