Web Exclusives: PawPlus

October 24, 2007:

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 day.

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 strip.

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 Ernest Wood.

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 stories.”

“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:

Ernest Wood

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 gone. END

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.