It was easy to be angry at the homeless man –
until you got to know him
By Barbara Risk de Boinville ’74
The tall thin man with a cardboard sign upset me for weeks that
winter. Seeing him begging on the median strip in front of my Safeway
made me angry. When I walked to the store, I saw him. When I drove
down my street and the light turned red, he approached. I kept my
window rolled up. I didn’t give him any money. “He’s
a detriment to society,” I thought. “He should be working.
He’s young.” I wished he’d go away, but he didn’t.
As time went on, my hostility changed to confusion. I felt guilty
for not feeling sympathy for this man out in the cold, day after
On Feb. 16, 2006, while walking home, I spoke to him. I crossed
the traffic at the light and joined him on the narrow cement island.
I told him my name and that I lived two blocks away. “I’m
Ernest Wood,” he replied in a deep voice. He smiled and shook
my hand. “Thanks for coming over.” He told me about
his church (“I try to go most Sundays”) and his health.
“I keep passing out,” he said. “One week I’m
fine and the next, I’m back in the hospital. I used to do
odd jobs. I was a very careful painter. Now I can’t be sure
I can finish what I start. People don’t like that.”
I invited him to come up to the house to warm up and have something
to eat. “Thanks,” he replied, “but I have to keep
working right now.” He asked if he could have a rain check.
As cars whizzed past, I dug in my purse for a scrap of paper. I
wrote down my name, phone number, and address.
He telephoned at 8 that evening. He sounded like a college professor.
“It’s Ernest,” he said in his deep, authoritative
voice. “Barbara, I just wanted to call and say thanks and
see if it might be a good time for me to come by.” I asked
him where he was and went and picked him up. He was waiting for
me on the curb in front of Barnes and Noble bookstore near the median
When we got back to the house, our golden retriever barked and
jumped. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I like
dogs.” He patted Chance and shook hands with my husband. We
walked together into the living room. I got my first good look at
He wore a filthy ski jacket and a green wool ski hat. He snatched
off the hat and put it in his pocket. His head was completely bald
and looked disproportionately small for his long thin body. He was
very pale. He wore large glasses with thick lenses. The glasses
were light purple and his eyes, a striking blue. One front tooth
was badly chipped. It looked like a tiny dagger.
He told us he was 6 foot 7. He left home when he was 17. He had
been in the service. Amy, his doctor, worked on Wednesdays at a
free clinic nearby. He talked about his friend Jimmy, a short man
with a beard we had seen with him on the median strip. “Jimmy’s
been in trouble with the law. The cops are on to him. I don’t
get in trouble like that. My drinking days are over.”
We drank soda and chatted in the living room for 15 minutes. He
seemed intelligent. I believed he was an honest person. I excused
myself and walked behind his chair. I signaled for my husband to
join me in the kitchen. We agreed he could spend the night. He had
not asked to stay.
“I’d be happy to wash some clothes for you,”
I said, eyeing his stained tan jacket. He followed me downstairs
to the laundry room, explaining all the while the importance of
layers for keeping warm. He took off his dirty jacket, a hooded
windbreaker, a navy sweater, and another sweater. He bent over and
pulled off heavy hiking boots and three pairs of socks: thick wool
ones, white cotton stretch stockings that he said helped with circulation,
and a gray pair of anklets with Suburban Hospital printed on them.
He thanked me for washing his clothes. In his jeans and T-shirt
he stood before me. I noticed a tattoo on one forearm. His friendliness
put me at ease as we stood together next to the washing machine.
Then he lifted up the leg of his jeans and showed me his calves
– purple and swollen – and his discolored feet. He told
me he had cirrhosis of the liver and needed a liver transplant.
He was optimistic that he would get better, but he didn’t
expect to get a new liver. From his backpack he took out a prescription
bottle. “It’s about time for me to take the Lasix Dr.
Amy gave me. It helps keep the swelling down.”
I gave him a glass of water and showed him the bed in the basement
where he could sleep. I changed the sheets my son used and put on
old sheets and blankets. I handed him the TV remote and went back
upstairs to make dinner. “This is so nice,” he said,
when I returned with hamburger, chips, and ice cream on a tray.
“You’re so good to me, Barbara.”
The next morning at breakfast in the dining room, my husband had
a talk with him. He told Ernest it was going to be bitterly cold
again that night, and he wanted to drive him to a shelter. “Thanks,
Bryan. I appreciate that,” he said, but I’ve had enough
of shelters. Everyone sharing their horror stories.” Ernest
was familiar with the shelter Bryan had in mind – the buses
to get there, the open and closing times, the rules. He had been
to many of the shelters in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area
and had a low opinion of them all. “You don’t feel like
a human being in those places,” he said. “And you have
to watch out. The kind of people who go there steal your things.”
Ernest stood up from the table and said goodbye. From the living
room window I watched him go down our front walk, his backpack slung
over his shoulder. “He’s off to the median strip,”
I thought, no longer minding.
The next day I looked for Ernest when I went out to do my errands.
He wasn’t on the median strip that day, or in the months that
followed. On June 16, 2006, I saw him back at his old post. I parked
in the Safeway lot and crossed the street to say hello. A huge smile
lit his face. He asked how I was, and about Bryan and the kids.
