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TimeSpace: Half A Tank

Post photographer Michael Williamson is traveling across the country covering the economic situation.

A Cowboy, A Van, & A Dream Of A Final Journey

JuanSND.jpg

We didn't plan on meeting Juan Rodriguez, but after we did, we couldn't stop thinking about him. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

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.

InCarSND.jpg

Juan Rodriguez stares out the window of our car, talking about the Sacramento he knows. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

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.

azGasSND.jpg

Juan Rodriguez took the ride but pumped his own gas, lowering his body close to the ground to do it. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

“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.

TigerSND.jpg

Juan Rodriguez and Tiger, his Chihuahua. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

“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.

zVanSND.jpg

“I’m glad I’m on my way out,” Juan Rodriguez said. “After a while you get tired of living.” Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

By Theresa Vargas  |  August 11, 2009; 11:58 AM ET
 
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Next: The Best Laid Plans

Comments

As desperate as his situation is, Juan Rodriguez still lives with dignity, as do the rest of the folks you've profiled. He only has himself to worry about so it seems he has found a sense of peace. Very touching piece.

Posted by: bookworm333 | August 11, 2009 3:20 PM | Report abuse

Too sad to read. People should have the basic right to live in a place. Cannot the city set up some temporary shelters, such as the tent vilages set up for the China earthquake victims? I supposed those sheters can last for a year or two so to help people during the recession.

Posted by: Virginia5 | August 11, 2009 4:16 PM | Report abuse

George Bush and his ilk should be tried and prosecuted for what they've done to this country.

Posted by: patrick3 | August 11, 2009 6:32 PM | Report abuse

It's not George Bush's fault. It's your fault. What have you done to help these people? Some people, no matter what you do for them, will always end up living on the streets. Some people don't want to live in mainstream society, they can't handle the pressure. Just help as many as you can.

Posted by: TheNations | August 11, 2009 8:54 PM | Report abuse

I hope this article gets a million hits and that each hit results in a prayer for Mr. Rodriguez. A prayer that he'll make it home to San Antonio before God calls him home.

Posted by: MPATL | August 11, 2009 9:01 PM | Report abuse

This piece reminds me so much of "The Grapes of Wrath", the book and the movie, except that it's real.

The poor are always the ones that take the brunt of hard times. This man left home at 12 years of age, probably never finished his education and at some point became "afraid of life". You can't live life that way.

Where was his family when he was young? So much of life is fortune, good or bad.

I will say a prayer for Juan Rodriquez tonight.

Posted by: stevestegman | August 11, 2009 9:13 PM | Report abuse

These article tell the truth about life in Obamaland, and the absolute desperation and failure of this Government to do anything good with stimulous and Porkulous. Hope the azzwipes like their new planes, and face lifts.

Obama and those living in the people's house, should be the evicted ones.

Redress recall petitions for No Confidence of the entire Federal government are being signed and filed with recordation offices in every County in the USA , to be documents entered into the Library of Congress.

Posted by: dottydo | August 11, 2009 9:25 PM | Report abuse

God bless Juan tonight. Please say a prayer for him.

Posted by: jonesey1 | August 11, 2009 10:07 PM | Report abuse

Once just wonders how much worse off California would have been if Obama had not been elected. Scores of homeless people have been camping out in Sacramento for years nows and the situation will take years before it gets better. The state economy which was consider a "world economny" is in a deperate situation. The state is robbing money from city governments used to pay for police, fire, and other services. Cities are struggling to stay aflot with depressed sales and property taxes. Car sales which generate significant sales taxes are flat, and vacant car lots litter commerical neighborhoods. Vacant foreclosed homes are everywhere, and the banks still have not release the full supply of homes. The state is cutting back on the "Healthy Families" health insurance program, so not even children can be protected. Then you have someone like Mr. Rodriquez who remind us how really deperate people are.

If the kind reporter writing this story would be willing to collect the funds I would be the first to contribute to Mr. Rodriquez plane ticket and a little money for a room in a SRO so he can die in peace, I'm sure he's earned the right.

