"Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves." --Rainer Maria Rilke (©julenisse/Fotolia)

Friday, February 01, 2013

Life and Death in the Park Across the Street

I saw a dead man in the park this morning. He was lying on his side in the grass next to his walker and a sack of belongings. A fire truck had just arrived and I saw a few uniformed men prodding him with gloved hands as I approached. A moment or two later, one of the paramedics put his gear back in the truck—no need for resuscitation equipment. It shook me, seeing this person, or the shell of him anyway… alone… dead in the grass between the sidewalk and the street… for how long, I wonder, before someone noticed. Ten yards away, children squealed in the fenced-in playground under the watchful eyes of mommies and nannies.

Dozens of homeless souls spend their days in the park that’s kitty corner from where we live. City ordinance forbids them from staying overnight, although I suspect some of them do anyway, if they can escape the vigilance of the local police. There’s a shelter quite a few blocks away for overnight stays, and some take their chances in the doorways of local retail establishments, although that’s forbidden by ordinance too: “No sitting or sleeping in this doorway between 10 pm and 8 am.” There’s an empty bungalow for sale across the street from the park and I’ve seen folks camped out on its paint-chipped front porch more than once, especially when it rains.

During the day, these neighbors of mine sit in small groups, shaded by tall fig trees. Their lives are packed into dirty suitcases on wheels. Many are disabled enough to use a cane, a walker or even a wheelchair. One woman has a little black cat that she runs around on a leash. A Japanese woman sits cross legged in the grass, rocks back and forth, and has animated conversations with no one in particular. Someone else, I’m not sure who, lines up sticks, palm branches and myriad personal belongings in precise, ladder-like rows. Others feed the squirrels, which makes the mother in me nervous. These people were all someone’s child once… maybe someone’s brother or sister, someone’s spouse, someone’s parent. What the heck happened? I wonder.

This morning several of these park neighbors of mine stood at a respectful distance while the paramedics were there. Many others, beyond the playground and basketball court, may not have heard the news yet. I’m sure it didn’t take long, though. In my imagination, this community in the park has an active grapevine. Later, when I walked the dog, I heard a man say, “I take comfort knowing he’s in a better place now.”

I don’t often engage in conversation with my neighbors in the park, although I will say hello or offer a smile. Sometimes our uber-friendly dog, Bella, will try to jump on someone and I have to apologize. Just last night, though, I did speak to woman. Instead of taking things to the thrift shop, my husband and I decided we would share used clothes with our neighbors. We waited until dark and dropped off a couple of shopping bags outside the public restrooms, thinking we were stealthy, but this woman caught us.

“You no want?” She asked.

“No. They’re for you,” I said. “Or anyone else who wants them. Ladies clothes.”

Christine Emerson Reed Park, Santa Monica CA. February 1, 2013.
An hour and a half after I first crossed the park this morning, I see the poor dead man is still there, although now he’s covered with a plastic sheet and police tape sequesters him, as much as you can be sequestered in a public park, I guess. Apparently, the coroner was in no hurry to get there. Across the way, people have formed a long single-file line. Very orderly. Waiting for something, but for what?

I stop and ask the woman who is first in line, “What’s going on?”

“Hamburgers. McDonald’s,” she tells me. “From the church.”

I am glad they will have at least this meal today. I am impressed later when I walk the dog again that there is not one McDonald’s wrapper on the ground. I think about the dead man I saw this morning on and off throughout the day. And I think about the woman at the front of the line and how happy it makes me that she was wearing my shoes. 


  1. Bill G5:16 PM

    Nice piece. The unwanted hamburger wrappers get thrown away. The unwanted human lies there on the ground.

    1. Thanks, Bill. Interesting, and sad, isn't it, how disposable lives can be.

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  3. Wonderful piece. This inquiry needs to happen more frequently, sadly most homeless are mentally ill. There just aren't the resources and they need help managing daily activities. Nobody should have to live in a park. Thank you Mary, once again a beautiful clip on life and written with such grace. You are absolutely right, every one of these souls are someone's child, brother, father, sister or mother. It is tragic. There is a quote that says you can learn a lot about a person by how they treat animals. I think you can learn a lot about a society by how they treat the least among them.

    1. Jiulia, thank you for your beautiful and thoughtful response.

  4. Marj Moeling10:45 AM

    Such a good story, Mary. Reality TV comes to blogs. LOVE!

  5. A very heart touching post. It is written so well about the dead man and wrappers. Life is something which is losing value day by day. I loved your post and I was moved by it. Thank you


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