[Hpn] A Place of One's Own/At home with the homeless in Golden Gate Park
William Charles Tinker
Sun, 7 Aug 2005 03:52:10 -0400
The original article can be found on SFGate.com here:
Sunday, August 7, 2005 (SF Chronicle)
A Place of One's Own/At home with the homeless in Golden Gate Park
I don't own any real estate but I had the feeling I owned a building I
lived in for 16 years. It was in Bernal Heights and I had that consistency
and stability that comes home with you every day and leaves with you in
the morning. I knew most people in the neighborhood by name and they knew
me. Then an economic phenomenon transformed the city of my birth into a
place I couldn't afford to live in anymore. I moved to Oakland.
I commuted to my groundskeeping job at a building near Civic Center until
I got a call to work for San Francisco's Recreation and Park Department. I
was assigned to help at Lake Merced, Laurel Hill Playground, Justin Herman
Plaza and Coit Tower. After two years I got my own "beat" in Golden Gate
The first morning I walked around my beat was like surveying property I
had just inherited. There are trees planted by the Daughters of the
Revolution in 1894, back trails, a huge sunken meadow that cups the fog in
the morning and eucalyptus trees that are more than 75 years old. My great
grandparents had picnics here and as a kid I caught tadpoles with my
father at Stow Lake.
My boss warned me that there was also a homeless man who might be
dangerous. He was tall and had a distinctive walk, as if he were leaning
back with each step forward.
"He may have raped a woman jogger in the Panhandle a couple of years ago,
" she told me. His name is Lon.
The park doesn't have a reputation for being dangerous. People jog in the
dark and in all kinds of weather, ride their bikes and walk their dogs. So
when I asked the person in the bedroll to please pack up and move I didn't
expect to get a long-lasting chill when he said, "My name is Lon and I
just want to take a nap for a couple of hours, is that all right?" "Sure,"
I said, shaking as I walked with my tools a safe distance away. Did I just
talk to a rapist? Had he been watching me for a long time?
That was four years ago. Lon is about 35 years old, 6 feet 2, with
brown shoulder-length hair, intelligent blue eyes and that gravity-
defying walk. He wears a dark leather hat and a long coat like Johnny Cash
and looks like any other Haight Street regular, which is what he is during
the day. The only clue that he might be homeless is his smell.
The smell of a homeless man who doesn't soil himself is a mixture of
and everything such a person would encounter over a period of months. It's
pungent, but it doesn't stink. It's as if being dirty becomes a different
kind of clean. My fear of Lon went away quickly. He isn't a rapist.
He is crazy. Lon takes medication and leaves the prescription bottles in
crevices in old tree stumps, along with elaborate sculptures made of
objects he's collected from garbage cans. He's been living in the park for
almost 10 years, in tents he's fabricated from wood, cloth and old
painting tarps. When he's paranoid, he booby traps his sleeping space with
fishing line strung from tree to tree or more malevolent deterrents like
barbed wire. His camps are ransacked and raided by men who are in many
ways jealous of his claim -- a park squatter -- and his ability to elude
them. Lon is a war veteran, a special forces expert, and he's been
fighting a war to save the park from power tools and more quiet, less
Lon once assaulted a man who was using a metal detector. I heard from a
witness that he came flying out of the shrubs screaming about leaving the
objects where they were. When Lon got out of jail he was all cleaned up
and wearing new clothes. We go to the woods for vacations. Lon goes to
I've been present when Lon has had one of his moments battling to save
park and coming up against the enemy bearing a chainsaw. Lon gets right in
the guy's face and asks to see his license. "What license?" "Your license
to use a chainsaw." His eyes are demonic when he's in this state and no
matter how big the man with the chainsaw is, he backs off until Lon
appears to float away, walking on air like an apparition who senses the
cops may be on their way.
Lon one day poured cologne on himself and asked me if I could smell it.
looked like a satyr and was grinning, walking around me saying, "Smell
that?" I could smell Lon, with this aftershave trying to hold out
unsuccessfully against his essential odor, and giving up.
Another time I sat next to him and told him about the breakup of my last
relationship. He told me he had been the lover of a famous movie star
whose name I can't remember. That's when I saw how handsome he really is
and that he may have been telling the truth.
That's also when I realized we have something in common.
We both own places we can never buy.
Donna Lane is a gardener in Golden Gate Park. Her collection of poems,
"Where I Live," will be out soon from Raw Art Press.
Copyright 2005 SF Chronicle