San Diego David Ross, known as "the Water Man," was doing what he does every day in the ghetto, sometimes twice a day, and that is distributing water, purchased at his own cost, to the homeless -- the marginalized to the point of exile -- when an angry exchange at 18th and Commercial streets turned violent.
At approximately 4:30 p.m. on Friday, May 4, beneath the Commercial Street overpass, Ross was producing bottles of water from an ice chest in his trunk for those settling into spots to pass the night in the heart of skid row. Ross, a former case manager for Saint Vincent de Paul's, now unaffiliated with any charity, has been doing this for over 15 months in the downtown and East Village areas. On this early evening, the shouts of a heavyset, reddish-haired woman echoed beneath the concrete bridge, vying with the sounds of the trolley and overhead traffic on I-5. The woman was verbally attacking another woman.
"They were screaming at each other, both really big women," Ross told me from his North Park home on Monday morning, his forearm from elbow to wrist in a castlike bandage. "They were both probably in their 40s. The woman who ultimately assaulted me was probably 250 pounds and very muscular looking. The other woman was black and very large also. The woman who assaulted me was white with kind of rusty-colored hair. The white girl was clearly the aggressor, and I don't know what preceded my getting there, but things were accelerating. 'You fat nigger bitch!' the one woman was screaming. A man with the black woman objected and said something like, 'You can't say that to my wife,' or maybe he said 'girlfriend.' But he did nothing to stop her. It was probably ten minutes this was going on before I went over there and said to both of them, 'You've got to stop it. The police are going to come, and you'll both be in trouble.' The black girl seemed okay with that and went to sit down, but the other woman kept screaming obscenities and 'nigger' this and that. Now, there were more black faces under that bridge, as I recall, than white.
"Two or three times I got them calmed down. It was easier to calm down the black girl because she was not that aggressive. She was okay with letting it go, whatever it was. I remember now the white woman saying repeatedly, 'I'm going to Mexico, you fat fuck' and 'If I don't kill you tonight, I'll come back here with some homeys who will kill you.' She kept saying, 'I'm going to kill you' all through the whole deal. I don't remember the black girl saying much."
Ross's memory of the event is gradually returning to him. When he speaks, it is slowly, unsteadily. He had been put on a morphine drip at Scripps Mercy but refused any further pain medication. The agony in his chest and right forearm was coming back with his memory.
"They began slapping at each other again, and the third time, I turned to the white woman and said, 'Stay away,' but she was out of control and not listening. The black girl apparently had enough at one point and rushed at her. They struggled, pulling at each other, and I don't remember seeing any weapon at that time. Now, nobody did anything, but that isn't surprising. Nobody gets involved down there."
Ross does have a history of getting involved down there, though he does not seek out trouble. This past Thanksgiving I accompanied Ross to Tijuana for dental reconstruction after another psychosocially dysfunctional character shoved four of Ross's teeth into his gums on their way out of his mouth for good -- Ross taking the blow meant for another woman on the street between Island and J.
Back at 18th and Commercial, "The white lady pinned the black woman to the concrete at the base of the overpass. Then I saw something in her hand. I remember thinking it might have been a hairbrush or something -- it was kind of glistening. She was attempting to hit the woman with this object. She had the upper hand in the struggle, and she was chopping and thrashing with her arm. I didn't know it at the time, but it was a knife in her hand and a piece of glass like this." Ross indicates a jagged, fork-shaped-looking blade.
"At this point, I grabbed the white woman's hair and shook her and said, 'You can't do this!'
" 'I'm gonna kill her! I'm gonna kill her. Fuck you!'
" 'You're not gonna kill anybody.'
" 'I'm gonna kill you.' I remember thinking, 'God, that's a big knife,' and I saw the thing coming down toward the woman's face, and that's when I grabbed her. She was very, very strong, and I couldn't keep control of her. I finally got her off some way. I pushed the black girl away and said, 'Get out of here.' She wasn't cut, that I recall, not then. But the white woman started punching me, I thought, in the stomach. I didn't feel it. I saw the glass thing in her hand, and she was trying to get at my throat, and I lifted my arm. I saw it coming down at me. She stuck it in my arm and pulled it. All of a sudden blood just shot out of my arm. A lot of blood. I looked down, and there was three or four inches of gash in my arm. I said, 'Oh my God, you've stabbed me.'
