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A Little Bit of Heart in a Cruel World


His home was 50 yards of cracked sidewalk.

For 12 years, Tim trod the same 100 steps on Santa Monica Boulevard, back and forth, back and forth, all night long. With his amorphous brown beard, matted hair, and clothing rumpled as elephant hide, he looked like Rip Van Winkle, sleepwalking.

Tim's living room was a 5-foot-wide alcove outside a never-used side door to an Italian restaurant in West L.A. There he would scrunch, on polished beige bricks lit by a single globe light, just below printed white letters proclaiming the jolly Italian word for ice cream, "Gelati." Sometimes he would allow himself to doze to the lullaby whoosh of passing traffic, under the unseeing eyes of a tall replica of Michelangelo's "David" behind the restaurant window. The scene looked like a Robert Frank photograph, or maybe a panel from "Doonesbury." Man at his most, and least.

No one knew much about Tim or why he chose that stretch of boulevard. He was in his 40s, taciturn, and he liked cigarettes. He never mixed with other lost souls lumped under that politically correct euphemism, "the homeless." The cops say he was intelligent--that is, when he was coherent. He seemed to alternate from being sharply focused to being . . . adrift. Sometimes he would stare at the sky and have conversations, presumably one way, with God.

Tim deliberately paced that sidewalk all night because he was sick of being beaten up and robbed. He took his rest during the day, under a particularly shady tree near the palm-lined grounds of the Veterans Administration in Westwood. "He was very unusual for a homeless person," said Los Angeles Police Officer Phillip Enbody, who knows most of the wayward souls on his patrol, "in that he changed his sleeping pattern just to protect himself."

Tim was unusual, perhaps remarkable, in other respects. He never panhandled, never took drugs, always tried to stay out of the way of the passersby who regarded him with the usual gamut of attitudes: disgust, hostility, avoidance, calculated obliviousness, charity. Sometimes, well-intentioned diners on their way out of the Italian place would give him Styrofoam containers full of half-eaten pastas, salads, tiramisu. . . .


The owner of the restaurant--call him Franco--would occasionally storm outside and declare, "You don't have to eat their leftovers. You have your dignity." Tim, smitten with realization, would fling the stuff into the trash. Franco would then put together a fresh dinner for him, muttering things like, "People try to be nice, but Tim is not a dog."

From time to time, a few diners protested to Franco about the "creep" hanging around outside, but the restaurateur's response was always the same: "The sidewalk, I think, belongs to everybody." Some customers shouted that they would never return, eliciting little more than an "OK" and a shrug, from the burly, 60-ish Italian immigrant.

Bit by bit, Franco and Officer Enbody were able to glean a few vague facts about Tim. He seems to have gone to University High School. Whatever initially upset his life had to do with his father, and the San Fernando Valley. ("When you bring that up," Enbody said, "he goes right over the edge. It's like a switch.") He knew a hell of a lot about motorcycles, and sometimes enthused about the relative strengths of the Italian M.V. Augusta and the La Verde in short, gruff conversations with Franco.

Once, in the early days, Franco got it into his head to give Tim a job. "The man is no bum, and he's not stupid," he would say. "He just needs help." Thinking that washing dishes might turn Tim around, Franco offered a deal: Clean yourself up and you can work here. Off came the Van Winkle beard, on went new clothes donated by a thrift shop, and a shiny new Tim reported for duty. "But some people told me," Franco explained, sadly, "that if he did something to upset a customer, I would be sued, I could not take a chance. What a world." The beard grew back.

As the years passed, the restaurateur and the homeless man developed a kind of push-and-pull of compassion and prideful resistance, with a touch of Abbott and Costello. Franco would offer Tim a menthol cigarette, and Tim would respond, "That's all you have?" Franco would laugh.

When Tim grew cantankerous, Franco would tell him to move on until he calmed down. In response, Tim would throw food at Franco and leave, only to have Franco go out and search for him, to make sure he was OK. When it rained, Franco went to Tim's spot and covered the scruffy man with plastic to keep him dry. "I hate plastic!" was Tim's customary comment.

Franco offered Tim a pair of black leather tennis shoes. Tim said they weren't his style--didn't he have something in white? (He did.) Tim told Franco things like, "This is my restaurant--I'm your boss, you know," and Franco would smile and say, "OK Tim, when are you going to pay me?"

Franco offered Tim a couple bucks to play the lottery. Tim replied, in a principled tone, "I don't believe in the lottery."

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