Hole in the street - Page 2

How one homeless man's death impacted the various Haight Street communities he looked after

Belligerent drunks, ambulances speeding to the emergency room half a block north, and road-raged drivers blaring their horns at a badly designed left turn are part of the daily ruckus. Cops show up regularly. "People would call us about trash and shopping carts or about drunks yelling and screaming and fighting each other," Andrews told us. "And you have all types of guys up there in the horseshoe pit."

Hidden amid the trees in the northeast corner of Golden Gate Park, the horseshoe pit is known as a gathering place for hardcore drug users. Nothing remains of its original incarnation except some rusty equipment and a faded life-size mural of a horse. Today it's a haphazard jumble of used needles, sleeping bags, and seedy characters often too messed up to talk. Despite having this hub as his home, Cummings stayed relatively drug-free for the past four years. And between his Veterans Affairs and Social Security checks, he was bringing home about $3,000 a month. Instead of paying rent, Cummings used his income to buy liquor for himself and food for everyone in the park. "Where does all my money go?" he used to ask people walking their dogs as his friends munched on hot dogs and piroshkis on the grass behind him.

"He used to buy cartons of milk and leave them quietly next to people who he thought would need it," remembers Jerry, a 52-year-old chronically homeless man and one of Cummings's best friends.

Cummings kept his past well hidden from his park friends, but when he died, dozens of people in the Upper Haight–North Panhandle area came out with stories about him from the past two decades, back to a time when he was sober, happily married, and a model member of the community.

"People used to call him the mayor of Cole Valley," said Jacob Black, a cab driver. "He knew everybody in town."

Cummings was born in Melrose, Mass., on March 11, 1954. He lived there with his parents and two siblings until his father, an engineer at a forklift company, was transferred to Oregon in 1971. "[Peter] picked on me a lot, but I always outsmarted him," younger brother Rick Cummings, who is a sales rep in the health care industry, told us. "It was a typical brotherly thing." Cummings joined the Coast Guard at age 20 and developed a lifelong love for the ocean while stationed in Hawaii and Guam. He was honorably discharged in 1978 when he injured his knee on an open hatch cover.

For the next couple years, Cummings wandered around Northern California, growing pot and mushrooms in the mountains and sleeping on the beach. "He always attacked me for my middle-class, suburban lifestyle," Rick says. "He never wanted that." For most of the '80s, Cummings lived under a seedy bridge in downtown Portland, with a heroin addiction and early symptoms of bipolar disorder. He ended up in San Francisco, where he decided to give sobriety a shot. As Rick said, "He had it together enough mentally to know that he had to either get cleaned up or die."

Once in San Francisco, Cummings took lithium for his bipolar disorder, joined Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, and by all accounts stayed sober for almost 14 years. For the first time in his adult life, everything was going really well. He got married to a beautiful Peruvian woman, rented an apartment in Cole Valley, bought a used Jaguar and a Boston whaler, which he took out for salmon fishing in the bay, and was constantly surrounded by a solid group of friends. He even worked as a drug rehab counselor at the Haight Ashbury Free Clinics.

Cummings was known among AA and NA circles as a handsome, spiritual role model with a killer sense of humor who always brought fresh fish to barbecues. "When I got sober, I was living on the streets and hated life," friend Dana Scheer says. "Pete reached out to me as he did to countless people.