The Taste of Dirt

Parts of this article were originally published in folioweekly (Jan. 26, 2010) entitled “The Corner”

Finding homeless people requires little more effort than driving down the road and knowing the usual intersections where you find them working; however, my first day in searching for a homeless man or woman turned up nothing but vacant intersections.

Clouds filled the sky as far as the eye could see, and the rain, showing no signs of slowing, seemed persistent in closing business for the homeless for the day. Their job, which is thankfully tax-free, involves nothing more than a sign and some patience, but as I learned, is still held in check by rainy weather.

Homelessness is a true underground culture, one that the majority of Americans only see from the outside, like tourists at a marine aquarium; their faces pressed against the glass, questions popping in everyone’s heads about survival and desires, the seemingly and perhaps cutthroat nature of a people without rules or protocol. Or maybe not at all.

Eventually, the light turns green and we drive away, passing other exhibits on the way to our office or home, usually leaving our memories of the homeless person at their work site.

The face, the clothes, the sign held by a homeless man evokes various responses in all of us; oftentimes, disgust and dislike for what we may see as a lazy, drunk, or just plain disheveled human being; while other times, we may feel sympathy for a man or woman without food, shelter, or healthcare. We offer a few dollars and hope it is used wisely, and not for drugs or alcohol, vices we often pair with the face of homelessness.

When walking past a homeless person on the street, or stopped at a red light where a homeless person flies their sign, a term I learned recently meaning to hold your sign out to the public in hopes of receiving a monetary donation, I always wonder how much of what we believe is assumption and myth. Are the homeless cutthroat and not to be trusted? Or is that just the blurted out stereotype from the person in my passenger seat? Are they really hopeless and helpless, deserving of our charity? Or is that just another stereotype muttered from the person in my backseat? I don’t know. I’ve never been in their position.

I found a homeless man named Dennis Hartman flying his sign on San Marco Ave. in St. Augustine in front of a park and landmark carousel just down the street from the Vilano Bridge. The intersection that Dennis worked had a traffic light that condensed traffic into one spot that made him unable to be missed, a strategic location by any business man’s standards. If you drive by this T-shaped intersection, you will see Dennis. A white beard, stained yellow; two coats on with the second layer being a black and yellow plaid coat. Even in a hot Florida December, he wore two, long-sleeved coats. He wore blue jeans, black sneakers and a black, cotton cap that snugged tightly against his head, resting just on the top of his ears.

I approached Dennis, who is 50 years old, while he held his sign. His sign was made on a small, square, folded up piece of cardboard with a hole in it, flimsy and frail from water damage. It read: “Out of work homeless veteran (God Bless America).” He lives under Vilano Beach Bridge, but calls it Hospital Bridge. “I don’t know why they call it that. There’s no hospital there.”

When he’s not flying his sign, he spends his time in the nearby library reading Antiques, Time, Newsweek, and Scientific American. “I go in there and read all the time…believe me, I’m well read.”

In front of the J&S Carousel, with its red and white roof and gallery of revolving horses, Dennis and I spoke while sitting on top of the old rock wall while parents stood watching their children. Christmas music played in the loud speakers, loud enough to understand the messages and lyrics of Christmas cheer and glee. Children not on the carousel slid down slides and swung on swings, their laughter enough to turn any atmosphere positive.

Now, we are all provided at least one bad Christmas in a lifetime, but I immediately wondered how the Christmas music being played in the background would affect Dennis’ attitude and paradigm. Can a person withstand one more year of a homeless Christmas? Days before Christmas, I’m stressed due to my own financial constraints, but I’m not homeless. And I’m not asking for money on a street corner. Certainly, there is some wisdom to be found here.

Dennis spoke politely and acted unassuming. His eye contact with me suggested openness and honesty. It would be hard to believe he has any enemies, or ever has had any enemies, besides of course, circumstance. But even he didn’t seem to be angry at his circumstances, just willing to work with them. I asked him the questions I had always wanted to ask any homeless person I walked or drove past.

How many years have you been homeless?

“God, since, 1999.”

What was the last job you had?

“I use to own my own business. I owned a mechanic shop.”

What happened to the mechanic shop?

“Divorce is nasty. The only one who wins in that is the attorneys. She got everything. Pretty much.”

Are you originally from St. Augustine?

“No. I’m originally from Pennsylvania. Then I did ten years in the marine corps, lived in California for 23 years, rode a bicycle out here from there.”

You rode a bicycle here from California?

“Yeah.”

That’s pretty impressive

“No, it was fun.”

Do you think divorce is the main reason that you’re homeless?

“Oh, yeah. Well, actually, when I rode my bicycle out here, I had seven thousand dollars on me. That’s all I had left. And then, I came down here and I took a trip around the south, and I still had two thousand dollars on me. I was on my bicycle. I was in the Cherokee National Forest up in Tennessee. My bike got stolen. It’s silly me. I left my wallet and everything on the bike when I went to check out the white water. I had to hitchhike back down here. I had nothin’.”

Can you tell me what your worst experience has been being homeless?

“Worst experience? Every now and then I use to live under another bridge. The rats would jump on you, but other than that, I have no bad experiences. One thing about this town is that you cannot possibly starve. The people here are real good. Sometimes it takes more time than others to make a little money, but they’re real good out here.”

Have you accepted yourself as being homeless or do you have hope for the future to reestablish yourself?