He told me he had been in the hospital again.
“I collapsed. Jimmy got me to the E.R. I’m better
now.” His face had a yellow cast. “You’re too
sick to be out here on your feet,” I said. Knowing his low
opinion of shelters, I didn’t mention them, but I suggested
he call someone I knew on the County Council who might be able to
help him find housing. Ernest never took my advice.
He lived with Jimmy and some other men in the woods that summer.
The previous winter he had slept at Kinko’s, in an entry way,
and in a closet at a movie theater. A janitor left the closet, which
opened on the street, unlocked for him. He had other haunts but
never got much rest. “It’s hard to get a good night’s
sleep,” he explained. “Store owners or the police always
tell you to move on.”
In late July Ernest telephoned. “Hi Barbara,” he said,
and I knew right away who it was from his deep voice. He asked if
I could do him a big favor and pick him up at Suburban Hospital.
After a week’s stay, he was being discharged to a rehab/nursing
facility. When I got to his hospital room, he was ready to go. He
sat in a wheel chair and clutched two big plastic bags in his lap.
I pushed him out to my car. He could barely stand, making the transfer
from the chair to the front seat. “It’s almost my birthday,”
he said as we drove away. “Aug. 14. I’ll be 48. You
know, Barbara, I’ve had more lives than a cat.”
Ernest became friends with an elderly nurse’s aide. She
kindly invited him to stay in her house in Takoma Park, Md., when
she learned he had to leave the rehab facility but had no place
to go. I was delighted to hear of his good fortune – sleeping
in a house – but he wasn’t thrilled. He told me about
the woman’s relatives who didn’t want him in the house
and described the trash and roaches in the basement where he slept.
“Barbara, you wouldn’t believe how they live. I try
to stay out of the family’s way. I use the kitchen only when
no one’s around and wash their dishes as well as my own.”
We had this conversation on the median strip. He took two buses
to get there. I invited him to come up to the house to get off his
feet. He thanked me but said he had to keep working. If it was rush
hour, nothing could tempt him to take a break.
Ernest viewed begging on the median strip as his job. In his mind,
it was the only way he could earn a living. Passing drivers and
pedestrians honked or waved. Some called out, “Hey Ernest.
How are you?” He viewed these regular customers as his friends.
From them he received a fleeting human connection as well as money.
Ernest loved seeing what he called “my people.” I still
disapproved of his begging. I was sure it was killing him.
In the evening he walked the two blocks up to my house. I offered
to fix him a ham sandwich. “Any chance you have real mayonnaise?”
he asked. “I don’t like Miracle Whip.” He ate
the ham and mayo sandwich in the basement and fell asleep. When
he woke up, I drove him to the woman’s house. He got out of
my car in the pitch dark and limped away, an old blanket I had given
him under his arm.
Weeks later I saw Ernest bent over double on the median strip,
his head nearly touching the curb. I shook his shoulder and he looked
up. “I’m in bad shape,” he said. “Can you
please take me to Sibley? I don’t want to go back to Suburban.”
I drove him to the emergency room of Sibley Hospital.
During the summer of 2006, Ernest was repeatedly treated at three
hospitals in the area. Thanks to Amy, his doctor at the free clinic,
a top-notch gastric specialist at Georgetown University Medical
Center agreed to review his case. Ernest spoke to me in glowing
terms about some of the doctors and nurses who cared for him. He
also described cutting remarks made by E.R. personnel. “I’m
a human being too,” he’d say. I listened and didn’t
tell him how confused I felt about his medical care. He deserved
to be treated with respect, but I wondered about the financial cost
to the hospitals. He didn’t have insurance or even a Social
Security number, needed for Medicaid reimbursement.
In September Ernest left the house with the roaches and the disgruntled
relatives and began living in an R.V. parked in a public lot across
the street from Barnes and Noble. His friend Jimmy stayed there
as well and a young man named Peter. Peter’s father owned
the huge camper. The three men fed the parking meter from 7 in the
morning until 10 at night. It cost them $17 a day.
I didn’t see Ernest on the median strip very often that
fall. Then one afternoon I spotted him on the sidewalk in front
of an upscale deli across from the median strip. He leaned on a
cane. His face looked cavernous. Ernest told me he was forbidden
to go inside the deli. I asked if he would like to go with me in
the car to get something to eat. “I have an appointment with
a social worker at Suburban Hospital,” he replied. “Maybe
we could get a bite first. I know a great place on the way.”
We drove to a tiny Mexican take-out restaurant on a residential
side street in Bethesda. Ernest was very excited. “You won’t
believe this place,” he told me. “It’s a family
business. They go all out.”
Each item on the menu was written on a paper plate tacked to the
wall behind the cash register. I studied the two dozen plates and
decided, in the end, to order what Ernest recommended: the meat
taco special. “Darling, could you give me extra hot sauce?”
he asked a woman he knew who was dishing up food. I paid and carried
his plate – heaped with beans, rice, and three tacos –
outside to one of the picnic tables. Ernest limped behind me, leaning
on his cane. I went back for my own plate and sat down across from
him. Businessmen in suits surrounded us, laughing and talking.