"The tissue in the inside of my arm was coming out. I don't remember much after that except bits and pieces."
Ross describes a stroboscopic series of actions: Two men grabbing at the attacker. Himself sitting on the trolley tracks. "The next thing I know I'm up on the curb. I'm stretched out on the sidewalk. I kept looking at my arm. Guys were yelling 'Tourniquet!' and two guys were wrapping my arm. Cars were coming through intermittently. Guys were yelling for them to stop, call 911. Nobody stopped. I was really dizzy then. It was like a movie.
"It seemed like a long time. One guy was holding the white woman. I don't know where the black woman went. At one point, I saw the knife on the sidewalk, this kind of purple and red thing, and for some reason I picked it up. I remember what seemed like a lot of paramedics and police. A whole lot of them. I imagine what they saw was this old white guy covered with blood holding a knife.
"In the ambulance they had to cut away my clothes. The police took them and my shoes for evidence. And my I.D."
At around 7:30 p.m., surgery was performed on Ross at Scripps Mercy Hospital. The operation took approximately two hours. Ross has little or no recollection of arriving at the hospital or subsequent events until some hours after the surgery, in the hours between Friday night and Saturday morning. "I remember a woman, a Filipino woman, I believe, though I don't know for sure, coming into my room, taking my temperature, my blood pressure, and at one point, very abrasive and high-toned. She said, 'You go home.' I didn't understand what she meant. I hadn't even seen a doctor, as far as I knew, and I thought she might have said, 'You're at home,' or something, and me saying, 'Well, feel at home? Huh? That's good, thank you.'
" 'No. No. You go home.' Twice she came back and asked, 'When you go home?' In some slurry way, I'm sure, I said, 'I don't have any clothes.' She said, 'We give you token.' I said, 'A token for what?' Now I'm getting a little more conscious. A little while before, I had to go to the bathroom so badly that I did it myself. I didn't know where it was, but I found it, and inside I fell down, picked myself up, peed all over the floor and myself, and somehow made it back to the bed. A third time she came in and said, 'Go home.' Again, I told her I had no clothes, only a hat. They had taken my clothes, all bloody, for evidence.
" 'We try to find you a pair of pants.' Very abruptly, very put out.
" 'A pair of pants?'
"She kept saying, 'Go. You go.'
" 'Where? I just went to the bathroom and fell down. I can't walk.'
"No one had even asked me how I felt. She looked very agitated. Another lady came in and said something about this token. Then this other guy came in. He said he was from the business office. He said, 'Is it correct, you are 47 years old?'
"I remember saying, 'Yeah, I wish.' " Ross is 72 years old.
" 'Oh, I see. It says here you were born in '47.'
" 'No, I wasn't.'
" 'Yes, you were. It says so here. Do you have a phone?' I thought he meant cell phone, so I said, 'No.' I've never had one. 'But I have a phone in my apartment.' And that turned it around. 'Apartment?' He looked up. He hadn't been paying much attention until then. 'Aren't you homeless?'
" 'I work with the homeless downtown. I'm not homeless. I have a home and hospitalization. Is that what this token thing is about? You've got everything wrong there.' I got very pissed and called my doctor, Suzanne Afflalo at Kaiser, where she is also an administrator. She negotiated for me to stay at the hospital for another day, but by this point I wanted no part of it anymore."
Ross later told me, "I thought about how I would have made out had I really been homeless. I would have been out there on University Avenue with only a pair of pants that may or may not have fit, a token, and some paper prescriptions I had no means of filling -- or if I had, would have been stolen. That is exactly the condition, or close enough, that the man was in that I found on the street New Year's Eve two years ago, when I decided to make this my life, working with the homeless."