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The Guardian of the Square

Gary Sheffield has carved out a purpose for himself in Highland Park.

Last Monday, May 31—Memorial Day—local veterans and community supporters filled Highland Park’s Veteran Memorial for what many said was the neighborhood’s most of the holiday in years.

Hundreds gathered at the Veterans Square Memorial, which in the preceding weeks had undergone an extensive cleaning thanks to members of American Legion Post 206, the and numerous more volunteers.

Considering the large turnout, it is possible that many attendees of the celebration never noticed the absence of one local veteran—Gary Sheffield.

His name is likely not familiar to many residents in Highland Park, but to those who walk past the square every day, his face might be.

Sheffield said he has been living on the streets in Highland Park for about two and a half years.

 “I used to stay in the parking lot over across the street in my sister’s old van,” Sheffield said, motioning toward the lot behind the Highland Park Senior Center. 

 He’s been sleeping on the cement bench as the Veterans Square Memorial for the last 9 months, he said, a home base he established after being shuffled out of the ’s parking lot in the fall.

 A service veteran himself, Sheffield said he served in the Army’s 25th Infantry Division in the 25th Medical Battalion between 1971 and 1973.

After leaving the army, Sheffield attended Los Angeles City College, but said he dropped out before graduating.

What follows, his said, was a long string of bad luck. He was involved in a car accident in the late 70’s in which, he said, a city dump truck crashed into the parked Datsun B210 in which he sat. 

 “My spine is still bent,” he said.

Sheffield said he’s currently in Highland Park to look after his sister, who has cancer. As to the question of why he’s sleeping at the square at night, and not at his sister’s house, he insists it’s because he prefers not to be a burden. She also has pets, Sheffield said, which disturb his sleep.

He lives a sort of monastic lifestyle at the square.  He won’t disclose his exact age, but said he’s in his early sixties and is considering a run at the Senior Olympics. He looks remarkably fit for a man of his professed age and will reel off a series of high leg kicks if ever he senses that his vitality is in any way doubted.

 Sheffield said he also fills his day by collecting bottles to recycle and reading the Bible; both tasks he undertakes with a grave and regimented seriousness.

Precisely quoted Bible passages are sprinkled into Sheffield’s speech, as are proud accountings of his recent bottle collecting efforts. His most recent haul was $13, he said.

Sheffield also provides a valuable community service at the square, according to several community members with a vested interested in the condition of the square.

Rick Marquez, who spear-headed the most recent Memorial Day cleanup effort, said Sheffield is due credit for helping to ward off would-be drug dealers from the square, a compliment Sheffield is only willing to partially accept.

Sheffield said he’s shooed off a few drug dealers from the square, but he said he puts more of his effort into keeping the park clean by picking up stray pieces of trash and empty cans and bottles.

“I can’t stand to see people toss their trash around, especially at a place like this. To me, that’s a sign of disrespect,” he said.  

As a result of his efforts, he’s also developed a relationship with members of Post 206, who said they do not oppose him staying at the square

“We have no problem with him being there, and we try to support him any way we can,” said Post 206 member Tony Howard.

One way in which post 206 has supported Sheffield is by giving him a key to a small storage compartment inside the wall of the square’s fountain.

In there, he keeps a small stereo, one of his most valued possessions. Sheffield is obsessed with music, and much like with his high leg kicks, seems compelled to prove his aptitude by singing the choruses to a hit list of 1960s and 70s chart toppers.

 One of the tunes he sings is the Beatles Come Together.

“One thing I can tell you is you got to be free,” Sheffield said, letting the final note ring out.

Joe Walker January 09, 2012 at 08:21 PM
Good feature article on one of Highland Park's many homeless, or as they say in Berkeley, "Street People".

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