“Well, the economy has got to turn around, ‘cause I’ll tell you what. You can sit down there at the labor hall with forty people lookin’ for two jobs. You know, a lot of people don’t want to hire the homeless anyway. So, once the economy turns around, it’ll be good. Yeah, I’ll go back to work. I’ve got no problem workin’.”

Do you still have a family that you speak with or any connection to your past?

“No,” he said, without going into details or offering any clarification.

What opportunities are available to you as far as shelters or anything else designed to assist you?

“The only thing I’ve seen is the St. Francis House. You’ve got about two thousand people in this town, or in this county, that are homeless, and they’ve got a shelter that holds 28 people. So, what are you gonna do? I mean, you can go down there and eat, but you’ve got to find a place to sleep.”

Do you see a division between the homeless and the non-homeless?

“Let me tell you this way. At one time, I was halfway to being a millionaire. Money doesn’t mean nothing to me anymore. I mean, it’s a nice thing to have, but it doesn’t really mean that much to me. I’ve been there, done that. Right now, I scrape by, whatever I can get, but it’s like, you know what? These people out here are real good to us. So, I can’t complain at all. I even go talk to the guy who operates the carousel. I go out there once in a while, give him a couple bucks, and say, ‘Let the next couple kids right free,’ these people have been good to me out here. Treat them right. Kids are our future.”

There is a common belief that a lot of homeless people are drunk or on drugs. Do you see a lot of that?

“Yeah, there are. I don’t want to be drivin’ around the people downtown. They’re pissin’ in the bushes, urinating in the bushes. You know, stuff like that. I don’t want to be around that. Half the people that eat at St. Francis House aren’t even homeless. There’s a lot of people out here that try to play like they’re homeless, and they’re not even homeless.”

Dennis took a dirty, stained white wash cloth from his inside coat pocket, blew his nose, put it back, then continued.

“There’s a lot of us out here that are.”

Are you here often?

“I’m here almost every day. I make my ten, twelve dollars. I’m good for the day. If I don’t show up at Subway, they’ll put my picture on a milk carton.” He laughed to himself, knowing his joke was based on a sort of truth. I couldn’t help but laugh with him.

Is there any claimed territory among homeless people? Is this considered your spot?

“This is pretty much my spot. I got another guy down here who wants to fly it now, but we share it.”

How many hours do you spend a day out here on average?

“Depends whether you have a good day or a bad day. On a bad day, I’ll be out here for eight, ten hours; good day, I’ll be out of here by noon. All it takes is that one car. I get my laundry money, a little something to eat, and I’m good for the day.”

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

“No, I think you’ve pretty much covered it.”

As I was preparing to leave, another man was crossing the street to the opposite intersection. The man he said that wants to fly his spot. His clothes looked fresh, his hair was well groomed, and he walked with a cane, but this other man didn’t look homeless. He looked like he should be greeting people downtown, using his big, contagious smile to ask tourists if they need directions. Either this guy is homeless and has a really good sign to hold, or he has a comfortable life and no shame in flying a sign.

“He’s coming to fly the other corner,” Dennis said, as we watched the man unconvincingly use his cane to walk down the sidewalk, a smile on his face built for an election. “He’s going to fly his sign. He just came out of the blue the other day. Then, he started laying down the rules, what’s it’s gonna be like here: 30 minutes on. I’m like, ‘Dude, it’s not gonna be like that.’It’s not territorial. I do share this corner with people, but this guy comes out of nowhere and says how it’s gonna be. I’m like, ‘Dude, you don’t understand, this is not how it works. I don’t know what town you’re from, where you came from, but it doesn’t work that way. It’s not gonna be your rules,’” and then he paused.

“I don’t mean to vent at you,” he told me, apologetically.

No worries. I’ll be seeing you soon, I’m sure. Dennis stood up from stone wall we were sitting on.

“Ok. I’m gonna fly this, get a couple more dollars, then I’m good for the day.”

Now, sometimes I have felt so poor that I could have sworn I could taste dirt in my mouth, but this man knew dirt. And he was happy and content with himself despite that dirt. Quite honestly, I was very surprised that someone in his position could be so appreciative of what he had. Many of the people I know who are more affluent than he is are not as with-it and well thought out as he is, let alone so content.

I stood up to walk away and Dennis walked closer to the road, just off the sidewalk, where he would be more visible to stopped traffic. He unfolded his sign, and held it up. I’m sure he made enough money to do what he needed to do. When I drove by just a minute later, he was gone, the children still playing in the playground, the Christmas music still pouring out of the carousel speakers. Everyone will be back tomorrow.

3 thoughts on “The Taste of Dirt

  1. I was stationed with Dennis Hartman between 1980 and 1984 at Marine Corps Air Station New River where we were both Air Traffic Controllers, Dennis had laterelled over from being a ground-pounder radio operator to Air Traffic Control. Denny was a good guy, and it sounds like he is the same man I knew back then.

  2. I live in Tallahassee, FL and have had the chance to meet Dennis Hartman on two occasions. The first was at the local shelter when my husband and I were volunteering – he was brought in with drenched clothing and frostbite – we got him showered, new clothes (while cleaning his old ones), warm meal, etc. The second time was today (three months later) – I was so glad to see him by chance. Amazingly, he remembered me and my husband was grateful for the opportunity to thank us again – I was more interested in knowing how he was doing. On both occasions it was evident that he has a warm heart and feels content and blessed for what he does have. He looks after others and has hope for the future. We spoke for about 20 minutes today and he said many of the same things that he shared with you, Phil. Thank you for sharing his story.

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