You would have thought that the woman who was carrying everything she owned on her back would have been of interest to the organizers of Saturday’s “Occupy Lake Worth” protest. She could be the poster child for the inequities of our society. The lines on her face told the story of years, maybe decades, on the street. I had seen her before in Bryant Park…back in August. We talked briefly then, and more this time. She told me that the pastor of a nearby church let her sleep there. When I saw her in August she was on her way to the park restroom which she used as her personal place to get cleaned up and change clothing. Until Saturday, she didn’t know they were holding a rally in her “backyard.” She tried to speak to the girl in the lavender shirt who was one of the organizers of the event, but the girl was too busy with organizing to pay much attention to the frail old lady.
She told me about a Lake Worth nursing home where she would like to live. When I told her that most people hated the thought of a nursing home she said, “At least I’d have a roof over my head. It’s not good to be outside all the time.” Then she told me about some other people she knew who were able to get into the nursing home. They had had some medical problems. She had heard they were well taken care of and that the food was pretty good there. Later, she asked me if it was true that Rocky had been shot. I don’t live in Lake Worth so I am not up on all the local gossip. I didn’t have a clue who “Rocky” was. As it turned out, Rocky had owned the Pegasus restaurant. We reminisced over the days when the Pegasus Greek restaurant was Holiday House. They served great prime rib then. She she used to wash dishes at Pegasus before her legs got bad. Now she can’t stand for long. Anne said his three sons took it over. They called them the “little Rocky’s.” That must be old news because as far as I know, Indians own the place now.
I found it ironic that in the midst of several hundred people, some who carried signs saying “Tax the 1%” or “Pay Your Fair Share”, the woman was totally ignored. Here was a crowd of people protesting the widening gulf between the classes, and this one woman had fallen through the cracks. Was it because she was from a generation where people learned to play the hand they were dealt? Or maybe she was just too far down the ladder to help herself and could only rely on social services, therefore beyond the objectives of the rally. The absurd irony of the morning reached a new level toward the end of the rally when a beautiful, stylishly dressed young woman arrived carrying a sign. One side read “HOME LESS” and the other said “GMAC Stole my home for the price of a designer handbag!” I wondered if the one on her shoulder was the handbag she was referring to. While I sympathized with whatever plight the young woman was facing I thought to myself, “I hope you never really know homeless.”
I walked over and started talking to this guy at the train station near the Lake Worth flea market. He was obviously homeless. He said he had just gotten out of 30 days in jail for panhandling. He told me that he had a thousand dollar prepaid Visa card when he went in, but didn’t when they let him out. The cops had hassled him over it when they booked him suggesting that he had stolen someone else’s card despite him pointing out, “see, it says ‘Gift Card’ on it!”. You never know what is truth and what is fiction and I try not to decide. I just listen.
He said he had lived in the area most of his life, went to LW High School. Tossed out a local address where he said his house was. Now he slept at Dreher Park most nights. He said he was a brick mason and could build a house from the ground up. Among other professions, he had also been a pilot smuggling marijuana out of Colombia in the early 80’s. He said he didn’t do any drugs and I believed him. “I’m a beer and cigarette man” he said as he took a drag on the stub of a hand rolled cigarette. “I’ll smoke a little weed if somebody offers it” he added.
I asked him his name and he told me it was Greg. The irony of that coincidence brought the uncertainty of life closer to home. We all walk a very fine line between comfort and discomfort. A simple incident can change our lives forever.
I didn’t ask why he was on the street, but I wondered what kept these people, who live such a hard life, going. Like Ronny who I photographed in Miami Beach, Greg was hoping to get back together with his wife who now lived in North Carolina. He had a cell phone but it didn’t work so I wondered how that was going to happen. He told me that he still attended the church in town that he always had and that the pastor invited him for Christmas dinner a couple years ago. I told him he was lucky to know someone so thoughtful. It was evident that faith, hope and charity were important to his survival.
For a 51-year old, the years of life on the street made him look older. He rolled up his sleeve to show me what looked like old scars from days when he might have been able to pay for them. “I’ve got skin cancer. That’s why I wear a long sleeve shirt. Each one of these cost me $2800 to laser off…I never had any insurance."
Knowing full well where the beach was, I asked the man in the wheelchair, "Is the beach down that way?" He told me it was at the end of the block and said, "You look like a pleasant sort of guy". I replied, "I am".
Ronny is from Roanoke, Virginia. He is going through a bad time. He said he didn't understand how people could give money to someone on the street for alcohol and not give him anything for food. I told him I would help him out. He had been a short order cook in Virginia. I told him that in the early 90's I used to fly into Roanoke and drive to West Virginia to do conventions at the Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs. "Do you know where that is?" I asked. "Oh yeah" he said, "I cooked there for two years. That sure is an espensive place." I agreed, but told him I was lucky because someone else paid my way.
Ronny's left leg was amputated below the knee. He had taken a job doing cleanup in New Orleans after hurricane Katrina and said that he stepped on a nail one day. Two days later his leg looked "like a rainbow" according to Ronny. "It got gangrene and they had to cut it off."
I asked him how come he was living on the street. "My wife left me and took all my money. Cleaned me out. The worse thing is, I don't know where she is. I don't really hate her. I don't hold no grudge or nothin'. I'd just like to see her so she could tell me why she left. She just left, no explanation. Took all my money outta the bank." I commiserated and agreed that it was always hard to forget about the one who got away. That she took his money was a real pisser.
I told him I wanted to take some shots of him with the people passing by and he said okay. At one point he flagged down a young girl and said, "Let him take my picture with you okay?. She said she was late for work but we persisted and she posed along side him. He was pleased and I told him he picked a real cutie.
Knowing that he probably was, I asked him if he was a god fearing man? He said he was. "So what do you think of all these natural disasters the past couple years...tsunami in Indonesia...earthquakes in Haiti, New Zealand, Japan?" Ronny replied that it was the Book of Revelations coming to pass. He quoted a few bible references to corroborate his reply. I told him that I was not really religious but was open minded enough to consider any possibility. Ronny is a big man and I expect was not easy for him to depend on other people to get by. Yet in spite of his situation, he was not bitter and had a fairly positive outlook which I attributed to his faith.
His bedroll was alongside his wheelchair and I noticed a nasty sandspur stuck in his right sleeve. I asked if the cops hassled him about sleeping on the beach. He said no. But it was hard to find a place to stay when it was raining. There was an abandoned hotel nearby that a black man owned and the man let Ronny stay there when it rained. He was hoping that if he could find his wife and get some of his money back he could get a room somewhere. But neither of us thought that was likely to happen, especially since someone stole his cell phone. I wanted to ask him about the ugly scabs on his good leg...whether people took advantage of him because he was handicapped and homeless. But I decided that I didn't want to know.
I gave him ten bucks, shook his hand and wished him a good day. "God bless ya' Ronny" I said as I walked away.