The Men of Park Avenue

There is a street near my home that goes from downtown San Jose, California to Santa Clara University. I walk it a few days a week to and from work. It’s called Park Avenue, and I pick it up just where it jack-knifes at a near 45-degree angle for its final run to campus. For me, it’s a 2.5 mile walk, which is why I bring a change of clothes (see My Not-So-Private Phone Booth).

I have divided the walk into three legs. Major intersections mark the first and second legs. The final leg includes a pedestrian overpass, a towering walnut tree, a Safeway supermarket, and a group home for men. Heading northwest toward campus, the home sits just before the overpass. It consists of two stucco bungalows circa 1925 with weathered fronts, untrimmed lawns, and torn screen doors. Last Christmas they hung faded Santa Claus faces in the window and twinkling lights around the door.

I pass some of the men during my walks to and from campus and have identified a few of the regulars: a mountain of a man in a powder blue, short-sleeved shirt who walks in straight lines with his head bowed; a young guy with a beard and GI glasses who wears a beanie no matter the weather; and a scrappy guy in a baseball cap who gives off an aggressive vibe. I imagine him working as a tow truck driver at some point in his life. After so many trips back and forth on Park Avenue, I have learned their schedule, which isn’t exactly a surprise. These guys take to the street after lunch and dinner. Day after day.

Something curious happened over the past few weeks. A new member joined the group. He seems much more aware of his surroundings than the others and acts as skittish as a crow over roadkill. I don’t see him often, but I have noticed that the original group has started to act differently. They have ventured past their usual route into other streets and even beyond the overpass. Whether this is due to the new guy or not I cannot tell. But then the other day something even more remarkable happened.

On my return trip home, I came across markings at various spots on the sidewalk. They were made with those sausage-sized pieces of sidewalk chalk kids play with. When I got closer, I saw that the markings formed words in big, bold letters: “Live!” “Live Life!” “Thrive!” They were more frequent the closer I got to the group home, and it was obvious that the men had made them. Markings on the lintel of the front door of one of the bungalows confirmed this. I thought of the blood on the doors of the Israelites to spare their lives from the Angel of Death (Exodus 12:13-28).

I’ve had some experience with group homes. For a brief time my uncle was in one. I took him out of a VA facility in New Jersey and enrolled him in an assisted care center in California. But before we were able to do that, we had to place him in a group home since he suffered from schizophrenia and needed help beyond what my wife and I could give. It didn’t work out, of course, which became clear the first night when the home called to tell us he had wandered off without his medications and been picked up by the police. They begged us to take him back.

I don’t know the particular situation of the men in the group home. I don’t know, for instance, if they have family to support them, are in recovery, take medication for a mental illness like my uncle, or are simply going through a rough time in their lives. I do know that they look destitute, desperate, and lost. I also have some idea of what their lives are like, going from meal to meal, watching hours of mindless television, and smoking like their lives depended on it.

That was all they had until, apparently, something changed and they now recognize the importance of overcoming hopelessness and fighting back. I don’t know what caused the change. Maybe it was the new guy, maybe not. But I certainly hope they keep at it and don’t give up. It would be nice to see more chalk markings on my way home.

Image credits: feature by Bruce Mars; sofa by Masaaki Komori; doorknob by thom masat. Want more? Go to Robert Brancatelli. The Brancatelli Blog is a member of The Free Media Alliance, which promotes “alternatives to software, culture, and hardware monopolies.” 


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