Larry Wilkerson drove carefully down Cesar Chavez on his way to the laundromat. Between Mission and Valencia, his left front fender suddenly jolted downward, slamming onto the road. The beat-up black '84 Chevy Caprice, whose odometer shows 1,660,500 miles, skidded 60 feet on the rim, tore a gash in the pavement and stopped.
Heart pounding, Larry got out. The tire had flown off. Rolling it out of the street, he found one lug nut stuck in the rim. Someone had removed the rest, replacing the hub cap. "I was in front of a car dealership. The guy came out with a jack." He gave Larry some lug nuts "because I had nothing to put the tire back on with. "One nice person did that," he observed in his warm, rich voice.
Later, Larry showed his older brother the accident scene.
Charlie opened and closed the car door hanging crookedly down. "This door was working great. I'd like to find the guy who did it," he said angrily, "All the work I put into this car!"
"I'm just glad Mom wasn't in it," exclaimed Larry. Bessie Berger, their 94-year-old mother, has had four pacemaker replacements. "It might have given her a heart attack!"
The Chevy Caprice is everything to Larry, 57, elder brother Charlie Wilkerson, 59, and their mother, Bessie. Loss of the vehicle could cost the Wilkerson brothers their family and their mother's life.
Mesha Monge-Irizarry, Director of the Idriss Stelley Foundation on Police Accountability, identified this as attempted murder and a homeless "hate crime." This lug nut removal assault was obviously planned.
Larry described other "threats on my life." At Valencia near 23rd, he was approached by a tan, blue-eyed Caucasian male, possibly plainclothes police or a City official, who said, "Bad things happen to people that are a problem in this City. Take your ass and get out!"
Are Bessie Berger's advanced age and homelessness an embarrassment to San Francisco?
Larry ordered the man to tell the Mayor, "(or whoever sent you to threaten me) 'We're not going away. I was born and raised in this City. I'll be damned if I'll let you chase me out.'"
Once, he and Charlie accompanied Bessie who sat in her wheelchair on Haight Street in Golden Gate Park across from McDonald's, "not in anyone's way." Two SFPD hurled the ultimate threat, "Get your mother off the street or we will arrest you and put her in a home where she belongs."
Larry promised his mother he would stay with her all her life. Aware that when elders lose support systems they invariably die, the brothers fought desperately to keep the family together.
When they applied for housing, Adult Protective Services phoned Mesha who opened her Bayview home "because nobody else would do it." APS asked, "Are they violent or on drugs?"
"Why would a 94-year-old mother take drugs? What's the matter with people?" asked Larry indignantly.
The San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness contacted a woman at 39 Fell, the homeless placement office. She put them in the Columbian Hotel at Taylor and O'Farrell, "the worst run-down cockroach-infested dive" full of junkies and drug addicts. "We woke in the morning, cockroaches crawling on us."
Passersby asked why Charlie and Larry forced their mother to sit on the street using her to get money, "because we were too lazy to go to work." Bessie retorted, "How do you know what my sons are doing? I'm out here on my own, not because my sons put me out here."
Bessie was born in Richmond on March 2, 1912, six weeks before the Titanic sank. Her memory and Larry's genealogy research show the family descended from Vikings, and related to Edgar Allen Poe and Rear Admiral Allen Schley, an 1800s naval man. Bessie's brother, Allen, who also fought for this country, is named after Schley and buried in the Presidio.
San Francisco is their home. Charlie was born in 1947 at St. Mary's Hospital, Larry at San Francisco General in 1949.
Bessie grew up in Clovis. Her family owned a cow and chickens, producing food to eat and sell. Like her mother and female contemporaries now between 60 and 100, Bessie was expected to be a housewife and mother, eschewing education or profession. The husband provided the house, securing their future.
Bessie and her sons' fate made them vulnerable to poverty's brutalities.
Bessie's first husband died in 1966 leaving no widow's social security pension.
