To some of his many friends who knew him when he was a regular at St. Vincent's Center on Skid Row, he is "Eugene the puzzle man." For years he was a daily fixture, seated before his current jigsaw, working it rapidly with his good arm, his paralyzed left arm crossing his chest, tucked inside his shirt. Those were the years when he was sleeping in Elysian Park and walking downtown to panhandle and eat.
Those who know Eugene Fejnas (he's Eugene to everyone) even slightly, however, know the puzzles are just a hobby. His passion is the Dodgers.
The Dodgers are such a passion for him that even now that he has cancer, an inoperable tumor in his abdomen that has caused him to drop 100 pounds in the past few months, leaving the tall, stooped man at 130 pounds, he will still put his Dodger cap on and make it to a game if someone comes up with a ride and a ticket.
For the past nine years, he has been a guest of the Catholic Worker community, living at Zedakah House over their soup kitchen on Gladys Street. The puzzles moved with him. Until recently, however, he remained a regular at St. Vincent's, helping serve coffee and doughnuts to the men every morning.
Recently, when he got out of the hospital and decided to forgo any chemotherapy, the Catholic Workers persuaded him to move into their main house in Boyle Heights where he would have better care and more company. He sent dozens of his jigsaws to the Downtown Women's Center, retaining just a few, which sit untouched in a closed cabinet in his room. He is weak and can't eat. He can't even eat that many Eskimo pies, he complained to his friend, Catherine Morris of the community. She had brought him his own private carton of them.
But the Dodgers remain another story. For that reason, not only did some of his friends arrange to take him to a game last week, they arranged a surprise: He would meet Tommy Lasorda.
The Dodgers would beat the Cardinals that night, 8 to 2, but things had not been too good of late, the Dodgers being "in the cellar" as Eugene put it. Lasorda's name came up in the car as he voiced the frustrations of a knowledgeable fan.
Once at the stadium, however, seated near the edge of the field, it was "Eugene" and "Tommy" from the start, just two Dodger fans pulling for the team, one of them a little in awe, saying, "Tommy, I just can't believe this."
Tommy and Eugene spent a good 15 minutes together, seated side by side, chatting casually while they looked out at the warm-ups, remembering a few games and plays.
Eugene told him about the cancer, and the years in Elysian Park, more as an introduction than any exercise in self-pity, and Lasorda took it in that spirit, saying, "Eugene, you've got that good hat (the Dodger cap). Wear it in good health and pride."
"It's none of my business, Tommy, but do you mind my asking how old you are?"
"I'm just a little bit older. I'm 64."
The two men, it turned out, share something of the same philosophy. They agreed on the importance of laughter and friendship in life, on the necessity of looking on the bright side.
It was time for Lasorda to go to the dugout, and when they shook hands, Lasorda said, referring to Eugene's friends who had brought him, "Eugene, you and I both know no matter what, people do care. There are people out there who really do care."
Eugene couldn't have agreed more.
While they had been chatting, Lasorda had written on a baseball for him: "To Eugene. You and the Dodgers are both great. Your friend, Tom Lasorda."
'I Just Can't Believe It'
"They're gonna have to kill me to get that ball away from me," Eugene told Lasorda when they parted.
Later, as he headed out of the stadium, he tossed the ball slowly in his hand, looking down at it, repeating his disbelief: "I just can't believe it. A man who slept in a park for 15 years gets to meet Tommy Lasorda."
The man who slept in a park for 15 years was born in Milwaukee in 1921, the only son of Polish immigrants.
He told his story the day after the game, fully clothed but stretched out on his bed in the cheerful room the Catholic Workers has fixed for him. The autographed baseball was on the nightstand.
He took a circuitous route with his story, separating the anecdotes with "I'll tell you something else," relating mostly tales of kindness or cruelty done to him.
Both his parents had heart trouble, he said, so most of the time they lived "on what they now call welfare." From time to time his father worked for a federal agency, the WPA, supervising road crews. His memory is vague about his schooling. He can write his name and that's all, he said.
They were a close family, the three of them. Eugene later attributed his good manners and geniality--despite a lifetime of living in an often hostile and dangerous environment--to his parents.
"My mom and dad always said 'good morning' to anybody no matter what color their skin was."