Posted by: urbancowgirl | August 11, 2009 10:16 PM | Report abuse

Bush spent over $650 Billion on war efforts. Obama is asking over $68billion towards development efforts in Afghanistan. Has anyone seen parts of Detroit? It still has remnants of a riot that took place in 1970s. There has been no reconstruction. Juan Rodriguez is another example of how America is unable to protect it's own citizens. Dottydo: Bush'e era pushed these people already living marginal lives to the brink. It is not Obama's fault that they got involved in a war that is costing the country billions even today. America also has to deal with illegal immigration. There is so much a country can handle all the same time. That Wa Po has brought this to notice is great. I hope some samaritan would help Juan Rodriguez so he can live in some comfort.

Posted by: hughes_168 | August 11, 2009 10:19 PM | Report abuse

Hopefully the President's plan will gain some momentum. There are thousands of stories out there like this. This country has always gone thru ups and downs and overcame. They've got it back on track, hopefully it's not too late. But this was not Bush's fault either. One person can't do this much damage to a nation with checks and balances. Just an unfortunate turn of events coupled with lots private sector and government corruption.

Posted by: madstamina | August 11, 2009 10:26 PM | Report abuse

I do not understand why California, in its wisdom, decided to close shelters for tent people. And I do not understand why, some rich person who spouts Americanism, does not buuy land in California wher a tent city can be set up for those vistimised by the current economic situation. Yes, the Bush adminstration left a big mess,but we need to help as much as we can also. My prayers for Mr. X and Mrs. Y, those who have lost homes, family and jobs. As that little child said, at Christmas no less, "God Bless Us Everyone."

Posted by: sjdason | August 11, 2009 10:27 PM | Report abuse

that picture disturbs me to the core.. those eyes and that face is the essence of sorrow and hopelessness. i am so Very sorry and pray for all of you.

Posted by: alw12 | August 11, 2009 10:28 PM | Report abuse

"The Grapes of Wrath" WAS the truth! It is a historical novel, and it was the truth for thousands, if not millions, of people who lived through the Great Depression. And Obama has only been in office for 7 months, give him a chance! It was the Bushies who got us in this mess. Obama is trying to dig us out. Remember that come next year: We've seen what a crappy job the Republicans did, we mustn't let them back in office again, locally or nationally.

Posted by: kae1 | August 11, 2009 10:31 PM | Report abuse

it's just so sad, lets pray not only for Juan but also for the many people, that are facing the same situation, and also for all the soldiers, and all people that live on the streets, it's just so sad

Posted by: Tomasa | August 11, 2009 10:37 PM | Report abuse

I am saddened by this story. Worse, I am saddened by the comments of people who will pray for him and those GOP turds who think that the homeless chose to live on the streets.

Yes, it is the fault of the money hungry and greedy society. Those people who do not care about their fellow citizens, but keep putting more money than they can ever spend into overseas bank accounts.

Bush and his ilk should be stripped of their citizenship and cast off like lepers in biblical times.

Posted by: NMremote | August 11, 2009 10:42 PM | Report abuse

I just want to say that Michael Williamson's photos in this piece are simply amazing. Color DSLR version of the FSA dust bowl shots that changed the world. I see from Williamson's bio that he is a Pulitzer winner, no big surprise there.

I will say that WaPo should really list contact emails.

Posted by: eecue | August 11, 2009 11:16 PM | Report abuse

When I looke back over my life I realize how hard I worked not to end up like this guy. I'm not saying life was unfair to him, but I wonder how his past choices put him where he is at now.

Posted by: yokosuka1985 | August 12, 2009 4:49 AM | Report abuse

Write it in your hearts - never again!- Dear GOP never again will we allow you to cut taxes when a bi-partisan commission told your President it would damage the economy and if you vote for tax cuts it would be paramount to treason.
Yet you all did to a man - never again write it in your hearts - never again.

Posted by: agapn9 | August 12, 2009 10:38 AM | Report abuse

This is the most haunting piece you've posted so far. Thank you for writing it, for shooting it. Thank you for doing the often uncomfortable work of interrogating pained strangers, walking into dark woods, driving through battered towns. Yours is a blog I look forward to reading.

Posted by: mbwilson05 | August 12, 2009 11:55 AM | Report abuse

Isn't that the truth, "get tired of living" - that quote sure sent me over the edge crying.
A person trying to make their way by creating a life that is met with backward steps can only endure for so long before they look forward to dying.