The 1978 demise of Edgar Coleman Wilkerson, her second husband, Charles' and Larry's father, brought a $400 monthly death benefit.
"Ed," a man who beat lumps into Larry's back, threatened to kill the sons if they told. They protected their mother, who taught them to speak truth and be good people.
The third husband, Earl, another physically violent drunk, died estranged from Bessie, prey to an unscrupulous woman who stole 86-year-old Bessie's belongings and all Earl's money.
The brothers were creative in finding work.
Charlie did major construction on expensive Los Angeles homes. He traveled by train to carnival sites in California, Arizona and Illinois where he sold cotton candy for Ringling Brothers circus.
With arthritis and diminishing sight, Charlie described himself as "on the Disabled list. "I can't find a job anywhere. Been homeless now going on for four years, sleeping in the car. Been all over the country looking for a place to live."
Charlie's disastrous marriage taught him, "I'm a good date; not the marrying kind."
During younger brother, Larry's ten-year construction career, a nail gun spiked steel through his hand. Extracting it broke three bones. Despite work injury pain throughout his body, he was denied Disability.
In the '70s Larry was an airline steward. In the '80s, he worked as a grip at Universal studios, doing lighting, constructing sets and props.
He worked on "The Fall Guy" (Lee Majors - 1981), "T.J. Hooker," (William Shatner, - 1982), "Jake And The Fat Man (1987)," and "Cheers (1982)."
Larry lost work after the 1983 accident on Steven Spielberg's "Twilight Zone: The Movie." When a helicopter crash-landed on Vic Morrow and two child actors, wide-spread industry drug use was implicated in the deaths. Layoff sweeps reduced job opportunities.
Realizing he'd become a junkie or die, Larry cold-turkeyed cocaine, remaining clean today.
(Charlie never took drugs. An ulcer prohibits alcohol.)
Invited to Hawaii, Larry found immediate work washing dishes at Honolulu's Ilikai Hotel. A head chef taught him to cook, mostly fresh seafood, a skill he employs preparing Bessie organic vegetables.
Living separate lives, mother and sons lost touch. Unscrupulous relatives kept them apart. After a search, the three were reunited in L.A. The brothers, disabled by construction injuries and degenerative arthritis, could no longer find work. Supporting themselves on a combined income of $1,600 a month, they lived in their car.
They came home to San Francisco. Approaching Willie Brown for housing help, they were forcibly ejected from the Mayor's office
They left San Francisco in disgust, embarking on a cross-country trip to find work.
During the 50s and 60s when they were young, grade school-educated men could always travel to find jobs. Taking off cross-country with Bessie came quite naturally.
At 89, Bessie had never traveled outside California. "She enjoyed the driving and seeing some of the southern states."
From 2001 to late 2003, the battered car carried the three "back to the east coast, Key West," through Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas, the Carolinas, north to Detroit, West through Denver. Searching for "a place to settle down, with jobs, a home, and stability," they visited each town one to three months.
Though kindhearted people freely offered gas, food, and lodging, the disabled brothers found no work.
Housing proved equally difficult. Larry noted that in all 36 states they visited, with no children under 18, they were not considered a "family."
They returned their elderly mother to her home state, "because we weren't getting anywhere. What choice did we have?"
Stranded in Denver, Bessie was hospitalized, the car broke down, and the tags and plates ran out.
Said Bessie, "Colorado stole $1,400 dollars from my (Disability) checks." Social Security claimed "they are a poorer state," and she "didn't need that much money." They reduced Bessie's $800.00 California checks to $625.00.
Four checks disappeared. The State sent them out to a fictitious address. "They never arrived."
That money could buy housing or a decent car.
Traveling the United States in their quest for work and a home, Bessie, Larry, and Charlie accomplished unpremeditated "research" on poverty and homelessness. They witnessed hundreds of homeless people in every place through which they passed.
They also became unwitting experts on fifty years of American social change. Raised during an era of compassionate politics in which the Government serves the citizens, they do not recognize predatory capitalism and take-no-prisoners competition.
