Motorists and passersby near Vicente Foods on San Vicente Boulevard in Brentwood long ago grew accustomed to seeing a smiling Wendell Brown hold up a sign: Poems to Go or Uplifting Poems to Go.
Many of them viewed it as an invitation to roll down a window, hand the tall, bearded Brown a dollar — or, surprisingly often, $20 — and get a verse in return.
"Ballad of a Bushman" was one:
Some clustered bushes shelter me,
In loneliness and misery,
They shield me from the wind and cold,
And help keep what hopes I hold.
Brown, a homeless man who battled depression after serving in Vietnam but who won people's hearts with his upbeat demeanor and poems about life, loss, love and God, died Sept. 1 at Centinela Hospital Medical Center in Inglewood after a brief illness, said his daughter Trina D. Brown. He was 69.
Wendell McKelvy Brown was born Feb. 19, 1945, to Lucille Brown and Willie Scott in Little Rock, Ark. From infancy, he was reared by his mother and stepfather, William Vines. When he was baptized as a boy and learned about his biological father, he took Brown as his surname.
His mother, a housekeeper and later a cosmetologist, dreamed of a better life and moved to Inglewood. Vines followed and got a job as a fork-lift operator.
Brown married Marita Nelson in 1966, and they had a daughter, Trina, in 1967. Soon after, he was drafted and served as a sergeant in the U.S. Army in Vietnam in Qui Nhon, Binh Dinh province. He was honorably discharged in 1971.
He later blamed a shattering experience in Vietnam for problems and addictions that plagued him throughout his life, said his daughter, who lives in Jacksonville, Ark. As he was being pursued by Viet Cong soldiers, a woman hid him in her hut. The Viet Cong soldiers stabbed her to death. Brown emerged from his hiding spot and started firing, killing the two Viet Cong soldiers and an officer. From then on, he had visions and nightmares; his marriage failed and he ended up on the streets.
While working as a bricklayer in 1983, his daughter said, he had a flashback to the woman's death. He fell and suffered a back injury that made him unable to work.
Brown plied his poems in Brentwood for more than two decades, and they brought him a measure of fame. He read one of his poems to comedian Roseanne Barr on TV. In 2010, actress Jamie Lee Curtis posted an item about Brown and his poem "A Day to Be Thankful" on the Huffington Post website.
"I have read so many [of his poems] over the years and have always appreciated them and him," she wrote.
"He was a fixture," said Marc J. Jacoby, a business manager in Brentwood. "He was not a beggar, but I would always give him money. He was very appreciative."
Brown was buried Monday in Arkansas State Veterans Cemetery in North Little Rock.
In addition to Trina Brown, he is survived by two other daughters, Edith Moland and Wendi Brown; five siblings; three grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.
"Brentwood is like a family to me," Trina Brown recalled her father's saying. "I know if I'm hungry, within 30 minutes I'll have some food, and within a few hours I'll have some money."