I met David in 2003 when I was on a ten-day retreat at the Green Gulch Farm, a Zen Center in rural Marin County, in Northern California. He was a skinny guy in his fifties, and he wore the same parka and ball cap each day. He smoked a lot, and he drank coffee while most of the other participants sipped green tea. He had been there a while before I arrived and he stayed a while after I left. He was trying to become a member, which would entail a place to live, because, as I learned over time, Dave was, off and on, homeless.
In 2004 I helped him move from a farm he was staying at in Fremont, California to a San Francisco youth hostel where he subsequently lived and worked for three and a half years. This was in the neighborhood called, South of Market (SOMA). It has always been a seedy part of San Francisco and with the closing of mental institutions in the late nineteen seventies, or so the legend goes, homelessness up-ticked as did drug use.
The place was filled with “lots of locals" Dave told me when I asked him about that experience. "That was always a problem. How to keep the locals out. They were all druggies. I would say half and half. Half local druggies and half European kids backpacking. Cute girls. I didn’t have a problem if the druggies only sold the kids weed.”
When he speaks, David uses a slow clear and at times clipped enunciation and talks and talks and talks.
And he is a loner, he is a total loner.
Once, recently, he told me, “I never gravitated towards the popular kids in high school. Why would I need to? I was always the outsider, I stayed away from people intentionally. I didn’t need that kind of approval. ‘Hi, I’m a fucking cool guy, look at me!’ I never wanted any of that.” The word cool comes out of his mouth extra slow and he extends the -ew sound like only a guy from Brooklyn can do.
He remains proud of his father, “a genius. He was a real artist. One year he made over one hundred thousand dollars, the next nothing.” His father was a businessman, a hustler. His grandfather, he told me, was a Ukrainian Jew: “a big, strong man," Dave balls up his fists, straightens his arms at his sides and puffs up, "a carpenter. He could do anything.” Dave himself is rather slight. Maybe 5'7", he told me once he had held over sixty jobs over the course of his life. "I always quit when they tell me to do something I don't want to do."
Dave's sister died at age 57, “of a coma.”
“A coma?” I ask.
“Well, I didn’t want to be rude. I didn’t think it would be polite to ask the doctors to give me a diagnosis. She died of a coma. She was in a coma for thirty days before she died.”
“She was on all kinds of drugs. Xanax and Prozac; and she once told me she took eight codeine 3’s a day. I told her, stop doing that. You can’t do that!” (Again, the -ew sound. That phoneme). His Brooklyn accent filled with pathos and despair.
I keep the conversation going because my sister died only a few years-ago, and he knows this. “That is a lot of codeine. But I wonder what killed her, the codeine or the Tylenol, or something else? Maybe just long-term pharmaceutical drug use?”
“Good question. She went to (such and such a) hospital in Manhattan and went through a rehab to get off the pills. It worked for a while.”
“I don’t know very much about it, but I think all drugs are either uppers or downers," he adds, "like, I don’t know the difference between a sedative and a tranquilizer but I know they are both downers.”
He left the youth hostel when a new company bought it. That was maybe in 2007, and I was long gone from the East Bay. I lived in Bonny Doon, rural Santa Cruz County, where I worked in Special Education and rented a room in a cabin out in the woods.
When I touched base with David again, in 2012 or so, he was living in a room the size of a large closet in housing for the homeless in San Francisco’s Tenderloin. I had moved back to Berkeley, and he would come over on BART and we would sit in my back yard and smoke. Often I would buy him bulk coffee and bulk creamer at the Safeway before I put him back on BART to the City. This was the same David from the Zen Center, although moodier, and minus many pounds and several teeth. He was on Disability and receiving $900 a month. He lived in one of the most expensive cities in the world.
Each time I visited I saw some horror or other on my way to his building. One night I noticed an entire family on the sidewalk having a barbecue. It was shocking to see children one, two, three years old, children in strollers, eating dinner on the same sidewalk as junkies passed out blocking traffic. Who would raise kids in such an environment? What kind of society would turn a blind eye to this neglect? How have we come this far?
Dave told me that on either side of his room lived schizophrenics, so hour-long screaming rants echoed through his walls as almost an all-night occurrence. This was when he stopped sleeping nights and began sleeping most of the day instead. The building’s lobby was filled with homelessness—the long term homeless—watching TV, smoking, lounging about in a wheelchair, on the couch doing the crossword, leaning on a cane, drinking malt liquor from a clear forty ounce bottle.
About me, he said, “it’s sad to see a young person embracing a dystopian vision of the world,” his voice rising to a whining high pitch on the word ‘world.’ “But I understand your point of view. I see things almost exactly the same way. What you have to understand is that life is suffering!”
