This is contributor Jessica Hall’s weekly column, in which she interviews the street and homeless people she meets around the city. This week, she interviews Ronald Reineke, 60.
I met Ron over by the East River, where he stays with an encampment of homeless men. When I arrived, Ron offered me a hot cup of coffee. It was the best instant coffee I ever had. Ron takes care of his homeless brothers by cooking up hot meals and soup, and always has coffee on hand. He has a little stove that was donated to him by a woman who works at a nearby Korean grocery store. Ron is a sweet, gentle, sensitive and caring man, with an indomitable spirit.
Where are you from?
I was born in Bellevue and raised on 24th between First and Second.
Do you have family?
In all honesty, my parents are gone, my wife and son are gone and my brothers are dead.
What happened to your brothers?
My youngest brother died in ’04, he had two brain tumors. We were very close, he was my best friend. My other brother, he was a diabetic, he had a heart attack.
What happened to your wife and son?
They were killed in a car accident, September 16, 1984. My son was 6 and we lived in Stamford, Connecticut. We got married after I was in the service. In 1969 my wife came to Hawaii and we got married in Diamondhead.
That sounds very romantic.
It wasâ€¦ I loved the hell out of her, Joan was her name. We bought our
first home in Stamford in 1974. God I miss her. My son would have
been 30 years old this past January. He was born on January 1st. He
was a New Year’s baby.
He was named John, after my father. My dad committed suicide in 1970. It was a surprise. He couldn’t stand the fact that, me being in the
war, and all that pain.
I earned two purple hearts, two bronze stars and one Silver Star.
That’s remarkable. What did you do?
I did what I had to do. I was a platoon sergeant, 101st platoon. You seen Hamburger Hill? It’s true to life. We spent two weeks fighting over one hill, finally we took it, the fact is, two months later the army gave it up. There was a whole battalion that went up a hill, 1500 men, and one company, 150 men came back.
How did you survive?
You know what? I ask myself that every day. One of my friends was standing next to me going up the hill, a mortar round came in, guess what? I was still standing, he was gone. His name was Frank Sullivan, we were great friends.
Did you get married before or after this happened?
I was in Vietnam way before I got married. I was in â€˜Nam for a year and a half, Chu Lai, that’s where we were stationed on the west coast of south Vietnam.
Why did you join the military?
I didn’t. I was drafted. My momma didn’t raise no fool. I was 19.
What keeps you going?
Life. A day I don’t wake up is the day I won’t worry about it anymore. I been through two bouts of cancer, fought them off and I’m going strong. These guys have known me for a long time down here. They call me Pops. I just help people out, that’s my nature, that’s how I was brought up.
How long have you been homeless?
About 4 years. Only reason why is, I used to work for Goldman Sachs, years ago. I was on my own, putting money away. My younger brother got sick in ’03, he had a brain tumor, lost his job, had no insurance. He needed help paying his medical bills and mortgage. I emptied out my 401K, spent a million helping him out. He passed away May 4, 2004. You know what? I’d do it again. I was here and there; I got a pension from the VA, $117. a month.
Don’t you get more benefits for all the honors you received?
Nothing. Vietnam was never a declared war. You know what? My mother actually told me to apply for benefits; my first check was $12. I’m probably a stubborn old fool. What can I tell you? There’s one good thing about it, though. I go to the VA on 23rd Street; I have no cost to myself so far as medical benefits are concerned, if you have cancer or a heart attack it’s all covered. I only have to pay $2 for a refill on my medication.
Can they help you to find housing?
Believe it or not, the VA has 225 apartments in 5 boroughs, and the waiting list is so tremendous, it’s not even worth it and there are 1100 homeless vets in New York City. They wanted to close the VA three years ago. Hillary and Schumer came in and saved it. NYU took over part of it. It was built in the 50’s. I used to play in the grass on the lawn there.
Don’t you have any more questions?
Honestly, I am in awe of you.
I could tell you stories that would make your hair stand on end.
How was it that your father killed himself because of what happened to you in Vietnam?
I was his favorite son, and in the infinite wisdom of the military, when I was in Saigon hospital they took a picture of the corporal putting a purple heart on my chest and sent it back to my family and my father freaked out, and the sad part about it isâ€¦ aw, fuckâ€¦ My dad and I were very close. I got a phone call from my older brother saying my father had died of a heart attack. When my wife and I came home to live in the city a good friend of the family, Irene Hughes, said, "Ron, you have to learn the truth, what happened to your father. He OD’d on insulin. He took the whole bottle."
For 2 years I wouldn’t speak to my mother or brother for lying to me. My wife said, "That’s pretty stupid, they’re your family trying to protect you." So I called them and we got back together again. I’m sure you read the Times on Sundays, the magazine section? I wrote a short story about being homeless, in 2001. It’s called â€˜Homeless Thanksgiving’. I gave copies of it to a few friends of mine and they told me at Thanksgiving Day they read it to their family and friends and the feedback I got, they said they had probably the best thanksgiving ever.
What do you see as your future?
There’s two things about life I wanted to do, play pro baseball and become a veterinarian. I was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles, I spent 2 years down in Tennessee and then Sam said, â€˜I Want You.’ I hadn’t started college at that point.
It seems like you really take care of people out here. I can see why they call you Pops.
I always do — food, clothing, coffee, soup. Last night we had chicken, burgers and potatoes, I fried â€˜em up on the hot plate. You know Band of Brothers? That’s basically why I’m out here. We’re a band of brothers.