Some people are just busy — it's a reality that a reporter learns to accept very early in their career after so many calls go unanswered and messages remain unreturned. But it's not something you would expect from a homeless guy.
Tom Barth was homeless. He didn't have an address or a place with running water and electricity to go to. But he had a cell phone. In a place where homeless people have laptops, maybe having a cell phone isn't that strange, although it struck me as odd. Odder still was the fact that Barth was a hard guy to get a hold of.
Barth called our office because the motorhome he'd been living in was towed by the Lodi Police Department while he was at the doctor. He needed to go to the doctor because he's wheelchair-bound from a back that's been injured too many times. But more on that later.
I called Barth on a Friday to try to set up a time to meet. I was free that afternoon, but it turns out he wasn't. Prior engagements required a meeting be postponed to Monday: A homeless man was busier than I was.
Monday rolled around and I couldn't get a hold of Barth, and over the course of the next few weeks I intermittently tried to get in touch, with varying degrees of success. I'd give weekly updates to my editor, Rich Hanner, who didn't seem to know how to react to the elusive Tom Barth. At some point, I'm sure he likened Barth to Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster: a mythical being you hear of often, but can't ever quite find.
And then last month, I finally was able to pin down a date to meet with Barth, because he had found a place to stay for a while. Unfortunately, that place was Lodi Memorial Hospital.
What makes a home?
Homeless people have congregated around the Lodi Walmart for a long time. The News-Sentinel even did a story about them last January, when they were told to vacate the premises. Many of the folks there were sleeping in vehicles, which Lodi Officer Brian Freeman said is against city ordinance.
Walmart has a nationwide policy of allowing people to sleep in its parking lots overnight, mostly to accommodate those traveling long distances. But the policy isn't meant to allow people to remain there indefinitely.
Barth used to stay in a truck in Wal-mart's parking lot, near the Taco Bell. People may remember seeing the truck with the deep-blue camper shell, which had designs of birds all over it.
"A lot of people liked it," Barth said. "They stopped and took pictures of it."
But faulty wiring caused the truck to catch fire, so Tom bought a motorhome to replace it.
Freeman said he told Barth multiple times he had to go, although Barth tells it a little differently. He said most cops left him alone, and that no one in the shopping center seemed to mind him much. In fact, Wal-mart and Food-4-Less employees would even get the motorized shopping cart for him when he needed to resupply, he said.
But rules are rules. Barth's motorhome didn't have up-to-date registration, which he hadn't gotten a chance to renew because of his disability (it's hard to get to the DMV without transportation).
Freeman had the motorhome towed for the expired registration (which was six months overdue), and Barth was left truly homeless.
Worse yet, getting the motorhome back would be next to impossible. Lodi Heavy Haul had towed the vehicle, and would have charged $235 just for the towing, not to mention $55 a day for storage, according to an employee named Gary (who declined to give his last name). And since Barth wasn't the registered owner of the motorhome, legally Lodi Heavy Haul couldn't release the vehicle to him. He'd have to get the registration cleared up, put the vehicle in his name, then pay the hefty fees to get it out.
Left without a viable alternative, the wheelchair-bound man stayed behind Walmart with nowhere else to go.
A broken man
When Barth told me he was in the hospital for his leg, I figured it might be broken or something relatively minor was going on. So imagine my surprise when hospital spokeswoman Carol Farron told me I'd have to "gown up" in order to interview him.
Barth was suffering from a staph infection, which can be a tricky beast. Caused by the bacteria Staphylococcus, staph infections usually attack open wounds. They can be relatively minor and treated with antibiotics, or can develop into a flesh-eating menace, according to the website WebMD.
Because of the nature of Barth's condition, I had to be suited up to protect him and myself. I put a disposable yellow gown over my clothes, gloves on my hands and a surgical mask over my face — I empathize with the nurses who have to endure the whole process every time they go in to check on their patient.
It was a strange way to meet a man in person for the first time, but I don't think Barth minded too much. Based on his voice, I had expected a large guy, maybe with a thick beard. But Tom Barth was a short, bespectacled man.
The years have not been kind to him — although he has long hair without much gray in it, Barth looks much older than his 63 years. His legs were swollen and bruised, and his spine is in terrible shape.
He's suffered a lot of injuries in his life, and broken a lot of bones. Even though I was taking notes, I lost track of all the injuries he'd suffered: shattered knees, broken legs, a fractured wrist; the list was endless, and it never happened the same way. His back was injured in a car accident, his knee shattered from a fall off a ladder.
