by Joanne Devereaux
We met one bird-chirping spring morning three years ago during a morning walk around Lake Merritt. My birthday that year happened to be on a Sunday in April. I remember smiling when a man said, “Happy Easter” as I walked by. A few days after our first meeting, I saw him again. He greeted me with such enthusiasm I stopped to talk. “What’s your name?” I asked.
“Gustavo,” he said.
In my first year getting to know Gustavo, he lived on the back side of the Oakland Museum. He was out in the open, close to a busy road. He wore a yellow hard hat, so he was always easy to spot from a distance. “Are you hungry?” I asked him one afternoon.
“No, my mom brings me food every morning before she goes to work.” That day he was finishing up a can of tuna. He wiped the metal fork with a terry cloth towel hanging from a metal trashcan.
I wondered why he wore a yellow hard hat. In a hardware store looking for heavy-duty rain boots my daughter needed for a school trip, she saw a yellow hard hat. “Maybe we should get your homeless friend a new one,” she said. My eighteen-year-old and Gustavo both share November birthdays.
I have many questions about Gustavo’s life. When did he go from being a boy living with, I imagine, a caring family, to where he is now? He was born and raised in Oakland, went to public school, and has a younger sister. “We don’t see each other anymore,” he told me.
We have never had coffee, shared a meal, or a glass of wine, but we have gotten to know one another slowly over these past three years. Our conversations stay with me. Less than a mile from where he lives unsheltered, I live in a house with my husband, daughter, two cats, and our big dog Ringo. We talked long enough one afternoon for me to discover he had wanted to be a hairdresser and attended cosmetology school. He is about 5’11” and he turned 44 on his last birthday. He said, “My hair is starting to turn grey.” We laughed when I said, “Not to worry, mine too.”
“I’m gay, my parents were not accepting,” he told me a few months after we met.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
Gustavo is a handsome man who sometimes talks in streams of delusions. His firmly held unreality includes being sentenced to live on the streets for five years. I tried ever so slightly to nudge him back to reality this past year when he described a long story about strangers living in the walls of his parent’s house. My logic is not able to unravel the events he described.
He quoted the Fourteenth Amendment and told me he knew his rights. I went home that day and goggled the Fourteenth Amendment. Later I asked him, “Do you want to go home?”
“Yes, my sentence is almost up, I wouldn’t recommend being homeless to anyone, I’m always nervous at night,” he said. “What are you doing?” I asked Gustavo. “I’m disinfecting the sidewalk and area around my bench because I sleep here.” I watched him sweep water and bleach together while we talked.
We accidentally bumped into each other outside of Whole Foods. It was an unusual place for us to cross paths. “I thought of you this weekend. How was graduation?” he asked me while I waited to cross the street. I didn’t hesitate to ask if he wanted to see a picture of my daughter’s high school graduation. “She looks like her dad.” Gustavo saw clearly from a small photo on my iPhone what everyone has said for eighteen years. It was hot that day; I noticed lots of people staring at us. “Do you have enough water to drink?” I asked before we said goodbye.
After dinner one night, I walked out of a local restaurant with my family. Gustavo was camped almost next to our car. It was dark and cold for an early fall night. A few days earlier he had said, “I’m going to move down to this end of the lake before it starts raining.” I asked my husband and daughter if they would like to meet him. My daughter said “no” and my husband reluctantly agreed.
You have an impression of what someone might be like. The teacher you finally get to meet after hearing stories about them at the dinner table. My husband said hello to him, noticed he was reading, tucked into his sleeping bag on the sidewalk. We drove home, three of us in silence. I could not speak about the sadness I felt seeing him in plaid flannel pajamas.
Over these past few years, he has told me parts of his life story. He is bilingual and speaks English and Spanish well. He has an amazing memory and is very polite. He is a U.S. citizen. He has lived in Oakland his entire life. He has visited Mexico, where his parents are from, a few times. He told me he suffers from depression. I wonder if his mental state acts as a barrier, helping him survive. He is not as broken as one might imagine. His sincerity often catches me off guard.
It had been raining, pouring hard, heavy rain for days. The crack in Interstate 580 above his bench was just wide enough to allow water to pour through. The twenty-foot drop of water deafened our conversation. Each time a car went by, a new blast of water hit the sidewalk hard. I hadn’t thought of it, but maybe this is why it is called Splash Pad. He did not seem to mind how close the water was. “It’s cold,” he said, after I asked, “How are you?”
I had noticed that winter his eyes and face were bloated. I discovered he kept both a calendar and a journal. The first year my daughter drove me on Thanksgiving night to give him hot food and waited while we talked. I asked her again if she would like to meet him. She was curious and hesitated but declined. We drove away and he waved.
He told me his mom was in Mexico during the holidays. I have tried to meet her a few times. One Saturday morning at the farmers market I walked over to say good morning. “You just missed her,” he said. You can’t make appointments with a homeless man’s mom. I try to imagine how hard it is for her to see him homeless, still taking care of him however she can. Mental illness has a firm hold on her son.
Recently, with such kindness in his voice, Gustavo asked about my daughter. “How does she like college?”
“She is homesick, but it’s only been a few weeks,” I said.
“You must miss her,” he said.
His sleeping bag is covered with a blue tarp. It poured rain all morning. He’s not awake and I just stand beside his sleeping bag. In a short time, he opened his eyes. “Hi Jo.” Three years ago when we first met, I gave him my nickname. As time goes on I feel enormously sad for his life, where he is, the parts unknown that will be his future.
It was a few days before Christmas. The red penguins on the wrapping paper cover the journal I gave him along with three unwrapped pens held together with a strong rubber band. The gift looks out of place with all his belongings. I thought to ask him whether he preferred to write with a pencil or pen. I gave him a pretty card with silver glitter on it and signed my full first and last name. I was going to write about how much I enjoyed getting to know him, but I didn’t. I only wrote “Merry Christmas.”
Editors Note: Joanne’s ongoing concerns were a major factor in our decision to focus on homelessness in the February 2019 edition of the Splash Pad News to which she also contributed a key article. Four years earlier, she had connected with a Seattle architect, Rex Hohlbein, who had established a large homeless advocacy group. Inspired by his example, Joanne created a Facing Homelessness-Oakland Facebook page where she could put names on all those forgotten faces and tell their stories—including this one about Gustavo.
Joanne has lived in the Bay Area with her husband and daughter for the past twenty years. She started Mindful Transitions, a consulting service for seniors and families, in 2012. Previously, she was a professional photographer.