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

Silence From Lives On The Edge


Juan Rodriguez had one final wish: To die where he was born. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

Juan Rodriguez never called.

He was supposed to when he got to San Antonio. The 75-year-old, who had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, hadn’t seen the city of his birth for more than half a century. He had no family there, no sense of what it looked like now. But it’s where he wanted to die and he said nothing was going to stop him from making the trip there from Sacramento. Not his rundown motor home. Not his broken van. Not his empty pockets. The last time we saw Juan, he estimated it would take him two weeks to reach San Antonio.

That was a month and a half ago.

He should've called by now. He promised he would.

There are some people Michael and I met on our summer-long journey across America whose stories we can’t update for you, whose lives were so disconnected from the mainstream that there is no cell phone to call, no email address to put on a message.

Michael and I found these people only by walking through overgrown weeds and across parking lots turned into makeshift shelters.

It's true many had lived on the edges of society even before the recession, but if they had any hope of escaping that life or bettering their situation, those dreams dimmed with the financial crisis. Take John El. We met the songwriter with the beautiful voice and big dreams in Nashville’s tent city, where homes are made of fallen billboards. I looked for, but never found the brother he asked me to get a message to. All El knew about him was that he had last worked in Florida's hard-hit real estate market.

Other people we met on the streets were pushed to the fringes directly by the recession. Their clothes were not yet worn thin; their bodies not yet accustomed to feeling pavement under their pillows. When we met Richard Scott Archer Jr., an out-of-work UPS worker, he was lying outside a church in Orlando, writing a letter to his mother. He'd been homeless only a few months. “I can feel my body is dying slowly on me,” he wrote. “I need help, I’m lost.”

As for Juan, he found us.

He limped toward our car in a parking lot, asked for a ride to a gas station and somehow stayed with us even after we said goodbye. For the rest of the trip, at random moments--while eating dinner in Michigan or while driving down orchard-lined streets in New York--I would turn to Michael and give him an update on the cowboy in the white hat.

It always came in the form of the same four words: Juan still hasn't called.


Three months before we found him sleeping on the streets of Orlando, Richard Scott Archer Jr. had a job, an apartment and a girlfriend. Photo by Michael Williamson/The Washington Post

By Theresa Vargas  |  October 1, 2009; 10:03 AM ET
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