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Homeless and burned to death

Dressed in rags, haunting the street corner -- should I have helped him? Could I have helped him?

October 14, 2008|Charles E. Diaz | Charles E. Diaz teaches English as a second language in the adult division of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

What can be said about a man who died on the day I was born? Can it be said that I knew John Robert McGraham? Well, not by name -- which we only learned after his death -- and certainly not personally. I first laid eyes on him about eight years ago, disguised as a strange lump of dirty clothes, huddled on a bus bench against the wind and rain of a winter's morning in Koreatown.

The story in the newspaper about his death sent my memory backtracking. I can still remember my initial feelings at seeing him wandering about the corner of 6th Street and Catalina Avenue next to the gas station where I routinely filled my tank. Why is he so dirty? Why does he smell so bad? He was shocking to behold. If he wore rags, the word "rags" would be generous. Once, I thought he was wearing black shoes, only to find that he was barefoot, his skin blackened from soot, grime, disease and neglect.

The range of emotions I felt about McGraham were contradictory, painful and sometimes illuminating. Part of me wanted, very badly, to do something. In a radical fantasy, someone -- maybe me? -- would have taken him home for a bath, dressed him in decent shoes, shirt and pants and offered him a meal. Because a human being, any human being, should not have to live like this.

Well, I did not rescue John McGraham. And something tells me he wouldn't have permitted being "rescued." There was a kind of dignity about him that had nothing to do with his acrid smell or tattered clothing or street living. Although his appearance was gross, his behavior was fairly conservative. I hardly ever heard him speak; but when talking to himself, it would be in soft tones and mumbling.

Over the years, I think he attempted to panhandle from me a time or two as I filled my tank at the gas station. Most of the time I refused, and afterward, I always felt as dirty as he looked.

But, once, I did give him money, and he raised his eyes to mine and I looked back. This was the only time I connected with him in the many years I saw him on the streets. His look seemed to say to me, "Yes, there is someone inside here, a human being like you. We're all connected, aren't we? Thank you for looking past the smell and appearance."

On my morning commutes, when passing through the intersection at 6th and Catalina, if I didn't see him on the bus bench (his usual setting), my eyes would dart about searching for him. I'd wonder if he was OK. Then, I might spy him on the other corner. Many times, I'd reflexively say a prayer for him.

Now, I wonder if on future commutes, will my eyes look to the bench where he sat or the corner where he paced in circles? Will he appear again, if just to me?

You can't make me believe that John McGraham is dead.

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