Without a Home Story - Sonny

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NOTE: This page is a daughter page of: Without a home stories

IMPORTANT REDIRECT: These articles now all live on www.withoutahome.net - please visit there instead !
.... and buy our "Homeless on Haight book" !

Sonny is the epitome of a giver. In a world full of takers, there is something refreshingly warm about Sonny - who despite a lifetime surrounded by death, always offers to help others, even if it's just to offer to take your trash. On an outside appearance, Sonny looks like he's from a biker gang, but a kind one. He used to carry around a huge knife in a sheath. I'm sure most people would be hesitant to even walk near someone with a knife and dressed like a biker, but his huge smile and friendly personality quickly lets people know that he isn't a threat to anyone, and if you learned more about his history you'd understand why he used to carry a knife.

To talk about Sonny is a huge challenge for me, because Sonny really needs his own entire book. When you sit down and really talk to Sonny you immediately realize the depth in sadness and profound messages in Sonny's story, and the stories he tells of the people he cares about. So to summarize all these stories into something short is impossible. I'm encouraging Sonny to film himself and upload some of his stories to YouTube, but let me just start with this.

Sonny was a huge inspiration for this book. The first time I saw Sonny I wasn't even living in Haight Ashbury, but I would frequent an incredible jazz cafe called "Club Deluxe" and Sonny was often outside, joking around with the bouncer and shooting the shit with whoever was hanging around outside. I think he enjoyed the sound of the jazz and the scene of people inside having fun. A few times I went outside to cool off and talked to Sonny. He was always quick to tell a great joke and laugh with you.

To everyone's sadness, Club Deluxe shut down, and it would be months before I moved to Haight-Ashbury and would see Sonny again. I'd ask other homeless people if they'd seen him, and when he finally reappeared I got to give him a hug and tell him that I'd started a book called "Homeless on Haight"... and since his friendliness had inspired the book, I was eager that he be one of the featured stories. Here is some of Sonny's story.


Sonny's Story

Thu, April 12, 2023:

Born: Year unknown but probably 1948s ± 2 years (~75 years old) in Olongapo in the Philippines.

About: Sonny's history is colorful and rough. Sonny was born in Olongapo in the Philippines, which at that point was a known hotbed of crime, unrest and sex for sale. Olongapo is the place where all the surrounding US naval base people go to "party". It was a rough town where people were told to hide their necklaces else it would be stolen, and it wasn't unheard of for people to shoot children and often ask to sleep with children. Sonny reflects that his life was always felt surrounded by "a lot of death" and that started early. He's the most cruel thing done to human beings, and seen the abusers walk away smiling. Sonny asked that I be a little secretive about his parents, but suffice it to say that Olongapo has its own word “Amerasians” for a group that bears the stigma of orphanage and prostitution. It was a cruel childhood.

One day a group of men came across to the Philippines and discovered a young white boy, speaking Tagal (Filipino) and with blue eyes. He had no idea who his parents were but he was being sold off. Someone associated with the Hudson family (as in the "Hudson Bay Trading company") bought him up for adoption to get him off the street and suddenly Sonny was growing up in the area with "three different dads" to help raise him right in this rough murderous neighborhood. One of them Sonny remembered said "The boy doesn't have an off switch", another that he was too intelligent for his own good. And one of these three adopted dads was Sonny Barger, the famous American outlaw biker and a founding member of the Oakland, California chapter of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club. It was through his respect for his adopted son that Sonny ended up with his first name "Sonny".

Sonny wouldn't come to the US till after the Vietnam war was over. An Air Force intelligence officer helped adopt him into the country but it was an immediate issue that he didn't have a proper birth certificate. At various points Sonny recalls that people wanted to cut off his benefits and one investigator who asked him "who are you really, nothing matches up for you". Maybe it adds to the sense of mystery, but a little research on Olongapo's history might give you the hard truth about what can and has happened near several US naval bases overseas. Sonny had found the means to move to the United States and in 1976 (late 20s) first came to San Francisco. Sonny eventually found work, found love, got married and moved out of San Francisco to work in security all over the place. New York, Florida, Atlanta and Chicago were just a few cities in security. Sonny would soon be working as head of security for big bars and restaurants. Due to his people skills, he was sometimes employed for limited time to venues when there was a killer or rapist in town. Sonny would be amazing to talk to everyone inside the venue and prostitutes in the area to help identify or at least keep away the source of danger. One of his toughest jobs was head of security for a set of three bars during a world fair in New Orleans in 1984. It sounds like Sonny built a reputation and someone that could be counted on to keep people safe and happy. His proudest gig was when he was given "The Firehouse" New Orleans to manage. He was living in the apartment upstairs, and there was an actual fire pole he could slide down into the bar to get to work in the morning.

The happiness didn't last. After a big climb, Sonny was about to receive a huge blow. Sonny's wife was raped while he was at work. When he returned she wasn't there and then he was told to please call the pastor, who had somehow discovered what had happened. During this assault, his wife contracted aids, and her parents came to help. She died six months later. Sonny was devastated.

After Sonny's wife passed, Sonny returned to San Francisco. He was so depressed, friends helped out by keeping him occupied and drunk from keeping him from suicide. But Sonny couldn't handle the pain. Sonny had a plan to go to Blue lake with a shotgun to end his own life in privacy. To go quietly into the night. He had a plan to just disappear deep into the woods and all they would ever find of him would be bones. Fate had other ideas. He was sitting on the edge of a river on the day of his planned suicide and looking at happy families on the other side. The life he didn't have. The water levels were particularly high after rain, and a family passed by on a white water kayak tour, when a woman hit an eddy, capsized and she got stuck in a tree underwater. She was being dunked up and down and likely to drown, with people screaming in horror on the other side of the river. People on the other side were unable to save her, but not fearing death, Sonny threw aside his walking cane and jumped in and managed to get to her. He held her out of the water and eventually they threw them a rope. Sonny kept the woman on top of him and got her to safety, but just before hitting shore, Sonny lost his grip on the rope. He went downstream and hit his head badly, causing some spinal injury. Sonny was hospitalized for six months.

