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."