I would like to take a moment to remember some of the brothers we have lost along the way. Growing up in an upper-middle-class home, I never dreamed that I would live the life I have, and it has been a very tough life. Those who know me well can attest to that. And yet, I can honestly say, if I had to do it all again, I would do it the all the same.
I say this not because of the brutality I have experienced, or the multiple incarcerations, the periods of gnawing hunger and near frostbitten extremities, the day-to-day filthiness that I have had to endure for lack of clean clothes and shower facilities, nor the shame which was an ever-burdening companion during my days living publicly. I say this, and can say it unequivocally, because of the people I have met along the way. If I had done one thing differently, I may never have had the chance to know some of the most beautiful people I have ever been graced with the opportunity to share a bottle or a campsite and a meal and the occasional adventure with. Let’s pay homage to some of the old school hobos who taught me as a young man to survive and thrive on the street.
When I was about twelve, I met my first homeless friend. His name was Ralph Laymette, and he was a fifty-something-year-old Vietnam vet who camped here in Traverse during the summers and then hitchhiked to Jacksonville for the winters. The day I met him, he invited me to his campfire and shared a fish with me which he had caught out of Boardman River/Lake right around the trestle (long before they developed that area) which used to be the prime camping area for the hobo culture as it was an abandoned, unloved part of town, and most people stayed out of there. Ralph and I began to hang out regularly.
Ralph taught me how to dumpster-dive and to go canning (collect cans), how to build a shelter or look for a natural one. He told me stories about his life, and he loved me like a son–something I badly needed in my life because at just twelve and thirteen years old, I was contemplating suicide because of my problems socially as well as at home. As I grew older, I spent many summers with Ralph and shared many forty-ouncers over a campfire. He loved me at a time in my life in a way that I like to think now probably saved me. I needed that friend at that moment in time. Ralph died while I was away in prison around the turn of the millennium. After 30+ years of fighting with the government over his benefits as a Vietnam Veteran, he received a settlement for a large sum; and that same week as he was riding into town to go to the store, the vehicle he was in was destroyed. Ralph didn’t make it.
Another close friend was Steve Gunn. Steve was a lot like Sam Elliot–a tough old long-haired biker cat with a hard attitude and a heart of gold. I met Steve when I was 15 and hung out with him almost daily for a few years. He and I had some great adventures canning, and his stories always chased away the loneliness and fear that were always so pervasive during those young street years for me. Steve had been a roadie for the Grateful Dead, amongst other things; and in his rugged biker/cowboy way, he was a very loving friend…always ready to fight at the drop of a hat to protect his friends. Steve befriended me and stuck with me during a time when I had nobody and nothing–I was sleeping in the Civic Center bathroom some nights and outdoors other nights. Nobody was really there for me except him and my homeless friends. Had he not been there, I may not have made it. I had every reason to give up, but men like him kept me going.
Steve died while I was away in prison in 2005-2006. He went to Safe Harbor on a sub-zero night ,and they turned him away for being drunk and refusing to leave his bottle. He made it a few blocks away onto the State hospital grounds and fell in the creek and froze to death. He was one of the smartest men I have ever known.
Larry Delater was probably one of the most steadfast friends I have ever known. I met Larry when he moved to Michigan shortly after I was released from prison A sweeter, gentler human being I have never known. Larry was homeless much of his life, and toward the end of it, he received disability and CMH housing. I saw him nearly every day the last ten years when I was not locked up. He always gave me a place to sleep, food to eat, lent me a few bucks. He adored me. To Little Larry, I was a rockstar, and he would sit and listen to me play my music for hours, tickled to death.
I had a lot of problems after the better part of a decade in institutions, and yet Larry always accepted me the way I was. He was my brother, and I loved him. The post prison days were initially very tough for me. I had nobody and nothing, and once again, fate smiled on me and put this goofy little streetkid right there beside me to become my best friend. I learned so much from him about how to love people again and how valuable we all are as humans. Larry passed last June while I was away in treatment. It crushed me, but he left behind a legacy in our memories. He was a diabetic and died due to complications at only 39, but he lived such a rich life in terms of experience. I wrote a song for him upon his passing that my wife and I still play daily.
These lost souls, this generation of lost people who were so undervalued by society and yet shone so brilliantly in my life and the lives of those who took the time to get to to know them. Times are changing. The era in which we all came of age as homeless men has passed. Back in those days, there was no Safe Harbor, no shelter for homeless kids/teens like Pete’s Place, and no breakfasts and very few meals. The people back then were even colder to us and the police were even harder. We had no one, nothing, and nowhere except each other.
When most of my friends were going to proms and driving new cars their folks had paid for, I was on the streets thinking seriously about ending my life so young. And yet at exactly the right moments, these people came into my life and accepted me and showed me love and taught me and protected me. I am what I am today because of all of them. So, no. Ask again and I will tell you again, I wouldn’t change a thing. If you ask me, these were the brightest stars of their respective times–these tarnished diamonds in the rough who never failed to be their brother’s keeper and who lived so worldly in terms of their vices, yet so Godly in terms of the way in which they were unattached to the material life, and as ever-so-intent upon loving their fellow man.
Dustin LaPres | Photo: Deb Shaw