Thursday, July 8, 2010
What is your perception of the homeless in San Diego? Jeff Pastorino, a homeless man who spend most of the last two decades on a bench in Point Loma, died last year. After his death, Point Loma writer Howard Jones wanted to find out about the man's life. What he found was that Pastorino's life touched members of the community in surprising ways.
Howard Jones will be signing copies of his book, "The Man On The Bench," on Thursday, July 15 from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Wine Pub in Point Loma.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): We've heard a lot about the homeless in San Diego recently. There's been a controversy over an offensive sticker in Ocean Beach and complaints about aggressive panhandlers. There's the ongoing effort to get a permanent homeless shelter in place in San Diego. But for all the discussion, we haven't actually heard much about the homeless themselves, the men and women who have fallen through the cracks in our society. One homeless man's life and story has had such a profound effect on a Point Loma man that he's written a book about him. The book is called “The Man on the Bench: An Amazing Story of a Homeless Schizophrenic Who Taught A Community to Care.” I’d like to introduce my guest, author of the book, Point Loma resident Howard Jones. Howard, thank you for being here.
HOWARD JONES (Author): I’m delighted to be here. Thank you, Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: And we want to invite our listeners to join us, especially if they’ve struck up a friendship with a homeless person in their neighborhood. You can call us and tell us about it at 1-888-895-5727. So introduce us to the man on the bench, Jeff Pastorino.
JONES: Maureen, for years my wife and I would walk every morning, we still walk every morning. In fact, people probably think we’re the homeless people. But, nonetheless, we would see Jeff Pastorino sitting on a bench at Rosecrans and Avenida de Portugal. And he would sit there every day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. We’d see him there Christmas morning, New Year’s, and he would appear – Initially, he appeared to want to be invisible. He would look away. He wouldn’t make eye contact. And we wondered what went through the mind of someone that could do that for such a long period of time. We finally decided that it would be interesting to try and find out and we befriended Jeff Pastorino and the book tells the story of it from that point forward but it was an amazing experience for us.
CAVANAUGH: Now we are referring to him, of course, by his name, Jeff Pastorino, but you didn’t know his name for a while.
JONES: No, we knew his first name. He told us his name was Jeff. It was interesting that the community members, they all created different stories, in seemed, so I guess you could say he had multiple personality disorder but it wasn’t of his own doing, it was of the neighborhood.
CAVANAUGH: So the neighborhood people created stories about him.
JONES: Oh, absolutely. He was a CPA, he was an attorney, he was a college professor, he was a boatyard worker, he had all types of histories that he didn’t have any knowledge of.
CAVANAUGH: Now when you and your wife first encountered Jeff and you started, I guess, to make eye contact, were you ever afraid of him?
JONES: No, not afraid of him but we were afraid that his world – We didn’t want to invade his world so we were very careful with him but not because of a fear but more of a fear of seeming too aggressive with him and having him crawl into his shell further.
CAVANAUGH: And you identify him now in the subtitle of your book as a schizophrenic. He did actually suffer from that mental illness then?
JONES: Yes, absolutely.
CAVANAUGH: And you’ve done quite a bit of research about that since, in the writing of this book. What is the connection that you’ve been able to find out about between homelessness and mental illness?
JONES: Well, let me preface anything I say with I don’t pretend to be an expert on the subject but the research that I’ve done leads me to believe that about 25% of the homeless people on the streets are suffering from some form of mental illness. Schizophrenia is one of the most common forms of mental illness. Somebody like Jeff, he didn’t want to be the way he was. He would’ve loved to have been different but these are the cards he was dealt and these are the cards he had to play. He couldn’t keep a job. He tried at times to do so but he had no choice. And the only solution he had was to sit on a bench and sit there for 18 years.
CAVANAUGH: We have a caller, Kelly, on the line from downtown. Good morning, Kelly. Welcome to These Days.
KELLY (Caller, Downtown San Diego): Thank you. I work downtown and I struck up a friendship with a homeless gentleman and his name is Chris. And, let’s see, I met him about a year and a half ago.
