November 11, 2001
I saw the shopping carts first. In the heart of Downtown Tucson,
at the corner of Stone and Pennington, is a small park attached
to the main public library. Locals refer to it as Homeless Park.
On a quiet Sunday afternoon, Veterans Day, the park has a
good sized crowd of homeless denizens. They largely ignore the preacher
and his message of salvation and doom. Later I learn that no one
pays attention to him until the last ten minutes. After his two
hour sermon he hands out three five-dollar bills, a couple of sleeping
bags, soft drinks, and bags of chips. His last ten minutes play
to a full and almost mockingly attentive house.
Driving past I saw two shopping carts on the grass at the southeastern
edge. They were typical of the carts of the homeless, packed to
overflowing with the meager accumulations of a life. Foam padding,
bedrolls, jackets, a plate, assorted clothing, pots, hard Styrofoam
cups. Each cart had attached to it, along the handlebars, waving
shyly in the afternoon breeze, an American Flag.
I saw the two owners nearby, sitting on the grass reading. They
looked like brothers. They were brothers, by choice.
I parked and walked back, wanting to snap a few photos of the flag
adorned carts. By the time I got back the larger of the two men
was no longer there. The other, reed thin, long blonde-gray beard,
skin leathered by too much sun and wind, sat cross-legged in the
grass, smoking a hand rolled cigarette and reading Walt Whitman.
Youre a Whitman fan I said, a statement not a
He looked up, mildly startled. Not really he said,
but sometimes I have to page through.
It was a strange answer but one I chose to ignore, assuming he
had some sort of mental problem. I asked if I could take some pictures
of the carts. He nodded yes and went back to his book. After snapping
a few I sat down on the grass and lit up a cigarette.
Gary is in his early fifties. Hes been living without
a roof for years now. Its something he did part time
when he would travel around the country looking for work. Started
back in the 70s. After he got back. After he stopped telling
people hed served. Hed pick up a construction job in
Montana. Drive a truck for awhile in Alabama. Work the natural gas
fields in Kansas. Too many miles and a few too many drinks later
it somehow became a permanent living arrangement.
He had a wife once, but I kept wandering and drinking and
wandered away. My fault. Good woman. She was a good woman.
I didnt deserve her
or she deserved better than a man
who couldnt sit still.
Hed been in Vietnam before all that. Hes glad now that
he can tell people he had been in that war. For years he wouldnt
People didnt want to hear about it. A lot of folks didnt
think we shouldve been in it to begin with and they could
be pretty mean spirited if they knew youd fought. Call you
baby killer and all number of things. Everyone else seemed
Ever since he and his partner James put the flags up on their grocery
carts people had been real nice, honking and waving and coming up
and congratulating them and generally being rather kind. James says
usually most people act like youre invisible if youre
homeless, like if they look at you theyre gonna catch it.
I ask them why they put the flags up.
Gary said, You know, to show support. We got people over
fighting and we got people over here who died and
we just wanted
to do something.
We been through what theyre going through now over
in Afghanistan, said James and we want em to know
that even if its just a couple of homeless guys that someones
thinking about em
someones got em in their
We ramble on in conversation. Talk about favorite places. Talk
about living and losing and wanting and drinking down by the river.
They both love their country in a way only those who have fought
for it and feel betrayed by it can. They are remarkably free of
bitterness, though they do wish that the VA did a better job of
taking care of them and other veterans they know.
Takes em forever to decide they cant give you
any medication or treatment. Seems like they could figure that out
faster if nothing else.
Gary gets work now and again as a day laborer. He has bad arthritis
in his hands. Two days ago he worked digging a ditch and could have
gone back yesterday but his joints were too swollen and tender to
hold a shovel a second consecutive day. Theyve gotten a bit
less painful but he still struggles rolling his cigarette. James
slides over and gently takes the papers and pouch away from Gary
and rolls the smoke for him. Gary blushes through the hard brown
leather of his skin. It is one of the most tender moments Ive
I ask James whats so great about America.
Its home. Its the best there is.
I scowl at this, wanting something more. Not much of an answer,
James asks, You love your wife?
Why do you love her?
I dont know I say, shes just so
Not much of an answer, he says.
Maybe Im looking for the wrong thing. Maybe America is not
defined in words.
Maybe it is in the little actions that go unnoticed by most of
us. Like two Vietnam Vets still watching each others backs.
They had lost touch after they got out of the service. Separately
they followed similar paths to homelessness and wandering. They
encountered each other for the first time in nearly 30 years down
in Las Cruces in 1999. Theyve been traveling together since.
You need friends out here, says Gary, and James
is a good one to have.
They had developed their interest in reading during the war. They
had another friend back then. He had been a high school teacher
and had turned them on to poetry. Nothing spectacular about the
guy. No he saved us all by throwing himself on a grenade
story. He was their friend. He fought. He died.
This old friend had loved, above all other works, Leaves of Grass.
Both James and Gary read voraciously to this day, thought not so
much poetry. They save the verse for special occasions.
Every Veterans Day since, they read from Leaves of Grass.
Sometimes I have to page through
It is a small and sincere way to remember a friend. Gary selects
passages at random and reads them out loud. They dont appear
to have any particular significance other than he likes them and
they once had a friend who loved the entire work.
James and Gary, according to some signal I cannot catch, get up
and begin preparing to leave. They are going to make a long trek
across town tonight to get to another park tomorrow where there
will be a large celebration of Veterans Day. It happens every
year and there will be free food and some nice speeches. Sometimes
they get school kids to sing hymns and James likes that part in
They ask me if Ill join them in a prayer for their friend.
I tell them Im flattered but that I am not a particularly
religious man and that it may be inappropriate for me to join them.
They tell me its okay. We join hands.
Dont have to say nothing, says Gary just
remember some who have gone in service of our country.
I dont have anyone to remember. I havent lost
anyone in a war.
What you do then, he says you say a little prayer
for the ones that are over there fighting now. Ill do the
I ask him if he thinks God chooses sides in a war.
Maybe he does. Maybe he doesnt. But I imagine either
way that hell be alright with you asking him to take care
of all our boys over there. Ask him to get them on home safe. Ill
leave it to you if you think you should ask him to have us win.
We join hands and bow our heads.
Lord, thank you for this day. Thank you for this life. I
know youre watching out for those that didnt make it
out. Lord, please watch out for all the boys [and women,
James interjects] over there fighting now. I know it aint
likely but if you can find a way to get em all back safe
Garys voice trails off with a slight catch and he cannot
I think maybe thats it. James still has my hand in an iron
grip. He starts to speak a few times but nothing comes out. I steal
a glance at him and his eyes are glistening.
And maybe you could see to it that we take better care of
them when they come back than anyone ever took care of us.