I went to Safeway not once but a half dozen different times recently in search of an aggressive panhandler. I was there in the morning, during lunch and after work, which is often late at night.
I couldn’t find a one.
So, I took a walk in the woods behind the strip mall anchored by Rite Aid. There I found Larry, a homeless man in his late 50s, sitting in a wheelchair at the edge of an encampment.
Larry was hit by a car several weeks ago while crossing U.S. 101 South with the light. The Sutter Coast Hospital emergency room doctors transferred him to a hospital in Santa Rosa, where they rebuilt his shattered leg and a shoulder, crushed when he landed on the pavement after being sent flying by the hit and run driver.
Larry spent about a month in the hospital, he says. He was given the wheelchair on his release. He was unable to explain how he got from Santa Rosa to Crescent City because Larry was self-medicated at the time. A 16-ounce can of malt liquor lay empty in the grass next to his wheelchair.
“I’m a mess, man,” said Larry. “I’m in a lot of pain here.”
Larry tugged up his right pant leg to show the fresh scar from surgery.
Larry says he used to work in lumber until he got hurt some years ago. He says he couldn’t find work and eventually wound up on the street.
Local VFW Cmdr. Jerry Johnson says he’s given Larry four or five new sleeping bags since he was dropped at the encampment about four weeks ago because they keep getting stolen when Larry manages to get his wheelchair out of the woods to nearby parking lots.
Larry is in need of a bath. His words are slurred and he smells of alcohol and sweat — easy to understand how some might be repelled or judgmental. And yet I wonder, what’s become of us that we allow this, accept that it’s OK to leave a man in a wheelchair in the woods to fend for himself.
My presence attracted the attention of a younger, healthier man. Bill wouldn’t give me his last name. He said he and others in the encampment — I counted about 12 — were looking out for Larry “because that’s what you do.”
Bill said he is temporarily homeless and has been off and on for years despite a series of odd jobs at local restaurants and stores. He said he still picks up those kind of jobs now and then but he can’t afford rent. He said he didn’t have a full-time job because he doesn’t have a high school diploma or transportation.
Bill said sometimes he collects shopping carts and returns them to Safeway. Sometimes, he said, Safeway Manager Brian Ridgely lets him plug his cell phone into a store outlet to recharge. Sometimes, he said, he picks up trash behind Safeway and clears out dumpsters for items he can recycle for cash.
“But other people,” said Bill, “they leave a mess back there so I try to help clean it up.”
“Scary Larry is not afraid,” he said. “That’s why I’m still here. I’m broke up but...damn it, I’m still here. Make sure you tell them that.”
I saw Larry in his wheelchair about a week later. He was sitting on the sidewalk next to Crescent City Cinemas. He had no sign asking for money or food. He didn’t wheel up to anyone for the 20 or so minutes I watched as people passed.
I wanted to go up and ask Larry how he was doing but thought better. He’s not afraid, I told myself.
Where, I wondered, is an aggressive panhandler when you need one.
Robin Fornoff is editor of the Triplicate. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org