"I always wanted to get a little skeleton and mark all the bones I've broken," Barth said. "It's just bad luck. I'd like to blame somebody, but it doesn't do any good to."
At this point, he'd already been in the hospital for 12 days, and it would be at least another four days until he was released. Because of the poor circulation in his legs, his right ankle swelled with fluid until it burst last month. Knowing he needed medical attention, Barth was driven to the hospital by an acquaintance and the infection was discovered. His ankle was operated on and is now covered in bandages.
Barth is in bad shape, so when a nurse comes in to take his blood pressure and tells him it's a little high, he doesn't seem too concerned about it.
"I can live with it," he says with a little smile.
'One thing led to another'
Barth used to have a more conventional life. He's had a few jobs over the years, and was once a welder for an extended of time. He had a wife, Connie, whom he shared a conventional life with for 34 years. After years in Woodbridge, they most recently lived in Stockton. But then Connie got breast cancer, and a few years ago she lost her battle with the disease. That's ultimately what inspired Barth to leave the home they shared together.
"I didn't want to go to that empty house anymore," he said.
Living only off Social Security, Barth soon started staying in his truck in the Walmart parking lot. He couldn't afford to get a place of his own, and his health wasn't great — Barth figured it'd be a temporary engagement.
"I didn't think I was going to last that long," he said. But after three years, he was still living out of a vehicle in a parking lot. "One thing led to another."
Things got much worse two years ago, after a freak accident that would end up confining Barth to a wheelchair the rest of his days. In the McDonald's parking lot next to Walmart, Barth was standing on top of a concrete bumper block with a soda cup in his hand. When the cup was empty, he turned slightly to toss it into a nearby garbage can.
"It was an easy shot," he remembers. "It wasn't lining up like it should have."
That's because the bumper was missing the pieces of rebar that are supposed to keep it still, Barth said.
Barth's foot got stuck between the loose bumper and the pavement, and he tumbled to the ground. The fall broke his wrist and collarbone, but those injuries would heal; the damning trauma was to his previously injured back. His back problems were reaggrevated by the fall, and soon after, Barth started losing the use of his legs. For a while he was able to use a shopping cart to get around, but before long he was confined to the wheelchair.
Barth said he's retained Woodbridge attorney Randy Thomas to represent him in a suit against McDonald's, for what he called "negligence." He mentioned this to me basically in passing; it didn't seem like much of a concern to him. Thomas said he couldn't discuss the case.
Back in the quiet hospital room, Barth offers me some of the Pepsi he's about to drink — I obviously decline. Barth seems happy to have the company, and I can't blame him. There haven't been many visitors; Barth doesn't really know many people anymore.
"Everyone I knew in Woodbridge died or moved away," he said.
When Barth finally does leave the hospital, he won't be living out of a car or in a parking lot anymore: He's arranged to rent a room from some acquaintances. Living in a wheelchair is pretty tough, but it's near impossible to do in a pavement parking lot.
He's resigned to the fact he won't be able to get his motorhome back, but he just wants some of his stuff out of it. Particularly a small flat-screen TV that he saved three months to buy. But again, because the vehicle is not in his name, he can't take anything out of the motorhome.
His aspirations for the rest of his life are modest. In fact, calling them modest might be an overstatement — they're downright paltry.
"(I want to) get my health back, get a car, maybe travel a little bit," he said. "I'm just hoping to live a few more years."
'And like that ... he's gone'
That's the final line from the film "The Usual Suspects," describing the disappearance of a terrifying, fictional criminal known as Keyser Soze: It aptly describes how I felt about the odyssey of the mysterious Tom Barth.
His motorhome, including the TV he coveted, is long gone now. Vehicles that won't be recovered are usually held for about 35 days, according to Gary from Lodi Heavy Haul. Barth's motorhome was given to Pick and Pull a couple of weeks ago, and the company made no money on the whole ordeal.
Gone, too, is Barth. We attempted to get a photo of him, but were informed he'd been discharged from the hospital already. I tried his cell phone, but of course he didn't answer. As quickly as he appeared, it seems Barth has become a mythical being once again — spoken of, but never seen. Bigfoot. Loch Ness.
I doubt I'll ever see him again, but I hope Barth does get a little healthier and enjoys the life he has left. After all that he's been through, I think he deserves at least that.
Fernando Gallo is a writer for the Lodi News-Sentinel.