We didn’t know a lot about Elwood. His story was both unique and somewhat typical of the local homeless here. His old man was a successful businessman who had a dark side. When drunk, which was frequently, he was a beast with a violent temper. The cops were often at the door in the early morning hour. His mother fled the family when Elwood was ten, and his father tossed him out of the house at nineteen. Elwood managed to get a year or two of community college before he dropped out to surf, smoke pot and earn a living doing odd jobs and occasionally working as a part-time carpenter.
Something happened somewhere along the way. Elwood doesn’t speak of it. He drifted off the path of righteousness and slid into the murky world of drugs and alcohol. He soon lost his job, but when asked if he was unemployed, at first he would chuckle and responded with, “No, I’m underemployed.” After a while, it wasn’t funny anymore. When he finally realized that he was in fact, unemployable, he didn’t want to think about it anymore.
After years of running from the tiger, he was out of breath and had enough of the oppressive dark jungle of despair. He cleaned himself up as best he could, and returned to the world as a part-time handyman. When Elizabeth first introduced us, he was working as a carpenter. He cut a deal with the old Chinaman to trade repair work for rent on a dilapidated, old house on the canal. He was happy there, work was progressing, and the owner was satisfied with the deal.
One evening in December, there was an incident, followed by a loud argument, and ugly words. The neighbors testified they had seen Little Eddie, a local nut case from the dark side and a sometimes associate of Elwood’s, storm out of the house, screaming epithets at Elwood. Early the following morning, Little Eddie burned the house down with Elwood asleep inside. He managed to escape with his life but lost everything including his tools. Little Eddie went to jail. Undaunted, Elwood shoveled the remnants of the house into a couple of dumpsters and had the Chinaman haul them off. He delighted in telling folks, “I’m not homeless damn it, I’m houseless!” He built a small lean-to out of wood pallets and a torn, blue tarp at the back of the property. It was out of sight from the street and nobody bothered him except at night. The rats would come up out of the canal looking for food and chew their way into his bag of food. That was a little bothersome, so he made a rat trap out of an abandoned microwave. Whenever he heard a visitor scratching the bait plate, he’d jerk a string and the door would slam shut, trapping the intruder. There wasn’t a mean streak in his body. He always gave the rat a sporting chance to escape. While Elwood fed the dozen feral cats that gathered every morning for breakfast, he would get a silly grin on his face, pop the trap door open and the race was on. Elwood was content with his diminished living conditions, but the neighbors no longer wanted him around. They feared little Eddie would return and torch their homes in retribution. They persuaded the old Chinaman to evict Elwood; which he did.
Elwood loaded his meager belongings on a borrowed bike, changed his mailing address from the now vacant lot to Outreach’s office. He moved to a remote corner of the ‘Local’s Beach’ and set up residency in the bushes. It wasn’t long before he fashioned a four-foot high shelter out of driftwood and the old blue tarp. He could now sit under it and gaze out at the sea from the bushes. Life was good for a while, until two big Samoan scoundrels beat him up in the middle of the night, and fled with his tarp and everything in it. I lost track of Elwood for a while, although Elizabeth saw him at Outreach occasionally. She told me that he was doing all right, he seemed to be clean, he was working, at least part-time, he was happy, full of himself, and he had a million stories, which he loved to share with Elizabeth.
About a year later, a car knocked him off his bike and flattened him in a crosswalk. The driver fled and left him for dead. Among his more serious injuries were a broken hip, possibly a second broken hip, and a severely damaged knee. The emergency room doctor, cleaned his wounds, gave him a pair of crutches, a bottle of pills and sent him on his way. There wasn’t any money in providing proper care for the homeless. Despite his serious injuries and being unable to move about without crutches, he remained the happy-go-lucky Elwood. He took it all in stride, and there was never so much as a whimper out of him. When Obama Care burst on the scene, he was hopeful that he would get a hip replacement and new teeth, but there was always some reason why the necessary dental work, surgeries, and rehab never happened.
Elizabeth learned that he was living in the public library during the day, sleeping on their loading dock at night and taking his meals at the Seven-Eleven and McDonalds. The public swimming pool was his shower and toilet. He hobbled around the village as best he could on his crutches and made the nearly half-mile trek over to Outreach once a week for his provision allotment. He didn’t complain but never turned down a ride. Outreach had become an important part of his life, it was companionship and a place for laughing and swapping stories with Elizabeth and a few homeless buddies.
About two years after the hit and run, I was on my mountain bike headed for the beach. I took a shortcut between the public tennis courts and the rear of the police station to avoid traffic. As I came around the corner, I spotted somebody that looked a lot like Elwood, but way older and thinner. He was seated in a tattered beach chair exchanging pleasantries with an older homeless woman. She was stroking her little dog perched on her overloaded Safeway shopping cart, containing everything she held dear. When he recognized me, he struggled to his feet, shook my hand and introduced me to his friend and her dog. I said, “Haven’t seen you in a while, Elwood, my friend. How ya doing buddy, where are you living these days and has the Housing Authority found you a section eight apartment yet?”
