As he sat sipping iced tea at a Denny's in Palm Springs, Les Gapay was the image of an aging newspaperman: distinguished gray-speckled hair, rumpled but still nicely dressed and a weathered face with steely eyes.
Thirty years ago, he wrote front-page stories for the Wall Street Journal, had a family and owned a four-bedroom house on a lake.
Today, Gapay lives out of his Toyota pickup. He eats canned stew for dinner and spends nights looking for a safe, clean place to sleep. He's homeless, and alone.
"I'm at the bottom," Gapay said Friday. "I think that's going to change. I don't expect to be in this situation by the winter."
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday October 03, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 80 words Type of Material: Correction
Homeless writer -- A Sept. 27 article in the California section stated that Les Gapay, a writer and public relations consultant who is homeless, had moved around the country during the 1980s and 1990s, writing for publications such as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Washington Post. He was, in fact, employed by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer from Sept. 2, 1986 to June 3, 1988. Also, Gapay was sipping hot tea during his meal, not iced tea as mentioned in the article.
And he might be right.
Gapay, 59, could soon have a book deal, a job and a home, thanks to a story he wrote for USA Today about his life as a vagabond. He blames his circumstances on the nation's sour economy but, as he tells his story, it becomes clear that his situation is, in part, of his own making.
His story prompted dozens of responses from readers offering money and places to stay. He has been contacted by companies offering work, and a literary agent who wants to sell his life story. He has been interviewed by National Public Radio and Inside Edition.
The USA Today story also provoked the wrath of some other journalists. In Internet chat rooms popular with the media, Gapay has been skewered for refusing to get a "menial" job or manage his money responsibly -- while taking money from friends and relatives and complaining about how tough it is to get unemployment and welfare. Until June 2002, Gapay was living in a $750-a-month Palm Springs apartment, earning a living as a freelance journalist and public relations consultant. He said when the economy went south, and his income dried up, he decided to stretch what little money he had from savings and retirement accounts by living out of his truck. He has maxed out his credit cards, and says he's $25,000 in debt.
A former colleague at the Wall Street Journal said Gapay had a reputation of being a loner and sometimes difficult to work with, and that potential employers may be leery of his gruff personality.
His own nephew called him "difficult," and said he's estranged from almost everyone in the family -- including his two daughters.
Gapay was born in Hungary during World War II, but his parents fled the country when he was 18 months old. They lived five years in West German refugee camps and moved to eastern Montana when he was 7.
He studied journalism at the University of Montana and worked for smaller papers before landing at the Wall Street Journal in 1970. At the Journal, he worked in the New York City and Washington, D.C., offices covering energy and the environment.
"He was a dogged reporter. He grabbed onto a story and kept going," said Richard Rustin, a retired Wall Street Journal reporter and editor who worked with Gapay. "He didn't smile much, but that's not because he was sad. He was just serious."
Gapay resigned from the newspaper in 1977, saying he was "burnt out."
Gapay and his then-wife moved to Bigfork, Mont., where they bought a cherry orchard on Flathead Lake, near Glacier National Park. It was a struggle from the beginning. Rain ruined their first crop; disease infested the 1,000 trees.
"It contributed to our divorce," Gapay said.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Gapay moved around the country, writing for publications such as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Washington Post. He said he churned out annual reports and speeches for top executives at Fortune 500 companies.
In 1990, Gapay visited Hungary to learn about his roots. He said his research revealed that his father, as mayor of the Hungarian town of Nagyvarad during the Nazi occupation, ordered the creation of a Jewish ghetto, where people were held before being deported to the Auschwitz.
"I wanted my father to go to hell," said Gapay, who published stories about his findings in the Washington Post and Jewish Week in New York. "I pray for him now."
After the stories ran, his three brothers refused to speak with him, said Hugh Gapay, Les' 39-year-old nephew.
"There was a huge falling out after that," his nephew said. "The rest of the family just felt there was no way to substantiate it. Their dad had died so many years ago and he wasn't there to defend himself."
Hugh Gapay, a medical intern in Oregon, described his uncle as having a grating personality, and never was shy about speaking his mind, even if it caused a scene.
"At best, he's always been a difficult person, and he's always been abrupt," Hugh Gapay said. "I always thought he was interesting, but I wouldn't say he was fun."
The family has little sympathy for Les Gapay, the nephew said. Most feel that he chose his homeless life and enjoys the freedom.
"He obviously has some gifts and talents, but look what he's chosen to do with them," Hugh said. "This is all his choice. It's not like he's schizophrenic and can't afford his medication."
Gapay's children and ex-wife could not be reached for comment, and he declined to discuss family details, especially his relationship with his children. In the USA Today article, he lamented that they showed little concern for him: "No one wants a homeless person for a father," he wrote.