A Cowboy, A Van, & A Dream Of A Final Journey
SACRAMENTO, Calif.--In the darkness of the car, I could barely see Michael, but I knew he was crying. I was, too.
“It’s too much,” he said.
I’m not sure why it was Juan Rodriguez’s story that pushed us over. We’d been invited into the wreckage of lives more lost, more desperate, more in need of help. Just a few days earlier, we had met a couple who had lost almost everything in the past year – the car, the boat, the house, the cell phones, the dogs. Their teenage son wouldn’t even talk about it. The 17-year-old stood outside the front door while Michael and I visited his family’s sparsely decorated apartment; the teen agreed to come inside only after we promised not to ask how his life had changed.
On this trip through America's recession, we have met fathers who have admitted feeling powerless and mothers who have lost their homes and, as a result, their children. We’ve seen desperation and determination.
So, I’m not sure why it was Juan Rodriguez's story that finally nudged Michael and me to a point that surprised both of us.
Maybe it’s because what he wanted was so simple: “I want to die where I was born,” he told us.
It was after 10 p.m. and we were on our way to meet a homeless man who had agreed to take us into a wooded area where he and others had set up camp. Many of Sacramento's homeless – a population that has grown markedly in a region hit hard by foreclosures – have joined with advocates in recent months to rally for a city-sanctioned outdoor space where they might set up camp. A tent city that was home to more than 150 people was dismantled by city officials after it was featured on Oprah Winfrey's TV show in February.
Michael and I were just about to see where some of those displaced men and women had gone, just about to follow our homeless guide toward tarps hidden from the view of law enforcement officials, when we saw Juan.
He was a cowboy in a white hat standing next to a van that had stopped dead. His face looked younger than his 75 years, but the skin on his arms was paper-thin and covered in bruises and cuts. He limped toward us, using a cane to compensate for a broken leg, and asked if we could give him a ride to a gas station about a mile or so away.
We agreed, thinking it would take five minutes. We ended up spending the next hour with him, listening to his story and seeing Sacramento’s hard times through his eyes.
The bruises and cuts, he said, were from fixing up his 1971 Dodge Commander motor home, which he needed to get to San Antonio. He had left there when he was 12 years old after a fight with his father, but said now that he has terminal cancer, he doesn't want to die anywhere else.
“I want to go back to where people are people,” he said.
“Around here, in Sacramento, two people are going to be fighting for the same sandwich, the same piece of bread.”
We were standing near a gas pump talking when a woman approached and asked for $5 to buy gas.
“That’s how people live,” Juan said. “That’s how people survive. You can see for yourself that people are out there begging. I think I would rather steal than beg. I’ve worked two jobs my whole life. But I will not beg out there. No way in hell.”
“I’m glad I’m on my way out. After a while, you get tired of living.”
Almost all of the money he had earned last month had gone toward buying parts for the motor home, including a fuel pump that cost about $700 and required him to drive more than 30 miles to pick up. On the day we met him, he had done some mechanic work for a friend, hoping to make a few dollars, but learned only after doing the work that the man didn’t have the money to pay him. To top it off, when he finished, his own van wouldn’t start. He was hoping, but wasn’t certain, that it was just out of gas.
“Never in my life have I been this down, and that’s barely looking over the water,” Juan said. A partially smoked cigarette dangled behind his ear. “Life’s only 10 percent what you make it. It’s 90 percent how you take it.”
All around him, he said, he’s noticed more people on the streets--men, women and children who are looked down upon “like rats.” As we drove back to his van, we passed a woman slumped under an underpass with all her belongings and a man pushing a stroller even though it was too late and in an area too remote for an evening walk. Just yards from the van, we saw about a half dozen people slip into the woods.
“People are always afraid of death," Juan said. "I'm different. I’m afraid of life.”
He said he plans to leave the area in a couple of weeks and hopes that between the van and the motor home, some vehicle will get him to San Antonio. He has no family there anymore, just memories. If one vehicle dies, he said, he'll leave it on the side of the road and take the other. If they both die, he'll hitchhike.
“The one good thing about it is no one is waiting for me,” he said.
When we got back to the van, Juan’s closest companion, a Chihuahua named Tiger, stretched his frame as far as he could outside the driver’s side window, like a proper guard dog. He alternated between growling and whimpering.
“Tiger, Tiger,” Juan said, trying to calm him. “Papa will be there.”
We filled the tank and then waited for Juan to try the ignition. Nothing. He turned the key a few more times. Again, nothing. The van wouldn't start. Michael and I offered to help in some way, but Juan said he preferred to spend the night there and try again in the morning. We got the sense that he had slept there many nights before, that his plans for getting "home" were more uncertain than he'd let on. The van was not going to start in the morning. He knew this, we knew this, but he was a cowboy with pride.
So we said goodbye, hugged his thin, disappearing frame and left hopeful but doubtful that he would make it to San Antonio.
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