One smile bestowed upon you from Larry Brinegar and you will feel happy the rest of your day.
We may know this to be true here at the Real Change office, but we’re hardly alone. Approximately 546 Real Change supporters and customers “liked” and 55 “shared” the good news that Real Change recently posted on Facebook about Larry: After experiencing homelessness for 4½ years, Larry made the transition from his tent to housing. Thanks to one persistent man, and the organization Operation Nightwatch (ON), which provides services to poor, disabled, elderly and homeless people, Larry can rest easier than he has in years.
“Two months ago, I met a guy named Ben who worked with ON. One day, he came by me when I was selling, and held a sheet out to me; and said ‘Fill this out,’” Larry explained. “I told him I’d turn it in the next morning and he wouldn’t let me. He said, ‘Fill it out now.’ And I did.”
Two days later, Larry had an appointment with ON. He made it clear that “they grilled” him, but one of the interviewers happened to be Native American, and Larry just so happens to speak conversational Sioux. The rest is history. Ben even helped Larry with the deposit: “He bent over backwards to aid me. That’s heavy.” Larry’s eyes brim with tears and his face turns a little cherry. “He’s beautiful people …just good people.”
Larry’s snow-white eyebrows frame his blue eyes — which, in his 66 years, have seen a lot. He was raised in Plymouth, Michigan, outside Detroit, a place he dubs “Bob Seger country.” He was born on Sept. 11, 1948, and acknowledges that “2001 was a heck of a wake up … 9/11 on my birthday. My lady woke me up early in the morning, and what was on TV looked more like a movie at first, until I saw the ticker across the bottom. That was one hell of a birthday present.”
While Larry is biologically the youngest of nine brothers and sisters (“A good Irish family”), he was adopted at around 3 years old and had a fine upbringing. He attended school up until the ninth grade, then quit and wound up in the Marine Corps.
He called being a Marine “an experience, that’s for sure,” and served in the Vietnam War from ’67 to ’68. Afterward, he received his GED and moved to New Orleans. He fondly recalls the restaurant Busters, where you could get rice and beans and all the bread and water you wanted for only 75 cents. Another 50 cents gave you a slab of meat.
Larry then shimmied over to L.A., and San Francisco, where he lived for 20 years. He learned the art of wound-dressing when a series of drastic changes left his then-wife without her left leg from the knee-down. “The doc taught me how to do dog-ear dressings on amputee stumps. I really enjoyed doing it, because I was helping. I was giving back.”
After traveling to Portland and separating from his wife, Larry met a woman who became his partner for the next six years: “She was Native American, and we wound up moving to South Dakota to live on the Rosebud Sioux reservation. I danced in the All Nation’s Powwow on the Fourth of July. They used to cook buffalo meat and make soup. Buffalo burgers are the best; mixture of beef and buffalo, great stuff.”
The Sioux words Larry remembers sound like water trickling in a stream. “Did you know ‘Dakota’ means ‘friend behind you?’ I sometimes like to surprise people with it. I went up to someone in Pioneer Square once who looked Native and asked him for a cigarette in Sioux, and he was blown away,” he laughs.
After leaving the reservation, Larry permanently moved to Seattle. He speaks highly of the city — and the generosity that’s pulled him through tough times. “One guy, he would regularly give me $20 bills. Another, during Christmas, known as the ‘$5 guy,’ had me walk with him to his car, and then he gave me a wad of money. I didn’t even look at it until I got home, and he had given me $105.”
“Still, I’ve seen homeless people come up to help me quicker than many with jobs. They know what it’s like — they’ll give you something. Others, though, are afraid of the homeless. I’ve seen quite a few on Capitol Hill avert their eyes. They just gotta open their minds, to give people a chance and try to get to know us.”
Larry has been a vendor since 2002 when vendor Roger Secourt told him to give it a try. He has made his spot at Fourth and Pine, outside what used to be a Rite-Aid. Through thick and thin, Larry advises other vendors, and those experiencing homelessness: “Think positive and never give up. Somewhere down the line, there’s a will and there will be a way. As the street saying goes, ‘stay up.’”
But really, all he wants to say is: “Thank you, thank you, thank you all. Thank you for your kind hearts, your generosity, and for your help.” With a small smile beneath his yellow-tinged mustache and a handful of newspapers poking out of his large sweatshirt pocket — we’re thankful, too … thankful for the Larry we know, and the Larry we love.