CAVANAUGH: And what have your conversations been like, Kelly?
KELLY: Well, over the past year and a half, the first year I saw him, you know, I was just asking him why was he homeless, you know, what’s up. You know, what’s up, dude? And he said that he came from Mississippi and Katrina had basically kind of wiped out his family and wiped out his – You know, and – But when I did ask him, I said, well, why are you doing this? Why don’t you go get help? You know, he said, it’s my choice.
KELLY: And, he says, everybody has a choice. So…
CAVANAUGH: Thank you for calling in, Kelly. I appreciate it. I want – Did you ask Jeff that same question, Howard, ever about why he was on the bench?
JONES: Not directly. We got to know him really quite well over the years and we discerned the answer to that question but not without asking him – or not by asking him directly. He’s – After – I don’t want to give the whole book away…
JONES: …but after he died, we did a lot of research and found his family and learned a lot about his younger years and what happened. And it became real clear at that point why he sat on the bench.
CAVANAUGH: Right. You have pictures about a younger Jeff.
JONES: It turned out he was a twin. And he disappeared 28 years before he died and when I found his twin brother, his twin brother was just speechless. He hadn’t seen or heard from his brother in 28 years, he didn’t know if he was dead or alive, and when he learned of his past, the story really unfolded at that point.
CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. Chris is calling us from downtown. Good morning, Chris. Welcome to These Days.
CHRIS (Caller, Downtown San Diego): Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: Yes. Hi, Chris.
CHRIS: Hi. I actually work for the San Diego Fire Department in Hillcrest. And so we see a lot of the homeless on a daily basis. And I got close to one. Her name was Crazy Mary. And I’ve worked in the area since 1990 so I would see her periodically through the years and she disappears for awhile. I haven’t seen her for about a year. But when she was lucid enough, she would ask me about, you know, my job and my promotions and how things were going and that, you know. And even when I was off duty, I would walk down in Hillcrest and she would recognize me and we, you know, I – every time I saw her it was like seeing an old friend.
CAVANAUGH: Did this particular relationship you had change your feelings about people who are homeless?
CHRIS: That’s a hard question to answer because I would say 8 out of 10 of our calls are on the homeless, so we get a little bitter after a while. We see the same people probably sometimes three times in a day and transport them to the hospital, so depends on the day. But, I mean, of her particularly, you know, I’d love to see what happened to her but the last time she disappeared she’d been sent to jail for a while.
CAVANAUGH: I see. Well, thanks for calling in and telling us your story. I appreciate it. How do you think people in general view the homeless here in San Diego, Howard?
JONES: It seems like people fall into one of two main camps. The people that view the homelessness problem, some view it as a question of the human condition and here’s people that are, for whatever reason, homeless and we need to provide some help as fellow members of the human race. The other group of people seem to view homelessness or the problem with homelessness as how do we deal with the eyesore of homelessness? And they view all of the homeless people as lazy, unwilling to work but capable, things of this nature. And perhaps in some cases that’s true but I can assure you that the man on the bench wasn’t in that group and he had no choice.
CAVANAUGH: Right. Now I’m sure you’ve been keeping up with this controversy about the sticker in Ocean Beach, the one that reads ‘Don’t Feed Our Bums.’ I’m wondering what might – what your reaction might be to that?
JONES: Well, that’s, I guess, capitalism at its best and if someone’s going to make a dollar off of that and use the First Amendment of the Constitution to make that dollar, I guess more power to them. But as far as the – It doesn’t show a lot of compassion for the homeless. I realize they can be difficult at times, especially to a business person, but at the same time when I see someone like Jeff Pastorino, I wish more of us could help. I wish more of us would help people like that.
CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. Scott’s calling from San Diego. Good morning, Scott. Welcome to These Days.