Posted by: washedlikeadish | August 12, 2009 1:20 PM | Report abuse

CA is in a mess right now. A large part of the responsibility goes to our governor, Arnold S. He tends to play at politics within the Legislature like a toddler in his sandbox fighting over toys. His amazingly huge ego rules against common sense and all reasonable discussion. When he does not get his way, he uses his "magical" veto super powers, along with numerous lawsuits to show everyone you don't mess with him. Where are the checks and balances for the millions, maybe even billions CA taxpayers are paying out for the Governor's lawsuits against the State and it's agencies? Because of the conflict of interest of using State attorneys, A.S. hires the most prestigious (i.e. expensive) law firms to attempt to override the decisions of the people that are trying to protect our state's residents and our economy. He is an example of a Terminator gone wild in his current role as governor.
Juan is not the only disenchanted person who wants to leave CA. There are many who have already left. And, many more of us who are packing our bags. I grew up in CA and loved it here. The exodus is now to move away from the "Golden State."

My prayers and thoughts to Juan and all of those people in similar situations. Most of us grew up believing if you worked hard and had the right ethics, you would succeed. In Juan's eyes we see the sadness and disillusionment that so many feel at this time. With mutual cooperation and respect, I believe we can turn the tide to one of hopefulness and positive changes.

Well written Theresa and outstanding photography Michael!

Posted by: charmian | August 12, 2009 2:47 PM | Report abuse

This piece just blew me away. The amazing image of Juan with those sad, sad eyes drew me in and the story which was so well written, brought tears to my eyes. I read this early in the day and still can't get it out of my head. I think what makes this even sadder than the other stories on this blog is that here is a man who probably never had much to begin with, but appeared to have put forth effort to make his way in life. However, I'll bet he has not had, at least in a long time, the comforts most of us take for granted. Now things have gotten much worse for him, but he goes on. There are others who have lost their jobs, homes, security and many of the comforts they have had,and life is hard for them now, but they may eventually regain their material possessions. Juan has nothing to regain and no one who really cares about him but his dog. That is so very sad.Whether or not he makes it to San Antonio, at least he has his dream and this is probably what sustains him. Let's hope it comes true. A heartbreaking story, told so well by Michael's images and Teresa's writing.

Posted by: jantk2news | August 12, 2009 10:44 PM | Report abuse

These article tell the truth about life in Obamaland, and the absolute desperation and failure of this Government to do anything good with stimulous and Porkulous. Hope the azzwipes like their new planes, and face lifts.
--------------------------------------
Interesting how you blame the conditions of the poor and unemployed on Obama, but you cry socialism against every effort he has proposed to help them. This problem didn't start in January 2009, it started in November 2007 under your parties rule. Maybe if you nutcases would stop trying to impede upon the efforts of the Obama Administration and start thinking about the affects of your NO...NO...No's on average American we can start healing this nation of the mess that was left by the Bush Administration. You want to blame Obama for the problems and then you want to get in his way of implementing solutions...you can't have it both ways; if you don't want to help then get out of the way and let those who do get started!

Posted by: Beingsensible | August 13, 2009 10:33 AM | Report abuse

Isn't that the truth, "get tired of living" - that quote sure sent me over the edge crying.
A person trying to make their way by creating a life that is met with backward steps can only endure for so long before they look forward to dying.
Posted by: washedlikeadish
-------------------------------------
How sad and depressing and yet felt by so many. I feel fortunate to have the life that I have right now. I pray that those of you who have suffered so much will regain the losses that you have experienced soon; especially our fellow Californians. My husband's cousin recently moved by to the East Coast after spending most of her life in California. The stories that she has told about the depressed conditions in California--particularly Northern California are too sad to mention. She said everyone is trying to get out...much like the gold rush in reverse. She owned a home that had tripled in value over a period of 5 years; when she left she was upside-down with her mortgage. How could we as a nation have gotten to this point...damn you George Bush and your rich cronnies!

Posted by: Beingsensible | August 13, 2009 10:43 AM | Report abuse

a very sad story representing thousands, if not millions of the dispossessed in American society.

Who do we blame? For certain, the Bush era contributed greatly to America's woes.

That said, most who read the article will feel compassion for Mr. R. But, think for a moment while standing outside the compound med center or base hospital tents when the nurse comes out and says..the SGT is dead.

The SGT was like many...under 25 with kids, a wife and family who loved him..or the young female CPL who "hitched" a ride from one FOB to another FOB (forward operating base) and was blown completely to nothing by an IED (roadside bomb). These kids were all volunteers and sent to Iraq...a war that did not have to be.