Ernest doused the huge mound of steaming food with hot sauce and
added four packs of sugar to his iced tea. The food was good. He
teased me for polishing off everything on my plate before he was
finished. “Some girls your size eat like birds,” he
said. “Barbara, you sure know how to put it away.” Ernest’s
boyish pleasure in our lunch together made me happy. For an hour
he was not a bum in dirty clothes – the way most people viewed
him. He was a normal guy eating lunch with a friend on a beautiful
fall afternoon. After our meal, I drove him to Suburban Hospital.
I considered going in with him to talk to the social worker, but
opted instead for going home and taking a nap.
I didn’t see Ernest for more than a month. Then he telephoned
from Suburban Hospital and asked if I could come and get him. He
sat in a wheelchair and wore a strange getup: his favorite green
wool ski hat, a hooded windbreaker, and drawstring pants made out
of blue paper. Underneath the flimsy pants issued by the hospital,
he wore blue jeans. I wondered if he was wearing two pairs of pants
for warmth. Ernest showed me a three-sided walker the hospital had
given him. A nurse pushed his wheelchair to my car, and I carried
the walker. He wanted me to take him to an underground parking lot
next to a pharmacy across from the strip.
We got out of the car. It was cold. He could barely walk, even
with the walker. I carried his two plastic bags filled with clothes.
We reached the garage and entered a dark, damp stairwell. Gripping
the railing, he pulled himself down step by step. I followed. At
the bottom Ernest headed toward two rusted Dumpsters. Behind them
on the ground lay a wooden palette. He stashed his bags and said
he wanted to go back upstairs to the pharmacy to buy a marker and
poster board for making a sign. He wanted to go to the median strip.
“Oh Ernest,” I said. “I could have brought you
a sign.” I spotted some cardboard sticking out of one of the
Dumpsters. I pulled it out and tore it into a square. “How’s
this?” I asked, sick at heart. Together we went up out of
that dark garage and into the light.
At 6:30 a.m. I drove back to the parking garage with Ernest’s
warmest jacket, which I had washed. I walked down the concrete stairs
in the dim stairwell. No cars were parked on the lowest level. I
hurried over to the corner with the huge dumpsters. Blankets covered
a body lying on the palette. “Ernest, it’s me,”
I whispered. An old man with shoulder-length white hair sat up.
I jumped out of my skin. “I thought you were Ernest Wood,”
I said at last.
“Ernie’s not here,” he replied. “His things
are over there.” He pointed to the plastic bags in the corner
and lay back down. I squeezed his coat in a bag, scribbled a note
– “Property of Ernest Wood. Don’t take.”
– and fled.
Ernest telephoned from Suburban Hospital a week later. He sounded
groggy. He had just had surgery. He told me he fell in the Bethesda
Metro Station and broke his hip. “I had my new walker, Barbara,”
he said. “I don’t know what made me fall.”
Bryan and I visited him twice. He was always overjoyed to see
us. His only other visitor in the hospital was his friend Peter’s
father. Peter, we learned, was in a detox facility. Jimmy was in
jail. On our second visit Ernest told us something astonishing.
“You know the social worker I saw the day we had the Mexican
lunch? She found out I am really James Fitzgerald Jr.”
Ernest knew he was born in Hawaii. He told the social worker the
date of his birth and his mother’s name. She tracked down
his birth certificate. Ernest had not known that his stepfather,
James Fitzgerald, adopted him. Ernest told us that he had been abused.
He didn’t want to talk about his childhood or his years in
foster care. I recalled what he had said the day we met about “horror
“Keep calling me Ernest,” he told us. “Just
remember. The hospital has me listed under the other name.”
Bryan and I said goodbye. I gave him a wooden figurine two inches
high. A little angel. “Do you think when you come next time
you could bring me some Good & Plenties?” he asked. I
promised I would.
Ernest fell in his hospital room and broke his other hip. On May
31, 2007, Bryan and I visited him. Ernest thanked us for coming
and for bringing the Good & Plenties. He was sitting up and
eating his dinner. The angel I had given him was attached at eye
level to the gurney by his bed. He had wrapped it on with packing
tape. “Give me a hug,” he said before we left.
The next week I bought Ernest sweat pants and a warm pullover
because he said the hospital had lost some of his clothes. On June
19 I went to the hospital with my purchases. His room was empty.
A nurse told me he had died on June 12. She refused to tell me what
happened. My tears didn’t change the privacy rules. “All
I can say, miss. We were like family to him. When he lost interest
in food, we knew he was going. He always cared so about his food.”
Bryan and I broke up a large cardboard box. We outlined a square
with black magic marker. I wrote in block letters:
August 14, 1958 – June 12, 2007
Bryan added R.I.P. at the top of the sign. At the bottom I taped
on a photograph of yellow flowers. I walked down the street. With
wire I attached to the yield street sign in the middle of Ernest’s
median strip our meager cardboard tribute. Two days later it was
Barbara Risk de Boinville '74 lives in Bethesda, Md., with her
husband and two children. She works for A Wider Circle, a nonprofit organization
that provides furniture and household goods for the poor.