SCOTT (Caller, San Diego): Yeah, good morning. I wanted to say, you know, definitely underscore the impact of mental illness and what that has and the complexities on helping someone really get off the street. My experience was with someone that did not have a serious persistent mental illness but was someone who really just every month or so something else would happen which led to him being homeless. At first he lost his job then he lost his apartment then he had a house. When I met him, he was living – considered himself a house, living in the back of a U-Haul with his stuff in storage and had a bicycle. And I would volunteer driving a bread truck for – to collect day old bread for a food pantry, and he would do the ride alongs with me and help volunteer. And he would point out all the interesting places where he would give blood and kind of this hidden society, and his big threshold was if I ever lost my bike that would probably be the last straw where I would go and get a job. And that would prompt me to kind of make a difference in his life.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you.
SCOTT: While I knew him, he’d lost his bike…
SCOTT: …and it still didn’t make a difference. And he really described it as the social network of his friends that he met on the street as really being one of the main reasons. He didn’t want to leave them. They really made a family for…
SCOTT: …one another.
CAVANAUGH: …thank you so much. Thanks for telling us about that, that community that most of us don’t know anything about. But the community of Point Loma surprised you, Howard, in how they responded to the passing of Jeff Pastorino. Tell us about that.
JONES: Well, it’s detailed in the book. And I’d be happy to give all the details anyone wants at a book signing at the…
JONES: …Wine Pub in Point Loma on the 15th at six o’clock. But the – It is a stunning story. We became Jeff Pastorino’s best friend, my wife and I did. And after he died, we discovered that there were a number of people from all walks of life in Point Loma that really had reached out secretly, quietly to help Jeff. And maybe they didn’t spend a lot of time with him or have a lot of personal interaction with him but I – One quick story for example. Jeff would somehow end up with a new coat about every four or five months. And he wore the coat until it almost went to rags and he’d end up with another new coat. We found out that, in reality, the great Dodger second baseman Davey Lopes, and coach of the Philadelphia Phillies, was the one that would come in there and buy him a new coat from time to time. And I don’t think people had any idea the number of people that were involved with Jeff Pastorino.
CAVANAUGH: What has this relationship you had with Jeff taught you?
JONES: I sort of – Prior to knowing Jeff Pastorino, I guess I was a little bit callous and tended to view anyone I saw with a cardboard sign or on the streets as a bum, maybe not quite that crassly but, nonetheless, that’s sort of the way I viewed it. Why don’t these people get up and go to work and make something out of themselves. Jeff Pastorino taught me a lot of things, and one of which is that there are a lot of people less fortunate than I am, like Jeff, and it’s not a bad idea to reach out and help your fellow man.
CAVANAUGH: And I just want to let everyone know it – you say that this is a man who taught a community to care. Briefly, can you tell us how that community cares more because of Jeff?
JONES: Once Jeff died, it was stunning the outreach. I was receiving calls, numerous calls, at the house from people sobbing, crying, saying that they saw Jeff sitting there for years and years and years and they never – they never offered to help. And they wanted to do something to help at that point in time. And the stories just are almost seemingly endless of people that felt so bad about it. I think a lot of people now look at the homeless and perhaps life in general a lot differently now.
CAVANAUGH: Seize the moment and help when you can.
CAVANAUGH: “The Man on the Bench: An Amazing Story Of a Homeless Schizophrenic Who Taught A Community to Care.” The author is Howard Jones. Your name on the book is listed as H. Alton Jones, so I don’t want anybody to get confused when they go to try to find it on Amazon and…
JONES: It’s on Barnes & Noble, Amazon.com, it’s at Bookstar, I know, on Rosecrans Avenue, and then the Wine Pub in Point Loma at Scott and Shelter Island Drive.
CAVANAUGH: Right, and you will be signing copies of the book, Howard, next Thursday from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m. at the Wine Pub in Point Loma. Thanks so much.
JONES: Thank you, Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: And KPBS.org/thesedays is the place to go if you want to post your comments. Please stay with us for hour two of These Days coming up in just a few minutes here on KPBS.