Let history cast the shadow of responsibilty to made decision resulting is catastrophic results.
Yep...I hate those people..as they drift off into blameless history.

All I can say and hope is the faceless of those lost in this horrific recession and those lost in Iraq haunt ol' George and Dick every night...

Posted by: LTC-11A | August 13, 2009 12:16 PM | Report abuse

That's not a '71 dodge in the picture, its a 90's Astro van. Tell juan his fuel filter is clogged. Its on the driver's side frame rail.

Posted by: bob29 | August 13, 2009 12:18 PM | Report abuse

Interesting we all see society as the cause for Juan's sad situation.
He made no choices that led him to this place of sadness?
We are all victims of society, whether governed by the right or the left?

Posted by: Chatelaine | August 13, 2009 1:31 PM | Report abuse

Send the bill and forward all stories to Ronald Reagan, George HW Bush and George W Bush for touting the "Service Economy" and "The fundamental are sound" and One Thousand Points of Light.

With a post card to Bill Clinton for signing NAFTA.

thanks
be comfortable
enjoy

Posted by: jato11 | August 13, 2009 1:50 PM | Report abuse

Juan is such a humble man, and is asking for so little as he approaches the end of his life. My heart breaks for him.

I thought surely everyone could refrain from blaming a homeless 75-year-old man, dying of cancer and alone in the world, for his difficult circumstances. But no. Some people still have to ask what choices he made to get to where he is today. WHO CARES? The point is that he is a human being, deserving of our compassion. A man who never lost his dignity no matter how difficult things got.

The next time we see a person in need, we should all remember Juan and take the time to help out.

Posted by: mobile_alabama | August 13, 2009 8:15 PM | Report abuse

Playing the blame game keeps us all in the same spot...unable to move forward with positive ideas.

We can only have compassion for one another and band together instead of perpetuating a division about who is right or wrong.

Our country actually has many resources not in use such as abandoned residential and corporate buildings just sitting empty nationwide.

Like many major corporations really push advertising into our lives to buy whatever -- homeless advocates or average Americans should place images of American homeless families on highway billboards so that the rich, poor, and middle class see the message every day.

Obviously the nay sayers will proclaim, "it just won't implore people to help" but IMAGES ARE POWERFUL motivators.

Lets all stop blaming and get off the cell phone and TAKE ACTION.

Make it your purpose each day to help someone you don't know.

Posted by: washedlikeadish | August 13, 2009 11:42 PM | Report abuse

I don't see how a fuel pump for a 1971 Dodge van would cost $700. Those old diaphragm pumps are fairly inexpensive. Maybe old Juan was getting lubed up along with the truck.

Posted by: brewstercounty | August 15, 2009 1:43 AM | Report abuse

This story could have been written by John Steinbeck or Charles Dickens. Why are conditions like this allowed to exist in (supposedly) rich America?

Looks like our safety net is full of holes -- and Republican families are affected as well as Democrats. Yet we have hundreds of military bases around the world. Couldn't we do with a few less, close some of them down, and provide more help for our homeless American citizens with the money saved?

I try to help by donating monthly to our local Community Food Bank which does wonderful work. I encourage others to do the same. Even $5 or $10 a month can help a lot. For every dollar donated the Food Bank can purchase $9 worth of food for the needy.

These are dark days in America, but we can do better if everyone pitches in.

This is a wonderful series with outstanding photography.

Posted by: MHibernia | August 17, 2009 7:47 PM | Report abuse

This story could have been written by John Steinbeck or Charles Dickens. Why are conditions like this allowed to exist in (supposedly) rich America?

Looks like our safety net is full of holes -- and Republican families are affected as well as Democrats. Yet we have hundreds of military bases around the world. Couldn't we do with a few less, close some of them down, and provide more help for our homeless American citizens with the money saved?

I try to help by donating monthly to our local Community Food Bank which does wonderful work. I encourage others to do the same. Even $5 or $10 a month can help a lot. For every dollar donated the Food Bank can purchase $9 worth of food for the needy.

These are dark days in America, but we can do better if everyone pitches in.

This is a wonderful series with outstanding photography.

Posted by: MHibernia | August 17, 2009 7:47 PM | Report abuse

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