His Name is Earl
According to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, there are approximately 50,000 homeless people in and around Los Angeles living on streets, parks and freeway underpasses. This is a story about just one. He name is Earl.
About fifteen years ago when I lived in Thousand Oaks I was working as the store manager for Radio Shack located at the corner of National and Sepulveda in Los Angeles. Driving the 101 during rush hour was a nightmare, but the moment I made the right-hand transitional turn to the 405, the drive became a virtual parking lot. In order to arrive at the store in time to unlock the doors I would exit the 405 and take the alternate more scenic route over the Sepulveda pass.
That route traveled under a freeway overpass at the corner of Wilshire and Sepulveda. From my window in the mini-van I could see above all the cars that stopped at the red light which gave me a perfect view of a man who was sleeping on the cold concrete. On many mornings he’d come over to the drivers in the stopped cars and every morning I hoped that light would be green so I wouldn’t be one of them. But he was hard to ignore.
Although his clothes were dark and torn, he always had a smile on his face as he approached the drivers and politely asked for a bit of spare cash. Most just kept their windows rolled up – stared straight ahead and ignored him, but every once in a while I’d see someone hold out a few dollars. His smile would grow to a huge grin that lit up the dark underpass with the glow of gratitude. It was infectious.
One morning I was stopped in the lane closest to him and happened to have some spare cash, so I gave him a few dollars. He smiled that broad grin and, with a sparkle in his eyes he said “thank you, have a great day”. For the first time in many, many mornings, I felt like I was going to have a really great day! After that brief exchange, I started looking for him whenever I drove passed his “home” and worried a bit when he wasn’t there, which wasn’t that often.
Winter came and the weather turned especially chilly, even for California. I knew that cold concrete was going to get even colder for him to sleep. I went into the closet and pulled out a few of my husband’s sweaters he’d never worn and a spare blanket and pillow that we’d use for guests and put them in my van.
I remember it was a Friday morning, just before the weekend when I saw him, as usual walking over to the cars stopped at the light. Once the light turned green, I drove really slowly, not caring that I was pissing off the cars behind me, in order make the red light. Once I’d stopped, I motioned him to come to the car and handed him the blanket, pillow and clothes – then I asked him his name.
“My name is Earl” he said talking the items from me. He added a “thank you” along with that illustrious grin and walked away. A car next to mine rolled down their window and the passenger who saw the exchange said “You’re a very nice lady” to which I replied “His name is Earl”
For many weeks afterwards when I was stopped at the underpass, I’d wave and shout “Hi Earl – how’s it going?” and he’d come to my car and we exchanged pleasantries for the brief seconds before the light turned green.
I never thought to ask his history, or what led him to his situation. I felt it was none of my business, it was just enough to know him in the present and share a smile. When I noticed the people in a stopped car next to mine with their windows open trying to avoid looking at him, I’d say loudly “His name is Earl”. At first, they were startled, but they always smiled back. It wasn’t long after I noticed that other stopped drivers started calling out to him by name before handing him a few dollars.
Somehow knowing this man had a name transformed him from a faceless anonymous homeless individual into a real life human being.
About a year later, I was transferred to manage the Radio Shack in Thousand Oaks. On my last day driving the route, I made sure the light was red so I could stop and Earl came over. I told him this was the last time I’d be seeing him because I wasn’t going to be working in Los Angeles anymore.
His eyes filled with a bit of sadness and a touch of worry and then, with true sincerity in his voice said: “Are you going to be all right?”
I was stunned. Here was a man with no home – sleeping under an overpass in disheveled clothing – asking strangers for a few dollars and He was worried about ME? I was overcome with a feeling of a connection to humanity I’d never felt before. Materialistically, I had everything, Earl had nothing, but in that one exchange he had given me something that no amount of money could buy.
I’ve driven the Sepulveda pass a few times in the past fifteen years but of course, Earl is no longer there. I often wonder whatever happened to him. I hope he found a permanent home someplace safe, warm and just as caring as he deserved.
I’d like to say this experience had somehow changed my response to seeing a person holding up a sign stopping traffic at the end of a freeway off ramp but I’m sad to admit, this has not been the case. There are just too many of them. These nameless, faceless unknown individuals come and go, and I just drive by.
Perhaps one day a man, or a woman in need will be holding up sign that reads “My Name is…” and that will make a difference the next time I’m stopped at a red light.
But it won’t be Earl.
- Posted in: Commentary