On a sunny Saturday afternoon we gathered in an alley under a freeway overpass to celebrate the life of Neil Taylor,a homeless veteran who is remembered for his skill as a pianist and for always taking care of his community, and others who have recently died on our streets.
As we were setting up a woman who lives in a nearby encampment curiously asked me what we were setting up for. I explained that our friend Neil recently died and so we were celebrating his life by having a block party with food, clothes/socks, and other donated items… and that she was welcome to join us.
She responded… “Oh, Neil, the old guy with the walker died? He was such a sweet man. It’s really cool people are here to celebrate his life.”
Soon after we arrived a van pulled into the alley… it was Sunset Piano with a piano in the back of the van. It took a few of us, but we managed to wheel the piano out of the van and down the ramp without breaking it. The acoustics in the alley under the freeway were amazing! Neil would have loved it!
A small car pulled into the alley, with 2 Franciscan friars in their brown habits sitting in the front, and the back packed full to the brim with socks, clothes, hygiene products, tampons & pads (popular items!), blankets… you name it and it seems to be packed into the car. It reminded me of a clown car or Mary Poppins carpet bag… more and more items just kept coming out.
We only had a week to organize this event, but things seemed to work out well. The mood was very positive… great music, tasty food and plenty of socks so folks could stock up.
Throughout the afternoon I kept looking over at the spot where I had visited Neil over the past couple years… the very place he died in his tent on the street. I kept thinking about how this “soirée” would have brought him joy… especially the music.
Remembering Neil Taylor
I received word yesterday that Neil died… and I got confirmation this morning when I called the medical examiner.
Neil died on April 1st, which I think, with his humor, he would have found very amusing. His body was found in the same location where his tent and walker were destroyed last year during a sweep when he was in the emergency room. We went out looking for him yesterday with one of the attorneys to let him know he won his claim and could receive restitution. It was too late.
Neil was one of the people I became close with over the last couple years… his talent, charm and naughty sense of humor won me over immediately! Initially Bevan Dufty had asked me to go chat with him. Neil didn’t trust folks from the government, but Bevan knew I would be well received… and I was. He also really loved Sugar Magnolia Edwards and Maraea Master because they are amazing outreach workers and women!
Neil was a great storyteller and every time we spoke he always taught me about some bizarre historical event I wasn’t aware of. I was also given the privilege of hearing about his life adventures/story. His wife was his world and he always spoke about how much he loved her and how she’s the only one who could put up with him. She died a few years ago and it broke his heart… and he ended up losing his housing and becoming homeless. He was a Veteran and a brilliant pianist!
There were many nights Neil would be in his tent and give me a call… just to chat. He always made me laugh!!
Last year the media was doing stories on homelessness and the recent sweeps… and Neil was featured on the SF Examiner with this picture. Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez wrote an excellent article. I have this paper on my wall next to my desk.
I have been working with Swords to Plowshares to get him into housing, but it was challenging and never happened. Getting housing is tough these days… even for Veterans. He wasn’t willing to go to a shelter or SRO in the TL because he didn’t feel safe there. It wasn’t an adequate option for him. While living in a tent on the street, he was always making sure everyone around him didn’t go hungry. He was so giving with the little he had.
I received a call a couple months ago saying he had collapsed and told a bystander to contact me. It took me a bit to track him down because he was in the hospital for weeks. When I finally found him he told me his body was giving out… he was tired and wouldn’t be alive much longer. It came as no surprise to hear he died, but I have been dreading the news. I’m working on finding his next of kin, but the emergency contact he gave the service providers was me. I’ll continue to try to find his daughter. In the meantime I will have a priest say a Mass for him and arrange a memorial.
Neil taught me a lot. He taught me a lot about bizarre history and naughty jokes, but he also taught me a lot about faith and compassion for others. Rest in peace my friend.
Tents for All
Colonel Gaddafi used to travel the world
and carry a tent, as a good bedouin
he would not lodge in hotels.
Yesterday I took a piano and we played
in a tent encampment in San Francisco,
more modest tents, no Gaddafi.
And although the homeless were no bedouins neither,
the place felt like a desert,
the desolation being mostly the appalling
conditions these people have to endure
and yes, no water also.
We tried to put a merry show
honoring: Neil Taylor,
he died just there a week ago,
alone, in his tent, under the freeway,
to the noisy tune of incessant cars.
The homeless coalition contacted us,
Neil used to roll in his wheel chair
fifteen blocks to the UN plaza,
we got a piano there,
oxygen tank on his lap.
We would help him to the piano
and he would play with sparks of mastery
what it sounded like Rachmaninoff mixed with Gershwin ,
alas there were his own compositions.
There were dogs and volunteers yesterday, sharing
food and drinks and a couple of Franciscan monks
cool looking dudes in their robes, giving clothes away,
socks and blankets and adult diapers…
could not help to think how harsh must be in the streets
even dealing with a stomach ache,
the constant fear, the dangers of the job
of staying alive, all Jack London tales.
what a country I ve thought
what a century, like Bertolt Brecht said
and it is written in solid brass and etched into concrete
at the UN Plaza : “Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity
and the equal and inalienable rights
of all members of the human family
is the foundation of freedom
justice and peace in the world “
Even Gaddafi would have agreed with this….
mind you, it was a lovely sunny day
under the freeway, with tents.
All photos by Robert Gumpert.