“I know,” I say, “I gotta get away from this shit. California is going down the drain, even if it sounds like I agree with Trump.”
He comes off as a bit arrogant and misanthropic. While shopping at Whole Foods where we are out buying a dozen eggs: “I am not coming back to this place. It’s got a snooty vibe.”
When I complain to him about the predilection people have to compile all their problems and dislikes and place them on the head of Donald Trump, he spouts, “he’s mentally ill. What do you expect? He is a terrible human being. He only cares about himself.”
“Look, I hate everyone but me, but I don’t go around telling people. I try to have compassion, I try to care. I see so much suffering! I have seen so much suffering since I became homeless and became aware of other people’s lives.”
He places emphasis on certain words. Seen, and suffering. His voice rises at these important points. He scrambles me eggs with cheese on his stovetop and bakes us potatoes in his microwave. He eats slowly and still the food winds up on his beard. He cannot help it, he has six teeth in his head.
In 2019 he moved into Section 8 housing and a larger studio apartment, back in the area South of Market. Here, things are better. It reminds him of Manhattan, life on the sixth floor with a view of the building across from him and the goings on down below; but he goes days without talking to anybody. He has people he calls on the phone and people he emails. He has an invitation to visit someone he knows from one of the shelters in the City—“the best desk person at any of the shelters I stayed at. Such a good person. He really understood suffering”—this would be somewhere in Sonora, which he asks me about because he knows I have been to Mexico so many times.
Dave's new, larger apartment in SOMA
When I finally catch up with him, he reminds me that in 2014 and my last visit, he told me he wanted to meet Robin Williams because he thought of him as the comic genius if his generation. “He died just a week after I told you that,” he says.
“Wow, that is true” is all I can think of to respond.
He pays $275 for what amounts to a couple hundred square feet. He has a bathroom with toilet and bathtub and shower; he has closet space. His apartment would be worth over $2500 a month in a free market. Since he qualifies for a Section 8 Housing stipend, he pays only 30% of his income.
This is a Federal Program and landing a spot is not easy. I mention that I know someone who was living in Section 8 Housing and found it much easier to get free of the bureaucratic hurdles and requirements. The mandated income, the limits on the amount of money in the bank.
“I’m trapped, and that’s the one thing I don’t like,” Dave tells me. “I am forever grateful for my apartment, but I can’t earn more money; I can’t work; I can’t have more than $2000 in my Savings Account!”
“I want to hear about Sonora,” he says with a soft chortle.
“You’d like it there,” I tell him, “People actually live life. They have time for one another. There aren’t all these wealthy morons who don’t know how to walk down the street.”
I am making this up. Sonora must be hot during the summertime. I know this but do not tell Dave. If he has so many adventurous traveling experiences what could go wrong? By his account he once did five days of driving through Iran sleeping in the car each night; he caught pneumonia sleeping on an Israeli beach for two weeks without a blanket; he spent two months going to the Universalist International School in Norwich in the UK, whatever that is; Finally, Dave has fallen in love with multiple women in numerous settings: on communes, in a London squat, during a train ride through Turkey. What could a little Sonora hurt?
Once Dave realized that I am pessimistic by nature, he had to read and reread me Yeats’ famous poem, "The Second Coming":
He wanted to talk about it with me. “The center cannot hold!” he proclaims, “everything is awash in chaos and misery, the falcon cannot hear the falconer!” And, "he’s talking about a world without rules, without law! I love it!”
“But Dave, no rules means I can screw one of my high school students. You know, one of the hot chicks wearing yoga pants.”
“Go for it, do it!”
“But, Dave, I could get in serious trouble if I were to sleep with someone under the age of eighteen.”
“What do I care? Screw whoever you want. Aleister Crowley once said, 'do what thy will. The only law is love.'”
“Dave, you’re a Jew, you don’t believe that love shit! You believe in the ten commandments and six hundred thirteen or whatever sub commandments!”
“How do you know about those?”
“I had a Jewish girlfriend. She told me all about it. All the restrictions and stuff. Dating back like thousands and thousands of years. The more I think about it the more ridiculous I think it is.”
“It is ridiculous, but the world needs order. That was what the commandments were for. That is what they are for. Every government in the world has the same basic rules: don’t cheat or steal. Don’t sleep with your neighbors wife. All that sort of thing. How else can a government stay in control of things?”
“Are you saying that Jews control the government!?”
“No! That’s the myth you read in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The myth that Jews control world finance, that there is a secret group of Jews controlling everything. That’s what Hitler believed!”
