One of the best parts of this job is the people you meet on this journey we call police work.
I started working the 5 p.m. to 3 a.m. shift in January of 2000. Back in the day traffic officers used meet at a donut shop for a cup of coffee at 9:30 p.m. It was a great time, and I look back at it fondly because of all the laughs we shared.
There used to be a unique group of people that hung out in front of the donut shop in those days. The group included wannabe punk rocking teens and a group of older men who used to sit on the planters drinking coffee. Throw in a runaway or two and you had a melting pot of lifestyles. There was also a man who couldn’t speak.
The man was in his early 20s and carried a laminated paper in his back pocket with the alphabet typed on it. Whenever he wanted to “speak” he pulled out his paper and pointed to the letters as he spelled out words. He could hear if you asked a question and nodded if it was yes or no. He always had a smile on his face.
I wondered what his story was, but I never asked.
After a few years the donut shop closed and moved to another location. We were like stranded tourists with nowhere to go after our cruise ship sailed away without us. The punk rockers, runaways and the cops all moved on to different spots. Even though things changed, there was one person who remained in the area. It was the guy with the laminated alphabet in his pocket.
Over the years I’d see him driving around the area. He always waved and smiled at me in his silent world. There was always a mystery about him. What was his story? Why was he always out here at night?
On Wednesday night I was working a crash about a half mile from the old donut shop. I was standing there waiting for the tow truck drivers to clean up when I noticed someone leaning against a pole. The person had been there for awhile and I assumed he was just watching because he had nothing better to do.
I looked over and guess who it was? It was him. I decided I was going to find out his story.
I first asked if he still had his laminated paper. He nodded and pulled it out to show me. It was bent and had seen better days. I wondered if that was the same one from all those years ago.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
With a fast moving index finger he spelled out, “Jose.”
“Where do you live?”
“Where do you sleep?”
“In my car.”
“What happened? Were you able to speak before?”
“You were in a car accident?”
He went on to tell me he was in a traffic collision in 1991 when he was 17 years old. His injuries were so severe it affected his ability to speak. The collision occurred on the 5 Freeway and he was a passenger at the time. I asked him where he slept at night. Jose told me he slept in the same parking lot where the donut shop was. I asked him about his parents. He said his mother lived in the area, but they didn’t get along. I asked him about where he got money to live. He replied he receives $800 a month from the state. After hearing all of this, I asked him if he was hungry. I wanted to buy him food, but he said he was fine.
After the tow truck drivers were done it was time to leave. Jose and I said goodbye, and we went our separate ways. I wondered how many people had tried to speak to Jose today. I hoped I had made a small difference by taking the time to “talk” with him.
A 14-year mystery was finally solved. I finally knew Jose’s name and story. It’s tragic if you think about it. He’s 41 now and has suffered in silence since he was 17. He only goes to his mother’s house to shower. Other than that, he’s alone with his car in silence in a world that is very loud around him.
The next time I see Jose I’m going to stop and make sure I spend a couple of minutes with him.
It’s the least I can for a person who doesn’t have that much.
Editor’s Note: John Roman is a traffic officer for an Orange County police agency who writes a blog, Badge 415 (www.badge415.wordpress.com). His posts focus on the human side of police work and safety tips. Roman, a cop for more thsn 20 years, has handled more than 5,000 accidents as a collision investigator. BehindTheBadgeOC.com shares some of his columns.