Ernest Adams, beaten to within an inch of his life in August, was showing off the dents in his head the other day in downtown Los Angeles.
"You feel that?" he asked, directing a visitor's index finger through the peaks and valleys on his skull.
Adams, 56, was allegedly clubbed by two 19-year-old punks who saw a bum-bashing video, grabbed a couple of aluminum baseball bats and went looking for some homeless people to pulverize. Another victim got off with minor injuries, but Adams' skull was so badly crushed, fragments of bone were embedded in his brain, according to the district attorney's office.
"He was on life support," his mother, Nannette Adams, told me from her home in Newark, N.J.
A few weeks ago, I got the news that Adams was up and about after a stint at County-USC Medical Center followed by rehab at Rancho Los Amigos in Downey. I checked with Brady Westwater, a downtown activist, who said he'd seen Adams in his old haunts around Grand Central Market and thereabouts.
In fact, Adams has taken up residence once again in the very location where he was nearly killed. On Wednesday, he was waiting for someone to come by with a shovel so he could plant an 18-inch potted Christmas tree just west of the 3rd Street tunnel.
"I was in that chair when they beat me," he said, but he was asleep when his attackers came, and he has no memory of the pounding he took.
He's gone blind in his left eye since the beating, Adams said. And acquaintances say a speech impediment is much more pronounced since his clubbing, although he's as engaging and charming as ever, schmoozing those who frequent the intersection of 3rd and Flower on their way to and from work and home.
Adams' mother was surprised and distressed to hear that he'd been released from the rehab center several weeks ago and landed right back at the scene of the crime. She was under the impression he would be seeing a psychologist to determine whether he could make decisions on his own, and next thing she knew, he was back on the street.
"I have no idea what kind of condition he's in or how they let him out knowing he had no place to go," she said.
Rancho Los Amigos officials told me that they had arranged for Adams to continue his recovery at a nursing home but that he refused to go.
So what happened next?
Unclear. Adams is a bit foggy on the matter, and his social worker at Rancho has moved on, so the details are sketchy, in part because of confidentiality requirements. But usually, a Rancho employee told me, a patient will be given taxi fare or bus tokens for a trip to a destination of his choice, which sometimes means a shelter on downtown L.A.'s skid row.
Look, I know it isn't easy to solve all the problems of people who don't cooperate fully. My musician pal Nathaniel camps just a block or so away from Adams at the 2nd Street tunnel, increasingly tantalized by offers of help but still beholden to other voices.
But the Adams case seems like yet another example of the lack of coordination between agencies serving the poor, homeless and mentally ill. The cracks are too wide and deep, and the political will for reform is too weak, if a man who suffered a life-threatening head injury less than five months ago can be left to the streets again.
Adams' many acquaintances were happy to see him alive and relieved to discover that his gentle soul had remained intact. But those friends were also disappointed that he was back in the same predicament, with no apparent medical appointments to keep other than one with an eye doctor, and no place to live.
"If I come back here tomorrow to take you somewhere, will you go with me?" Westwater asked Adams.
"Yes I will," said Adams, who said he'd consider a place downtown, but not on skid row. He's said the same thing before, though, and backed out. More than once.
"I was kind of hoping this would be the impetus to get him to make a change and get off the streets," said James Velarde, a downtown resident who comforted Adams through his hospital recovery, kept his mother posted and tried to get Adams into a former motel just west of downtown.
Velarde said he had asked Rancho officials to make him part of a recovery plan for Adams after his release, but he didn't even know Adams was out until he saw him on the street.
Adams' mother told me her first of nine children -- who claims to have been studying for his real estate license before his beating -- is more than welcome to stay with her in Jersey. She's worried sick about him and has been ever since his marriage went bust many years ago and he ended up on the streets, baffling relatives with explanations that never quite squared with reality.
"I feel a kinship with people who can survive outside, because I think that's a kind of ultimate freedom," Mrs. Adams said of the son she calls Ernie Mike.