The Rip Post


by Rip Rense

(Originally published in the Los Angeles Times.)
         His home was fifty yards of cracked sidewalk.
         For twelve years, Tim trod the same one hundred 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, sleep-walking.
         Tim's living room was a five-foot wide alcove outside a never-used side door to an Italian restaurant. 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 lullabye 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 late 40s, taciturn, and he liked cigarettes. He never mixed with the 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 long 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 a LAPD 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 passers-by 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 left- overs---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 "okay," 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," said Enbody "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 local 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 & 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 the Franco and leave, only to have Franco go out an search for him, to make sure he was okay. Tim would ask to borrow a brush and a bucket from Franco in order to scrub his "home," the little brick alcove. 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, "okay, 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."
         "And one thing that's incredible," said Franco. "Absolutely incredible! Sometimes when I sit outside, smoking a cigar, and I'm penaroso ---not happy, thoughtful, Tim would come up to me, touch my shoulder, and say, 'Hey, what's wrong? What happened to you?'"
         Recently, there had been disturbing changes in Tim. He started drinking beer, which made him surly and unmanageable, and caused Franco to periodically ban him from the premises. Last fall, Tim took to clamping a teddy bear around his neck. Constantly. Maybe it kept him warm, or maybe he just liked being hugged all the time. In any case, he seemed to love the bear they way a little boy does. When police responded to occasional loitering complaints about the tattered man, the surest way to inspire cooperation was to threaten to take that bear away.
         Three months ago, Tim disappeared.
         Franco searched everywhere---under the tree at the V.A., in alleys, inside dumpsters. He checked with other businesspeople, phoned the police. Enbody had no information. One afternoon, Franco's heart raced as he fished a grimy teddy bear from the gutter; it turned out to be the wrong color. As the weeks passed, the restaurateur came to an inevitable conclusion:
         "Maybe his relatives take him, and try to get him some medicine, but I think probably Tim is dead."
         The restaurant, he said, with a touch of confusion, felt curiously naked; Michaelangelo's unseeing David now looked out on to the empty bricks of Tim's "living room," and the cracked sidewalk where no one paced the nights away. Only Franco seemed to notice the change, though---and one customer, who blurted over a cocktail, "Hey, that piece of ---- is gone!"
         Enbody finally discovered the truth. Tim had been arrested for assault with a deadly weapon. The details were sketchy. He'd been in a store, and had hit a clerk with an object---possibly a bottle. Maybe the clerk had called Tim a "piece of ---," or tried to physically eject him. Maybe he yanked on Tim's teddy bear. Or maybe the clerk did nothing at all, and Tim was drunk and bellicose, or simply flipped-out. Twelve years of insomniac nights on a sidewalk would pretty well flip anybody out. Tim, Enbody said, would likely serve a few months of a year sentence in L.A. County Jail. Never mind that he could use some psychological care.
         Told of Tim's arrest, Franco stood outside his restaurant one balmy afternoon, eyeing the blue sky and puffy clouds. He took a drag on a cigar, surveyed the area where Tim had "lived" for so many years, and almost smiled.
         "Well, it's good news," he said quietly. "Tim is alive."


2002 Rip Rense. All rights reserved.