“But, Dave, maybe it’s sort of true. I mean, look around. Look at who controls Hollywood. Who runs the banks? What about that Jeffrey Epstein guy?”
“Epstein? He was just a pervert. You were talking about bankers.”
“Dave, Epstein was a banker. Or, a hedge fund manager or something. He made a ton of money and nobody really knows how. Right at the time of the financial collapse of ’08.”
“Oh? Well there you go. I believe that.”
The spot where Dave collapsed when he had a stroke
By 2020 Dave had a problem aside from the fact of his long-term homelessness. He had been diagnosed with cancer. Around this time we began to talk quite a bit on the phone. I learned the news of his cancer that summer. I was away from the Bay Area at the time. We discussed a visit upon my return. His insistence that I bring and wear a mask, though, bugged me. I was adamant from the outset of the Covid-catastrophe that I thought the mask mandate was one of the biggest overreactions enacted. I could not find a scientific paper—no serious scientist—showing masks do anything to protect from airborne pathogens.
I was surprised by people like David, who I considered intelligent, seasoned, wise. I was surprised by the acquiescence to what amounted to totalitarianism. Where had the Spirit of 1968 gone? Dave, you should know, was at Woodstock. And Woodstock took place during a Pandemic which was about as bad as the Pandemic of 2020.
Our relationship was strained by Covid and Covid policies. He mocked me when I told him I thought the vaccine mandate seemed like an act of powerful polities dead set on killing people. I felt (and still feel) the same way about lockdown policies. I am certain more death will come—a lot more death—from the response to Covid than from the disease.
I have seen experts claim that in the U.S. alone, overall deaths are set to increase by half a million people each year going forward. These experts also assert that treating people with vaccines during a pandemic creates variants the vaccines do not protect against. These strains keep coming back, seasonally, and those vaccinated are susceptible to them because the vaccines alert the immune system to a specific pathogen but leave the immune system susceptible to those variants.
Further still, there is plenty of evidence pointing to the fact that the vaccines themselves are dangerous. VAERS, the vaccine warning system, has recorded more deaths and adverse reactions from the Covid vaccines than every vaccine ever manufactured going back thirty years. These jabs may cause long-term health problems. I asked a medic who worked forty or fifty years ago about the long-term effects of the drugs he worked with back then. He told me that those treatments used to 'raise the dead' eventually caused long-term heart issues and many of them have been discontinued.
Dave did see the light about the medical industry. He had been diagnosed with cancer but he did not want to believe the diagnosis in part because the diagnosis was based solely on blood tests and statistics. He was scared to get a biopsy, he was a frail guy, and so all he could do was call me on the phone and kvetch and cry about his diagnosis, the medical industry, and his insurance, which all amounted to dread. Whether he acknowledged it or not, he was staring death in the eye.
He wanted my help to return a guitar, he wanted me to take precautions about Covid when I visited, but that he did not want to deal with in any way his possible demise disturbed me. He refused to take responsibility for his health. He took the Covid vaccine, for God’s sake, and he smoked unfiltered cigarettes. He rarely left his apartment for exercise. He grew irritated by my actions. He demanded to know why I did not answer the phone when he called, he wanted to know the best times to call and talk and grew angry if those times did not align with his right times.
We stopped talking after I cancelled the trip to the guitar store. I was borrowing my father's car, which I did not want to take into the city for fear it might be broken in to. San Francisco is like that.
This turn of events upset me. I felt I had betrayed David. (This is where he would call me generous and I would say, au contraire mon frere! I am selfish like everyone else: I only do these things so that I don't feel like such a schmuck all the time.)
Then one evening he called and told me he had had a stroke.
David recovering from the walk to Whole Foods
I visited him the next day and walked with him to Whole Foods so he could buy eggs, salmon, milk, bread. The basics. He walked with a cane and we stopped at a delicatessen where he bought a pack of unfiltered Camel cigarettes. He looked skinnier and his beard was disheveled. He had collapsed on this very walk a week earlier.
He had collapsed across the street from the Whole Foods, about where he normally stopped on his way back to his apartment for a smoke. "A black guy driving with his family helped me up and into his car and drove me to my building," he told me. "At the front desk I got an ambulance. I was in the hospital for three days," he intoned. "One night I shit myself and it took two days before any of the nurses came to clean my backside."
"They said I had had a stroke. The meds they have me on are terrible. My blood pressure is through the roof." He was visibly stressed out about the medication he was on. "Yeah, I'm worried." I wondered to myself how that medication mixed with whatever was in the Covid vaccine.
