My homeless dad
A young writer reconnects with his homeless father after three years, finding love and theft on the American River Parkway
I could feel the beginnings of a sunburn prick my arms and the back of my neck as the July sun stared down at us. Sweat skimmed my face and my legs began to ache. My body was telling me to stop, but I couldn’t. As always, I was trying to catch up to my dad.
My father was gliding ahead ever so gracefully. He had mastered the trails that weaved around Discovery Park. He veered off road and guided us down a dirt path that ran along the Sacramento River. My dad pointed out the foot trails that hid in the shrubbery. I could see where the grass had been flattened by the weight of someone’s body.
“This is where they sleep,” he yelled over his shoulder, not bothering to slow down. “They call it ’the Island.’”
I wondered where my father slept.
If it wasn’t for the way my dad was dressed, someone might assume we were just an ordinary father and son out for a weekend bike ride. Upon closer inspection, that mirage would dissolve. His pants were camouflaged by green and brown paint. I could smell old sweat peeling off his unwashed shirt. Disheveled hair sat under a flat cap. Gray and black whiskers fought for control around his mouth. His once white teeth were now shades of yellow and brown. It had been three years since we’d last seen each other. The eccentric bohemian artist who raised me for 18 years was no more.
My father was homeless.
This wasn’t how I remembered him. The man I affectionately called “Papito” had always been the cool dad. When I was younger, my friends wanted to sleep over because there were no rules at Casa de Jimenez.
In fact, there didn’t seem to be rules anywhere my dad went. I can’t tell you how many times I witnessed my father tell an authority figure to suck him off in the way only a man fluent in two languages can get away with. Or the times he raced the family car down Discovery Highway at 110 mph with 12-year-old me sitting shotgun, praying in a native tongue I thought I’d forgotten.
Eventually, that rebelliousness gave way to something else. Violence became part of the daily routine. A serious foot injury forced him into the hospital, where his paranoia and verbal abuse worsened. Eventually, I decided it was too much. I convinced my mom that he could no longer live with us. I was the one who locked the door on him. I was the one who called the police the night he tried breaking back into the house. His house.
I was the one.
We rode on, passing tree after tree, until we came upon a section of forest that enveloped the trails around us. I could see the charred remains of an extinguished fire. The dried-out husks that used to be tall, verdant trees looked out of place amid the still living thicket that composed the background. The bicycle my father rode didn’t have brakes so he gently glided off the paved road and onto the mounds of earth and grass that bordered the trail. His tires kicked up the bone-dry dirt.
“How are you feeling son? You tired yet?”
“No, I’m still good to go,” I said, as I slung the weight of my body over the handlebars.
“Good, there’s a spot over here where you can really see the whole river, but it’s going to go off the trail. Do you think you’re ready for it?”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m good. Just lead the way,” I gasped.
“You hot yet?” he chuckled. He knew the answer.
“Yeah, but I’ll be fine.”
His hand disappeared into his battered backpack. I wondered how many times he used that rucksack as a pillow. I began to feel the guilt weasel into my mind. My dad interrupted it. He presented a hat, beige and worn with the word “WOOF” across the front. I was never really one for hats, and this one smelled like it had been collecting sweat for months. I placed it on my head and felt the immediate relief of shade.
The 56-year-old diabetic alcoholic then reached back into his bag, pulled out a carton of Fortuna and sparked up a cigarette. The smoke had barely hit my nose before he took off pedaling. “Well, let’s go,” I heard him shout as he put distance between us.
How the hell is he still healthier than me? I thought.
My father had always been an athletic specimen. He was a semi-professional soccer player in his youth. Later in his life, he became a carpenter, lifting entire entertainment centers into the back of his truck without any help. Well, without my help anyway.
After about 10 minutes, we came to a parking lot filled with families. I glanced at all the smiling people unloading their minivans and SUVs. They had come here to escape. I envied them. They barely noticed us.
The Sacramento skyline cut a jagged scar across the horizon. The American and Sacramento rivers met in one beautiful mass. My father stood tall, completing the scene. From this angle you couldn’t see the dirt on his clothes, or the rotting teeth in his mouth. For the first time in three years, I just saw my father.
The moment was short-lived.
We still had ground to cover and the sun was sinking. The sky had taken on hues of orange and purple. The heat that caused me so much agony at the beginning of our journey gave way to cool river air. The trails seemed smoother. I took a deep breath and we set off for Old Sacramento.
The rest of the day passed in a blur. Nothing felt real. We walked around Old Sacramento, talked about old times and laughed the last three years away. But it was getting late and the air was getting cold.
“We should probably start heading back before it gets any colder,” my dad said.
“Yeah, sure, good idea,” I said, trying to hide my disappointment.
The rubber of the tires made a smooth, sliding sound across the trail. The darkness was unforgiving, and neither of us had a light to illuminate the way. I couldn’t see much more than five or six yards ahead of me, so I decided to pace myself. My dad must have taken the pitch black as some sort of challenge because he was pedaling like he was being chased. It wasn’t long before I lost sight of him. For the next 10 minutes, I rode alone.
The crickets quieted until the only sound was of my bicycle slicing through the night. It was almost silent when I heard shoe soles scraping the concrete. My father was stopping. Was he worried about me?
As I got closer, I could see his form hover over something in the middle of the trail. I squinted and tried to focus. I called out, “Papito!” but there was no response.
I brought the bike to a halt a couple yards away and walked to where he knelt. A man’s body lay across the bike trail with his head tilted back. His eyes were closed and his mouth open. His breaths were short. His leathery arms were covered in tattoos and what looked like track marks. My first instinct was to call 911, but my father stopped me when he saw my phone.
“No, if he croaks I don’t want to deal with the police,” he said. “Just leave him there. He’s a junkie; don’t worry, he’s fine. I’m sure this isn’t his first time doping out.”
This is wrong. We need to do something! I wanted to yell. But I couldn’t speak. I did nothing.
“Look at all of this stuff!” my dad said.
I began to notice some of the junk that dotted the trail around us. Clothes, empty aluminum cans, scraps of paper. I watched my father rummage through it. It wasn’t long before he noticed a large backpack off to the side of the trail. It was in worse shape than his own tattered pack. He began unzipping and searching the different compartments. While doing so, he tossed out articles of clothing and small trinkets from the many pockets. He eventually came upon a small white pipe.
“Aha,” my dad muttered to no one in particular. “Alright let’s get out of here,” he said, not waiting for a response. Before I could process what had happened, he was on his bike.
I stood there, contemplating everything and seeing nothing. The same man that I’d convinced myself was a loving father earlier in the day had just rummaged through the belongings of an unconscious man. Why didn’t I just call 911? I had been able to when he was banging on our door, begging to be let in. Why was it so hard now?
Before I could finish my thought, I heard the man let out a small groan. Whatever bravery I had escaped and I took off on my bike. I eventually came upon my dad pedaling slowly through the park. Instead of confronting him, I decided to take the long way around and head home.
I’ve seen my dad multiple times since then.
I don’t hate him or look down on him for what he did. How can I? I’ve never had to steal to survive; I don’t even think I know what hunger truly feels like. How can I pass judgments on a man in a situation like that—a situation I feel responsible for putting him in?
My father texted me on New Year’s Day. According to him, we saw each other 14 times last year. That’s once every 26 days by his count. I wasn’t keeping track, but I’m going to trust The Carpenter’s math, because I know those days meant something to him. Because, as flawed as the man may be, he’s still my “Papito.” Nothing will ever change that.