This post has nothing to do with soccer. It's here because I couldn't sleep.
When I got my first LA apartment, I lived on Berendo St., right near where it intersected with 3rd. With the rent I was paying, I didn't expect the neighborhood to be posh, but it still gave me pause to see a heavy-set bearded man lounging on the sidewalk near the local donut shop. From the look of his grimy coat, he hadn't bathed in weeks. He was scruffy and seemed more than a bit unstable, his gaze focused vaguely in middle distance.
It was clear he was a regular. Most residents casually stepped around and over him at various times when he was in a stupor. Some would buy him a cup of coffee or a donut. He didn't harass people for money very much. "Change?" he would at times say wearily when someone passed. More often, he wouldn't bother. He would just shuffle along. Unlike other homeless people I'd seen, he didn't cart around any belongings that I knew of. He did have a little radio with old headphones that he'd play often. Usually he'd just nod his head along to the music, but I remember watching him once at a streetcorner break into an exuberant dance.
Sometimes he'd talk to himself and make no sense at all. Other times, he was lucid and insightful. When my friend Emily gave him change once, he asked if she was from Georgia. She said that was exactly right and he nodded thoughtfully, saying, "I thought I detected that Southern accent." When asked his name, he wouldn't always answer, but when he did, he'd say his name was John. He wouldn't offer a last name.
When Lord of the Rings came out, though, I had another name for him. As soon as I saw the dwarf Gimli on the screen, I thought of our homeless resident. His belly was even more full, his beard wasn't quite as long, and it was more gray than red, but the overall resemblance was uncanny. It became easy to refer to him as such, just because anyone who saw him would then understand who was being mentioned.
I don't want to present the untruth that Gimli/John was a pleasant, cuddly, sweet senior. He smelled incredibly bad most of the time. Sometimes he would soil the sidewalk. Now and then he'd try the doors of cars parked on the street until he found one that was open. Then he'd climb inside and take a nap there. While I don't think he took anything, the aroma that was left behind would be rank.
I'm not usually the type to engage strangers in small talk, and I never had much of a real conversation with Gimli/John. I always said hello, good morning, or hi when I crossed his path, though, and even when he wouldn't reply in kind, there'd usually be some flicker of recognition from him. Having ascertained that he was essentially harmless, I grew a little protective of Gimli/John in some ways. If he was slumped over on the sidewalk, I'd stop to make sure he was breathing. I'm morbid, I know, but I wanted to make sure he was all right.
After I moved away from that neighborhood, I'd occasionally visit friends there. I found myself looking for Gimli/John as I'd drive past. I'd ask for updates on him, and my friends reported that he was basically the same as always.
When I read the LA Times headline about a homeless man being set on fire, I thought immediately of Gimli/John. Mostly because even though at one point I used to volunteer for a feed-the-homeless organization, a food line isn't a place to keep track of one person in particular. Gimli was the homeless person that I thought of as a neighbor, the guy I saw regularly for years, though I'm not around that part of town anymore. Just reading the headline made me angry to think that anyone would do something so despicable to someone like him.
As I started reading the article, I realized with a dull thud that this hadn't happened to "someone like" my old acquaintance. It was actually him.
Horror, revulsion, sorrow, regret - even using more of those words, I can't accurately describe everything I felt at the realization that this troubled but generally inoffensive man was brutally murdered.
I thought back to my first negative impression of him. The truth was that all along, the evil in my former neighborhood wasn't the stinky old homeless guy who looked like Gimli from the movies.
Instead, the impulse to torture and kill someone helpless lurked elsewhere and one day, it struck for apparently no reason. I don't think I can ever go back there without a slight shudder at that knowledge. Most of all, though, I feel sad.