He thought, when I asked why the stroke, that it was caused by the amount of weed he smoked. He had stopped smoking weed. I told him I wanted to be sure to inherit his vaccination card, for its inherent privileges. He chuckled almost knowingly.
The last time I saw him was, incidentally, his birthday. One of the many ideas I brought up in one of our several talks over the previous two or three years was that I would come out to the City and drive him to Rainbow Grocery, a popular cooperative with the New Age and hipster crowds and an establishment that has for years been selling organic bulk foods and organic veggies, the kind of food one would find in a 'commune.' It would remind us of the Zen monastery where we met.
The day I drove out to SOMA to take Dave to Rainbow Grocery was typically grey. It was mid-December and the Forty-Niners were on the radio. Masks were the rule at the grocery store and I saw one clerk, who happened to be wearing a black anarchist outfit advertising his allegiance to Antifa, walk up to an unsuspecting costumer to remind her to cover her face correctly.
David began in the coffee section where I tried to warn him away from the medium and light roasts, "Are you moving in and splitting rent?" He asked, voice rising in annoyance. He then moved on to the bulk honey, which he mixed with his coffee as a substitute for sugar because at some time in his distant past, "a backpacker chick turned me on to putting honey in coffee. I love it." He had told me this half a dozen times over the years.
He bought his usual fare: eggs, milk, bread, jam and yogurt, but he could not buy fish because Rainbow is completely vegetarian, a fact I had not realized until after we finished shopping and I asked if he remembered his salmon. A hip and sprightly Asian girl checked us out and after I made a small purchase, Dave, who was behind me in line, went back into the store because he had forgotten freeze dried hummus. I told the girl I was assisting an old friend, a man who had cancer and had recently had a stroke, and that he wouldn't be long.
At Whole Foods, where I normally took him, I had noticed that Dave frequently broke his compassion for suffering rule with the clerks. It was a bit like shopping with a parent as a teenager. Embarrassing. If his salmon was a fraction overweight he would ask for the correct amount. If he was asked if he brought his own bag he would respond incredulously. More than once I had to interject to settle frayed nerves or explain what it was he was confused about.
Once, when we were walking out the front of the store, music from a handheld radio could be heard from out on the sidewalk. "Negroid vibes! I sense negroid!" Dave chortled just as a black guy stormed past carrying a mini boom box playing loud R&B, agitated and in a rush.
At Rainbow, Dave seemed to enjoy shopping that day. He bought bulk items aside from the honey, coffee and humus that he would not have found anywhere else. We stopped to get tacos at a taco truck on our way back. He stunk up my car with a cigarette. Listening to the Niners game he said, "you listen to the sports? I like the sports."
David grew up in South Brooklyn in the 1950’s and 60’s. A young man in the 1970’s he once travelled the world as a backpacker, picking up rides, smoking hashish—his favorite drug alongside cigarettes and coffee—and he traveled to India overland. All the while he worked sporadically and contracted a pneumonia several times. He spent two months at Brooklyn College where he took a class in French and another in Sociology.
When I met him he said he'd come to the Bay Area chasing a girl he knew from high school. She was married, or recently divorced but he moved in with her anyhow. When it did not work out, she gave him $10,000 and showed him the door. For a year and then some he rented a small apartment near Lake Merritt in East Oakland. When the money ran out he went to the lake and found a bench to sleep on. He noticed one or two other guys doing the same thing.
Eventually he made his way to Berkeley and the homeless shelter there ("it was like a prison: same petty vibe. Arguments; guys who watched TV all night with the volume turned loud. Racial animosity.") He discovered the Berkeley Zen Center and befriended the head monk. Our paths crossed not much later, out at Green Gulch, near where Dave's hero Alan Watts once lived.
When I met David, there was nothing to size up. He was clear, open, a man who seemed devoted to humility. What I thought of as surrender might have been resignation. It seems, in the end, he might have needed from me more than I did from him. I couldn't give him what I did not have. Something like that...
If you are out there and you have read this far, light a candle for David Schur. May your travels be safe, Dave. A kind but saddened Soul who rejected so much of the vanity, the frivolity and arrogance, the sanctimony and (to quote him) the snootiness of what passes as Society these days. He used to say, "thinking about it makes me want to cry," when I brought up his sister. I wish—I really wish—I could have held him a little closer to my heart...to let him know it was going to be okay. He was scared when his time had finally come.
It is long past time, in retrospect, I finally grew up.
Jason Badgley calls himself an artist. He lives in Austin, Texas where he teaches Rhetoric and Writing. He enjoys preparing a good pasta sauce, thoughtfulness, kind-hearted souls, travel, teaching, and time spent with his two-year old daughter, Zoe.