Dewayne Smock doesn’t have a leg to stand on.
Smock says this in jest, but it’s also the literal truth. A surgeon amputated both his legs last summer after infection invaded them — a complication of diabetes.
The 53-year-old lives in a beat-up Mazda van that he is unable to drive. Because of mobility issues, the amputee says he spends most of his day sitting in the front passenger seat of the oxidized silver van, sleeping when he can, playing games on his phone when it has juice. Sometimes he just sits smoking a Pall Mall, counting up his regrets in his offbeat, tongue-in-cheek sort of way.
His friend David Gately lives with Smock and serves as chauffeur, health aide and the son Smock never had. Gately parks here and there, hoping not to draw attention from property owners or police. Until recently, Gately often drove him to Roy Raley Park for a change of view and a chance for Smock to recharge his wheelchair using an electrical outlet at the pavilion. He chatted with the teens hanging out at the park. Sometimes they go to Denny’s for a bite.
Getting out of the van is a logistical challenge. Recently, Gately pulled the vehicle into the Denny’s parking lot. He got out and walked back to a wooden trailer attached to the vehicle. On the trailer sat a wheelchair and a portable hydraulic lift. He rolled the lift to Smock’s open car door and slid a sling underneath him. Powered by a hand lever, the lift swung Smock from the car seat and over a power wheelchair. Gately slowly lowered his friend into the chair. Reversing the process is tougher, Gately said, because the car seat is a smaller target.
There is no template for a homeless person. Some end up on the streets because of financial ruin. Others are sucked down by drugs and alcohol, prison records or mental illness.
Smock does not deny he is partly to blame for his trajectory, that he regrets some of his past decisions. He bares an arm to reveal a tattoo of a worm crawling from an apple and the words “Rotten to the core.” Another says “Born to fail.”
He said he had a house before setting off on a road trip to Florida a year ago October, that he was a good renter. During the trip, he burned his fingers on a space heater while sleeping at a friend’s place. A surgeon removed two blackened fingers after infection set in. Things just sort of snowballed from there, he said.
Now he can’t find an apartment. Some aren’t set up for a guy with a wheelchair and no legs. Sometimes, he claimed, the landlord just doesn’t want to deal with his disability.
Finding a place to park the van is a constant puzzle. Police officers, he said, often shoo them away. Recently, Gately fell asleep at Roy Raley Park as he charged Smock’s chair. The ticket shows a charge of illegal lodging that carries a fine of $500 and the admonition to stay away from the park. The men believe the city means to chase homeless people away.
Pendleton Police Chief Stuart Roberts said officers have a conundrum.
“Sleeping in a vehicle is prohibited on public property. If you are living out of a car, it is considered illegal lodging,” he said. “However, we know and understand these are hard times for some people.”
His officers, he said, try to give the men options such as staying at an RV park. They can’t afford that, Smock said, and spend most of their cash on gas to stay warm. At least twice, officers have also chased Smock from private property at an owner’s request.
Smock, who often exercises a dry sense of humor, vacillates between stubborn joie de vivre and despair.
“I was taught growing up men don’t cry – now I cry a lot,” he said.
Some people choose to be homeless, he said, but he not one of them. He wishes he had enlisted in the military and been more financially responsible. He regrets hitting the road. Smock said he regularly tries to convince Gately to go off and live his own life.
“I don’t want to drag him down with me,” Smock said.
Gately, however, stays put.
“I don’t want to see him on the streets,” Gately said.
Smock misses the teenagers at the park who gave him a black ball cap with the words “Mr. Awesome” printed in white. He can’t hang out there any longer, thanks to Gately’s ticket. At night, the men struggle to find comfortable positions in the van’s reclining front seats. The pair lost their puppy, Max, several weeks ago - a small mutt with golden retriever coloring and a red harness. He wriggled out as Gately worked to secure Smock in the sling.
Watching Smock rip into his Denny’s breakfast and talking philosophically about his brutal reality, one might be tempted to pick him up and hurl him back into the past to give him another run at his life with full knowledge of what every action would bring.
That won’t happen, though. Tomorrow is another day.
Contact Kathy Aney at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-966-0810.
This story originally appeared in East Oregonian.