I asked Charlie to describe attitude changes he's observed in his travels.
"Fifty years ago, things were peaceful. I could stand on the street, stick my thumb out and have a ride within five minutes. Today, they zoom on by."
It "sickened his heart" to see "police brutality against poor people. The police, the Mayor try to exterminate us --- specifically my mother and my brother and I --- because we are poor and homeless."
Larry added, "When we were in L.A. in 2003, Mom was sitting on a side street near a Vaughns in North Hollywood trying to get some money with a sign. Somebody tossed a bottle from a passing car and hit Mom in the face as she sat in her wheelchair."
Bessie was crying. "This cop thought it funny (scoffing), 'She's not lying here dying.'"
For 18 years since 1989 when Bessie was 77, Larry Wilkerson has been his aging mother's caretaker. For 15 years, he earned a small stipend through California in-home service which pays more than other states.
The car is the mechanism by which Larry, Charles and Bessie keep their family together.
Said Larry adamantly, "If this car breaks down, we're screwed. We got nothing. We're out in the cold. The State would come along and take my mother.
"The attitude is, 'We can stick your mother in a home, and you can go fend for yourselves.'"
They simply want to live together so Charlie and Larry can care for Bessie. Without them, she will die.
Bessie stated," The cops twice towed our car illegally. We parked in a safe zone. They took our car anyway. I would call that harassment."
Currently they work the San Francisco streets selling comic books and trinkets. Bessie panhandles near Golden Gate Park. On her wheelchair she carries a sign reading, 'I'm Bessie, 94 years old, and STILL homeless.'"
This activity brings on police confrontations. One bald "bad cop," well-known to the homeless, told Bessie they were not allowed to make money, "unless I tell you to."
Said, Bessie, "When my son tried to make some money to help us live, the police told him to gather up his magazines and quit."
When Bessie sat with her sign, not panhandling, people freely handed her coins. "The minute they gave her money," said Larry, "The police started harassing her. 'You're out here getting money for your sons to do drugs.'"
Victimized by unwarranted SFPD attacks, they presented at a meeting held by Mesha Monge-Irizarry at the Idriss Stelley Foundation in preparation for the October 22, 2006 protest Against Police Brutality.
Mesha housed them while the Homeless Coalition helped them apply to the Housing Authority. They were ecstatic when they were told in December 2006 they had moved to "the top of the list."
Mesha described their Thursday, December 7, Housing Authority meeting as a "fiasco." After waiting two hours for their "appointment," they were asked, without prior notification, to produce bank statements and social security papers. The SSA had not replied to their reapplication for social security documents stolen from their car three weeks prior.
Mesha observes that, because there are no other 2006 Housing Authority appointments, they will lose "priority status and be processed next year from the bottom of the (list)." The SFHA "would not set a new appointment."
In a week, Bessie, Larry, and Charlie must resume sleeping in a cold, leaky car.
Says Larry, "When somebody gets that old, they are supposed to get everything they need. Yet they don't.
"We ask (the government) get us a home immediately. Why is it so hard to find this person a place to live?"
Mesha, who will help them with cell phone bills and food, writes frantically, "How can they survive this?"
Please get involved:
The Idriss Stelley Foundation (ISF) is collecting donations for Bessie and her children to sleep and bathe in a motel until decent housing is secured! No donation too big or too small: Together we can end the nightmare, by donating what we can, and pressure the S.F. Hall of Shame to do the right thing!
Checks for Bessie Wilkerson can be sent to: ISF, 4921 3rd Street, San Francisco, CA 94124. You can call Larry Wilkerson at (415) 368-2261.
Please log on to Justice 4 Bessie Berger, set up by ISF, to show your love and support to Bessie, Larry and Charlie by e-mailing: Justice4Bessiefirstname.lastname@example.org
Watch "In my declining years," a video by PamPam Gaddies, director of SF Peacemakers, featuring an interview of Bessie. See http://www.current.tv/studio/media/13670557?