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Voice That Gave Words to Derelicts' Plight Is Stilled by Another's Rage in a Place Without Hope

April 03, 1986|GEORGE STEIN

The last time I saw Bert alive, I was sailing down Hawthorne Boulevard last week on a reporter's errand--a candidate interview, a campaign finance report, a council agenda, I forget just what.

Bert was hunched over on "his" bus stop bench, the one at 147th Street and Hawthorne where he usually sat, ignoring the river of traffic rushing past him. His diminutive figure and trademark baseball cap and book in his lap made him recognizable at once.

He had been drinking, that was clear. Wine--to judge by a whiff of it--was on his breath. And he had been hitting it hard. His eyes were rheumier than usual. He had allowed his beard to grow a week. His weathered face was slack.

But he still recognized me with a smile.

Four weeks earlier, I had spent a day with him as he introduced me to life on the street. It was for a companion piece--a human-interest feature--to an examination of the controversy surrounding the homeless and Lawndale's soup kitchen, the House of Yahweh.

Bert Gonzalez was to be the man who gave a face to the thousands of homeless roaming the streets and alleys of the South Bay. He knew what I needed--he had been a reporter for a brief stint in the mid-1950s, working for the Los Angeles Examiner. He thought the story was important and he took his role as interpreter and exemplar with great seriousness. He had been on the street since he lost his job about two years ago, partly because of alcoholism.

Bert showed me the Burger King that puts out a sack of leftovers, the hiding places that provided shelter from the wind and rain, the motel where he could use the bathroom. He also took me by a place to avoid--the loading dock behind Boys Market where the mean drunks hang out, the ones who have given up completely, all self-respect gone.

"Behind Boys Market, that is a different crowd, the drinking crowd. They are street people by choice, not circumstance," he said.

We ate lunch at the House of Yahweh. I wrinkled my nose at the unpalatable mixture--some sort of fish, maybe mackerel, done up in a noodle casserole. It tastes better, he explained kindly to this regularly fed reporter, when it is your only meal of the day.

But more important than the physical tricks of survival, Bert talked about his interior life, what it feels like to be an outcast:

"When I was making money, people would come up and ask, 'Sir, could you spare 50 cents?' I would look at them with disgust. 'Yeah, sure,' I would say, but I would walk on thinking, 'Poor guy.'

"I was complacent. I was king of the road. Now I'm on the other side, and I'm not sorry. I'm sorry I waited this long for the man upstairs to sock me in the butt.

"Now that I see the other side of the street, I see how important a buck can be to a guy. And some of them don't need the buck so much as they need a little understanding."

Bert struggled to maintain dignity.

"I do not consider myself a bum, just temporarily down," he said.

"I have a sister who has money, but I'll be damned if I go to her and ask for money."

He had a gentle sense of humor.

"What do street people miss most?" he pondered. "There is no one thing. Everyone has something.

"Now in my case," he said, pausing for comic effect, "I miss my VCR."

Once he had a family. His wife and son live in Aurora, Colo., with family. He last tried to contact her about six months ago.

Bert lied to himself about getting off the street.

"I'm on top of a realization that I have got to get out," he said.

I wanted to believe that, but I couldn't quite forget the flashes of candor that bespoke unkept resolutions, sworn for the sake of the listener more than the swearer.

So, doubting, I put that statement at the end of the story--as much to convince myself that Bert might make it as to end a bleak story on a positive note.

I came by Bert's bench on March 3, the Monday after the story ran, and took him out for a hamburger lunch. Bert hadn't seen the story, but others told him it made him look bad. I told him the intent was not to make him look good or bad, but to show a true portrait. I promised to send him a copy.

He forgave me in advance, but he wondered aloud, "Why did you pick me?"

Because he was articulate, because he had insight, because his comments, if better informed, were nevertheless representative of other homeless I had interviewed. He appeared satisfied with that.

It was obvious that he had been drinking heavily over the weekend.

I saw him occasionally after that as I shuttled up and down Hawthorne Boulevard, but I didn't stop again until last week, just to say hello. We chatted a few minutes and then I had to go. He looked hurt that I didn't have more time, but then his smile came back and we said goodby.

Sunday morning, pulling weekend duty at the downtown office, I was reading the City News Service wire.

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