Not Dying Alone
Homeless but not friendless in south Eugene
BY ROBERT HERMANN
“I’ve got some bad news.”
I waited an interminable moment for my wife Jamie’s next words. “Walt died.” My heart sank. He wasn’t a family member or close friend. In fact, Walter Reid was a homeless fellow who often slept in front of Black Sun Books, right next to Allann Bros. Coffee in South Eugene. I’d gotten to know him when I stopped by a few times a week for coffee before I took my two dogs for their morning walk.
|Walter Reid and Osa|
Walt was a stooped 6′ with shaggy brown hair and a beard, and his eyes peered out from underneath a weathered ball cap. His smile was genuine, and the spirit of it wasn’t diminished by the patchwork of missing teeth. He had a bike packed with a diverse assortment of items, a beat-up old sleeping bag and always, by his side, his dog, Osa. Osa was some sort of a mutt, solid and wide, with black matted fur. Like her companion, she had a gentle demeanor. Nonetheless, if you knew dogs, you knew that messing with Walt meant messing with Osa, and that you’d better bring your lunch if you chose that route.
I enjoyed my conversations with Walt. Occasionally I’d offer to buy him a cup of coffee. Sometimes he’d accept, always gratefully. Other times he’d foretell his imminent demise when he’d smile and say, “I’m having a beer instead.” Then he’d tip the can to the morning sun that was barely creeping over the horizon. He became a familiar face in my South Eugene routine.
Jamie marveled at the shrine that someone had set up outside Black Sun Books, at the spot where Walt and Osa used to sleep on the cold cement. Incense wafted around photos of them, creating a church-like atmosphere. There was a book for people to write their final goodbyes in. In another city, Walt might have been just another nameless statistic, another burden not to deal with anymore. Not here. His book was full of farewells. A funeral announcement completed the memorial.
At the last minute, I decided to pay my respects. As I made my way south to Goshen in the gray rain, I imagined a sparsely attended, brief goodbye to someone, who for whatever reasons, hadn’t made the grade in society. A scruffy looking biker-type met me outside with a warm smile when I arrived. Familiar faces from the streets and alleyways of south Eugene gathered in small groups.
Weaving my way inside, I saw the bookstore owner who had allowed Walt to sleep at his store’s doorstep for many months. There was the owner of the local bike shop, who had given Walt the bicycle that meant so much to a man with so little. There was a teacher on his way to his granddaughter’s ballet performance who stopped to pay his respects and a solemn faced barista from Allann Bros. The owner and one of the managers of Sundance Natural Foods arrived with arms full of boxes of fresh produce, chips, salsa and dips. The crowd was diverse, and the modest house was packed as people overflowed into the turbulent weather outside. There were flowers from the local florist and a large box of dog food, supplements and toys for Osa from the Amazon Park Veterinary Clinic, located just around the corner from Walt and Osa’s “home.” In a gesture of benevolent compassion, they offered veterinary services to the ailing Osa for the remainder of her life. Before Walt let go for good, his last wish was that Osa be cared for. That wish was granted by his teary-eyed former wife and her husband.
What had driven Walt to homelessness and eventual liver failure at the age of 52? The puzzle of the demise of this one time vibrant “10 cord a day” wood-chopper fell together in pieces: the break-up with his wife and the mother of his two daughters, the tragic automobile accident which claimed his new love and her children, whom he also grew to love, a longing for space and room to breathe, alcoholism and who knows of the other demons that he may have fought.
Many a captain of industry, celebrity or politician may have drawn a larger number of “mourners” to his or her service, but every single one of us who spilled out of the house, onto the porch and into the driveway really and truly cared for this fallen man.
It was dry when I left for my car. The rain started to fall as I pulled out into the street. A drop or two came from my own eyes. It was bittersweet. I reflected on the passing of a gentle man and an unfulfilled life. Yet, a part of me could not restrain the feeling of pride I had for this community that I had chosen to raise my family in. A community where people from all walks of life stopped what they were doing, and gathered together to celebrate the life of a good man, regardless of his “status.” Period.
May you rest in peace Walt, and know that your time on this earth touched others.