“I’m doing okay, Jake. The doctors are talking about fixing my hips sometime soon. They say that I have to get healthy first.” He pointed to a large cardboard box, labeled, ‘This end up – GE Refrigerator’ a few feet away. It was partially hidden in an overgrown planter area behind the police station. He chuckled and said, “That’s home, Jake. Remember, I’m not homeless. I’m houseless!” We both laughed, and he continued, “Yeah, the cops know me, and know I’m not a troublemaker. They leave me alone and even let me use their bathroom and showers on the evening shift when the pool is closed. My caseworker told me that they have an apartment over in Waipio for me starting the first of the month. I can’t wait. It’s been almost three years since I had a roof over my head. Enough about me, how are you doing, Jake? Elizabeth said you’re writing a book. I want an autographed copy. Okay?”
Recently, Elwood called Elizabeth at Outreach, where she volunteers on Monday mornings. It’s a Catholic organization that provides aid for the homeless and less fortunate folks here on the Island. He asked if she could meet him at McDonald’s at noon. She happily agreed. It had been a while since she had laid eyes on him, and she was glad to hear from him. She knew the last several years had been hard for him, but he possessed an indomitable positive attitude. No matter what befell him, he bounced back with a grin, a chuckle, and a few words of street wisdom. He wasn’t a Jesus person, but he was spiritual in his own way, although he wanted nothing more to do with organized religion. She thoughtfully put together a bag of food for him to take home on the bus. Elizabeth invited me to come along, and we would all have lunch together. When we arrived at McDonald’s, we ignored the usual dicey looking homeless that seems to be always lurking in the shadows of the restaurant’s parking lot and entered the brightly lite dining area.
Elwood was by himself in a booth by the door. His backpack and ABC store bag were on the bench next to him, and his crutches were leaning against the booth. He was chatting amicably with a menacing looking homeless chap at the next table. Elizabeth smiled when she spotted him, She gave him the groceries followed by an Aloha hug and sat down across from him and asked how he was doing. I approached the sales counter and ordered three big Macs and coffee. This McDonalds was a go-to place for the local homeless folks, especially in the morning. They could get something to eat for a buck or two, use the bathroom, watch TV, or just sit and stare. The staff didn’t seem to bother them much unless they got out of order or stretched out and went to sleep. I had learned to spot a homeless guy in any crowd years ago. The dead giveaway was the dark mainland clothing, a hoody, the nearby backpack, the sometimes-darting eyes, or vacant stare. When I delivered lunch to the table, I broke up Elwood’s long-winded tale about how badly America needs Mr. Trump right now. Elizabeth seized the opportunity to ask why he wanted to see her. Elwood fell silent for a moment, and said, “Elizabeth, my doctor told me this morning that provided I stay healthy after they pull my teeth next week, they are finally going to fix my hips next month. It’s been two years you know. I’m now scheduled for the twenty-second of next month, at Honolulu General. I’m so excited that I just had to tell someone who cared about me. Thanks for coming.” I saw a tear run down his cheek and disappear into his beard. He looked down, averting her eyes, blew his nose and remained silent, until Elizabeth spoke, “Oh, Elwood, I’m so happy for you!” She got up, gave him a hug and asked in a concerned voice, “Are you taking care of yourself, Elwood? You look awfully thin.”
“I’m working at it. I stay inside as much as I can. I look out the window or watch TV. If I have to go out and take a bus somewhere, I smear antibiotic medicine on my mustache, and if somebody sneezes, I pucker up my upper lip and sniff in the meds. At night I put a kettle on the stove, which I just rebuilt, and let it fill the room with steam. It’s supposed to be good for my lungs, and it also keeps my skin nice and moisturized.”
Elizabeth asked him where he got the new orange and red socks with ‘Omega 3’ stenciled on them? He told her he got em dumpster diving behind Long’s drug store. We all laughed, and she asked if all was well at the apartment?” He chuckled and sputtered, “Bedbugs! My apartment was infested with the mean little critters. They have been eating me alive the last few months. I had to move out of the bedroom, but I got em cornered in there, now. I’ve been sleeping in a hammock in the living room. Every week or so, I open the bedroom door and toss a couple of bug bombs in and slam the door. I think I nailed em, but I’m afraid to go in there and find out.”
When we finished eating, Elwood asked Elizabeth to hand him his backpack. When she passed it across the table, he carefully opened it and pulled out a brand new pillow he had ordered on TV. It was no ordinary pillow; it was “All silk and guaranteed for life”. He managed to get two pillows for a few more dollars than the price of one, and he was quite proud of himself. He lovingly handed Elizabeth the present to thank her for all she had done for him over the years and said, “I love you.” Somebody who had so little gave so much and it touched her heart.
Elwood Perkins looks like he was rode hard, and put away wet. However, for those of us that knew his story, he’s a remarkable example of God’s love and presence. He is truly a child of God, thankful for his life and whatever it held for him. Despite some bad choices, God never left him, nor gave him a cross to heavy to bear. Perhaps his mission in life was simply to spread joy and hope to those around him with his positive attitude and sense of humor, especially during his dark days. Perhaps his work is nearly done, and God is about to reward his servant with a gift, the gift of walking again. Although he seldom spoke of God, I suspect that he knew that God has always had his back.