Life on the streets is hard, with a jungle full of dangers and few perks. Predators stalk the nights, and rare is the hero who runs to the rescue as fading cries of pain die in silence. When one does, his name is whispered with awe and respect. The name they're whispering these days is Gary Paquin.
With little to offer but time and a sense of justice, the 6-foot-1, red-bearded Anglo gathered together a small army of Hollywood street people to rescue one of their own from a legal system that was about to swallow him.
That they succeeded is a tribute to what Paquin calls "two blacks, a Guatemalan, a Salvadoran, a Mexican and me."
The man they rescued is 24-year-old Jorge Guerra, also a Salvadoran, who came to the U.S. nine years ago, running from a nightmare. Jerked into the Army as a teen-ager, he was ordered to kill a Contra prisoner with a machete and ended up wounding him severely.
Guerra's mother fled to the U.S. with her badly shaken son. He attended high school in L.A. but, unable to find work and still haunted by dreams of a bloody machete, ended up on the street.
Paquin, 49, a typesetter, met him five years ago. Paquin's apartment off Hollywood Boulevard overlooked a vacant lot that had become an encampment for half a dozen homeless men. One of them was Guerra.
Recently separated from his wife of 26 years, Paquin eased his own loneliness by befriending the men. He would take down a six pack of beer and they would respond by sharing what food they had.
The exchange nourished a friendship rare in a climate where the need to survive can ride roughshod over humanitarian instincts.
Paquin often let them live in his apartment, though his own existence is borderline. He works for a small biweekly newspaper that pays him a minimal salary. What he has, he shares. Asked why, he replies, "Because I'm able."
Friendship has many tests, and one of them arose three weeks ago. Guerra, youngest of the homeless at the encampment they called "El Rancho," had been arrested for robbery.
Paquin couldn't believe it. "There is all kinds of trouble Jorge can get into," he says, "but robbery isn't one of them."
The men of El Rancho told Paquin that Guerra had simply been in a fight with a bully everyone called Little Jesse. The fight started when Little Jesse began making racial comments about two black street people who also occasionally shared Paquin's apartment.
Little Jesse, with a history of mental disability, claimed that Guerra had robbed him. The legal system moved swiftly. Guerra was arrested and charged. He faced eight years in prison.
Paquin couldn't let that happen. "I had no money and I had no lawyer," he says, "but at least I could get truth into the hands of those who would recognize it."
He interviewed all of the witnesses, took their testimony and wrote a letter detailing the evidence that would prove Guerra's innocence. He hand-delivered it to a desk officer at the LAPD's Northeast Division but heard nothing in response.
Guerra seemed destined for hard time in a state prison.
But Paquin had one more card to play in a game he seemed almost certain to lose. On the day of Guerra's preliminary hearing, he gathered up the street people and headed for the courtroom: Juan, Victor, Jesus, Tyrone, Guy and Paquin.
Two blacks, a Guatemalan, a Salvadoran, a Mexican and me.
At least two of them were in this country illegally but were willing to risk their own futures for the young man they all looked out for. That's what friendship is about.
In court, Paquin approached a public defender and told her he had witnesses to prove Guerra's innocence. She put him together with an investigator from her office, but it wasn't necessary.
The two cops who had arrested Guerra appeared in court . . . with Paquin's letter in hand. They gave it to the deputy district attorney, who read it. There was a murmured conversation. Then, in a fraction of the time it took for Guerra to get there, he was a free man. The case had been dismissed.
The public defender thanked the six men for coming and said to Guerra with a slight smile, "You have a large family."
Guerra's gratitude is beyond words. He says only that he was afraid, and that if it hadn't been for Paquin. . . . He shakes his head. The rest is too much to imagine.
Paquin calls their triumph "a little bit of justice," but not the end. He'll go on helping when anyone needs it. "I don't have much to offer," he says, "but then . . . they don't require much."
Having a hero in the hard and often unforgiving streets is enough.