This is contributor Jessica Hall’s weekly column, in which she interviews the street and homeless people she meets around the city. This week, the week of Veterans Day, she interviews Walt Sobolewski, 60.
Where are you from?
I’m from down South and they’re a lot different. People are, you know, I’ve run into some good ones and some knuckleheads. I lost my job on 2-9-06. I been out here almost two years and they look at me, and believe me, I’d look at some of these people and I’d like to put âem in the ground. Cops say, "If they put their hands on you, you know, do what you gotta do."
I’m hustling on the street and I met some nice people and I met some assholes and the assholes throw a penny at you. They don’t understand, this man was in combat, and he’s gonna hurt you, and put you in the ground where you belong. You got a lot of crazies out here. You don’t know what you’re doing, this man is serious. Oh, yeah, I’m serious.
Do you have family here?
My wife ran off with some young black dude, âcause he got money, you understand? We been together 38 years and were supposed to get married and I lost my job.
When we first came here I was on the street when one of the kids was born and I put her in a flophouse, after that one day I was working three jobs, as a cook, givin’ out flyers, nighttime working as a bouncer and living on the street, this was back in 93-95. I was working late and some guys tried to take liberties with her and threw her down the stairs.
Why would you leave a man after 38 years? I figure I didn’t defend her honor, if I woulda beat the crap outa this guy she’d still be with me. What am I supposed to do when she says "Don’t hurt anybody"?
She never shoulda said this; she shoulda let me do what I had to do. I woulda broke both his legs, you know. Sometimes you gotta be rough, you can’t be an idiot. If you’re too soft they take kindness for weakness.
I lost all the twins but two. I had to get at least $60 a day to keep my little ones that I have right now. They’re 2, 3 and 4. Maybe a little older. The two I have now, Jon Jon and Jenny, they’re twins. This black guy, he’s got a lotta money. "I’m gonna take your wife and I’m gonna take his kids ha ha ha cause I’m a young black dude." Like I’m an old clown or something.
How this idiot turned her whole family against me that I’m a punk, that I’m a fag, that I do all this shit, and they believe it. You know why? Money. Terry Tyree, that’s his name, write it down, I’m almost sure he’s selling drugs.
Tell me about your children.
She said, "Let’s have a second family." And it was three sets of twins, Jon Jon and Jenny were born in ’04, George and Georgette just turned 3, that was this year, and then there’s Victor and Victoria, Georgina and baby Marie, baby Walt and my oldest one, Tiger. Don’t ask me how I do it.
How did you meet your wife?
I met Marie at the Trailways bus station in 1969. She’s sittin’ there, I see this pretty young lady there, she lied about her age. She said, "I’m gonna be 18 years old," but, come to find out, this is no lie, she’s 12 years old. She’s got some kind of pimp or something. I had a roll, I had money âcause I just came back from âNam about a month before that.
I wasn’t gonna stay. I was on leave, I’d just come in from Dulles airport. I was a young, good-looking guy, all his teeth, real built and all this stuff. Something told me to go to Trailways. This young lady’s sittin’ there. I say, "Excuse me, are you hungry?" I say, "Do you want something to eat?" And she says, "Apple pie and a glass of milk." I give her a $100 bill, I’m alright. Me and a buddy of mine are staying at the Washington Hilton. I asked her, "You got a place to stay?" She says, "Yeah, I got a place." I say, "Look young lady, you’re skinny." I said, "This is what we’re gonna do, I got a room, you can go to the hotel and I’ll go to the room." I’m not gonna bother her; I think she’s 18 years old. No. I go to the hotel and let her take the room next thing you know I start getting close to her, no sex, you know, she’s got a guy.
I said, Baby, I’m in the Marines. What was funny was she used to call me Sarge. When I first met her, her name was Angel, then I found out it was Marie. When she’s bad she likes to be called Angel.
So after I found out she was on drugs and all, I get her off drugs, I’m still on leave, you see, but now I gotta go back to camp Pendleton. In California.
I almost went AWOL, cause I started falling for this girl. She was born in â57, that made her 12 years old. She was mature for her age and not mature. I said, you know what? I don’t know if I want to deal with this being a Scorpio, and Scorpios are basically quiet. And I don’t do too much talking except for this.
I’m thinking to myself, do I wanna be with her or what? I used to wear shades all the time in Vietnam. You could fry an egg on a rock and that’s no lie. When I came back from Nam I had blond hair and looked like I got sunburned. Everything was red, that’s how hot it is over there.
My buddy drove me all the way to Dulles. I got on the plane, go into LA International. I didn’t have a lot of money, what happened was, when I was asleep she clipped me $200.
I got there, I wasn’t AWOL, I was a corporal, but when I first went on the first tour I was a private. I made Lance Corporal. You make Lance Corporal when you’re in combat. When I went to Khe Sanh I made corporal, on the second tour, Hill 808, 3rd Marines, 5th battalion, C Company. I was 18 years old. My commanding officer was Charles Christmas. I was in there when we were taking the hills. I was in the big siege.
We lost about 20 guys a day.
That’s very young.
I was 13 when I went into the Marines. I came from a family of military. My uncle Chester was in the Marines. I was having trouble with my step-mom and she took me to see Uncle Chester. He looks at me and says, "Walt, how you doin’ nephew? I hear you want to join the Marines. You gotta be 17." I says, "I want you to do me a favor, Uncle Ches." I say, "I wanna go now." "Well," he says, "I don’t know if that’s possible." And he says, "I’ll tell you what, I’ll see what I can do."
It was June 28, 1963, when I got to Parris Island. I was about 6 feet then. I turned 14 on my first tour.
What is it like, being in combat?
The first person I had to take out, I was sick for a couple days, I cried and everything else, but I remember what my drill instructor told me, "Either it’s you or him. You gotta keep your eyes open and your ears open and if you get caught it’s name rank and serial number."
I was a machine gunner and I just went nuts, I was bananas. I don’t know how many times I shot this guy; he looked like a bullseye.
I did blow one of their heads off cause after a while combat is hell. If you never seen death, you’re mighty lucky.
It’s very painful for me to tell you this, one of my best friends in Philly when we were playing, I was 8 or 9 years old, we were playing cowboys and Indians in the cemetery and he took a rope and hung himself. He was playing, Frankie, we were little kids.
Another time I was in the military in New York and I thought I picked up a woman and it was one of those freaks, after I find out this guy is not a girl he was trying to stab me. That was two times I faced death.
I survived Katrina, I survived 9/11, I survived Nam. The man upstairs has got me here for some reason. What am I doing here? How is this all possible?
Do you think the government is doing a good job taking care of veterans?
No. Absolutely not. Do you think? Don’t you know any vets? Let’s put it this way, the government says it treats us good. If it treats us good, why is it there’s so many vets out on the street? How is that? Check it out and see how many vets are out on the street and homeless.
What could New York City do to help you?
NYC could do two things: help me get myself together, you understand, and get a job, and get myself together and definitely I would marry her, you don’t understand the pain I’m going through.
About one-third of the adult homeless population have served their country in the Armed Services. Current population estimates suggest that about 154,000 veterans (male and female) are homeless on any given night and perhaps twice as many experience homelessness at some point during the course of a year. Many other veterans are considered near homeless or at risk because of their poverty, lack of support from family and friends, and dismal living conditions in cheap hotels or in overcrowded or substandard housing.
–United States Department of Veterans Affairs
If you meet a homeless veteran you would like to help in NYC, call the VA toll free number: