Bob’s car almost made it from Pennsylvania, where he grew up knowing he had to leave. He hitchhiked to California, meeting people who were hard to define, like the guy behind the counter at the army surplus store; touchy, short-tempered people with imperfect knowledge about the military gained entirely from being surrounded by the equipment and uniforms of old, worn-out wars. Bob didn’t explain the blankets. The wars were not over for Bob. Their wounded were everywhere, wandering the streets and huddling in doorways.
Officials devise programs for them involving paper and walls. Most of them hated paper, couldn’t bear walls, or noise, and didn’t have watches, or didn’t have watches for long. Bob couldn’t help, but he listened.
Bob knew wool could get wet but stay warm. We stacked blankets like cordwood in the car, almost too high to see. He spent about two hundred dollars, and ended up with forty or fifty clean, used blankets.
He’d take one with him on his way to work and hand it out on the way. He knew a lot of panhandlers. He knew drunks, junkies, and crazy people. He wasn’t bothered by incompetence, or repetitive, self-serving stories, or addiction.
He gave away money in quarters and fives. He bought people sandwiches and smokes. He knew it wasn’t enough, but he knew that it mattered.
Bob is gone; he died in his sleep. The blankets are still out there, like some of the people. Some died, some moved around, found housing and lost it. They’ll be there next December, waiting for Bob, or someone like him. Whoever you are, the guy that comes after Bob, handing out smokes and trading jokes, Bob would have loved you. And I just wanted to thank you.
Carol Denney is a community activist, musician, and bike commuter.