Sonny never did get to hear a thank you from the family, but in the hospital he realized that he had reason for living. To help people in need. Sonny very modestly told me: "I planned to commit suicide that day. I realized that I didn't save that woman's life. She saved mine. He said he was sad he'd never get to thank that woman for saving his life". Just writing these words down is causing me to cry. Fate intervened.

Sonny pulled himself out of depression. It was at this time Sonny started hoping with the "Compassionate Release Program for Dying Inmates". It was rough work, and obviously surrounded by death, but his hope was that there was sometimes a chance to have prisoners released to hospice to enjoy slightly better dignity in their last years or moments of life. Within a single year period, Sonny was able to get 15 inmates out of prison and it was clearly one of the most incredible things he, or anyone, could have done with their life. Just to let someone know that, despite their life mistakes, they could enjoy some dignity and self reflection in the last moment of their life. Sonny had effectively already decided that the remainder of his life would be devoted to helping others, and without going into all the details of Sonny's life and other tragedies, this is a good point for us to fast-forward to the present day.

Sonny tears up often when relaying the parts of my life, as do I. So the interview has been spaced over three sessions. At points he talks so fast, I needed to (for the first time) bring out my laptop and try to type quickly to keep up. I'm almost certain I have pieces of the story wrong, and there are honestly moments of his story that seem surreal... like they were imagined. How could Sonny possibly have met so many famous people for instance. Well working security in New York can do that! I'm not here to tell all of Sonny's side stories about famous musicians and their children though. I would often have to prompt Sonny to return to his own story. But then again. Sonny's story is absolutely intertwined with the people he cares about.

Twice while chatting with Sonny on the street, and once while sharing a beer, the famous father Dan walked past and Sonny waved him to come over so we all do fist bumps and cracked a couple of jokes. Sonny loves singing the praises of father Dan and raves about "the positive transformation that father Dan, and his attitude, and the way he engages his kids on the street... has been overwhelming". Sonny has an impressive vocabulary. I've heard him use amazing words like "demonstrous", but I think "overwhelming" is one of Sonny's favorite words. He uses it with emphasis. Overwhelming. He tears up a little every-time he talks about someone that has done great good in the world, or someone that has done great bad. Sonny is quite versed with father Dan's story and says that the father's only sin is doing crosswords in a pen. And for that he joked to father Dan he should beg the lord for forgiveness every night.

More than anything, Sonny loves to talk about "his kids". It feels like Sonny knows everyone. Over the last few years he's seen 22 of his kids die in the Haight area alone, many more if he counts and LA and other areas he hangs out. Many of them overdoes, some old age and medical issues, some murdered, some raped and murdered. All these stories should be written down in my humble opinion. Lives lost that have all deeply affected Sonny, and you can see it when his eyes water up. Don't get me wrong, despite all the laughs we have, this interview was tough. I've never really interviewed people in my life, so I don't know the rules, but I like to think I've done an okay job of letting Sonny pause, and will give him a chance to read what I've written in his own time.

Sonny's "kids know him well, and help take care of him. Sonny has a small income from a pension, and knows people who can help him get a bus ticket if he wants to catch the Greyhound bus or Amtrak between Los Angeles and San Francisco. He has a system. Sonny is definitely nomadic, at times he's owned a car, but often they get towed. I mean this is San Francisco. Sonny says he usually sleeps wherever, sometimes people will take him into a motorhome, sometimes in the woods. He seems happy to say that he usually has a pillow under his head. One of the kids nicknamed him "Growling bear", he doesn't like to be poked in the morning! At the end of one of our interviews, I gave Sonny a hundred, because I knew he would immediately take that money and buy some food for all the kids hanging out on the corner. I find the words “kids” amusing, because they are not all youngsters, but I guess compared to Sonny, they might seem like youngsters.

Sonny has talked to so many people about their stories. And often doesn't feel like he can possibly share the stories of pain that he's had. I'm glad that he did though. I only wrote a fraction of these stories down. Sometimes it was important to just listen. When I first saw Sonny again after a long period away, he had been in hospital in LA. He had gotten very sick and realized he didn't know how many years he had left. He cried a little when I walked up to him and said I had started interviewing some of his fellow homeless folk - his kids - to write a book. He told me when he thinks of death he still wants to make a positive difference in the world. I told him he already has. To me, to the woman's life he saved, to dozens of people he pulled out of jail to regain dignity, and honestly... There are few people in this world who have touched as many hearts already as Sonny.

Sonny people stories: I'm just picking just one "Sonny story" about another person, to drill home that there is a great prejudice on the streets. The story is a black boy called Kong. Kong used to hang out near Flipping burger, and when the crew first found him he was dressed in a terrible way, sweatpants and stained, so Sonny and the boys got together to help buy some clothes and dressed him. At the time, Kong was sleeping outside people's houses on the street - not in a tent - and peed into a 5 gallon bucket. Sonny watched as one resident took that bucket while Kong was asleep, and poured it all over him. Sonny tells me there is a passage in the bible about God knowing "every grain of sand". When we first saw Kong he looked like a road kill, but we saw potential and dressed him up. And yet someone to someone else, they saw human garbage. He tells me he can deal with people who see the homeless as visible, but it hurts his heart to see people treat someone like trash. Sonny himself has also had people who live in the neighborhood deliberately urinate all over his stuff to show that he was not welcome. And he says, plenty of people in shops tell him outright that he is garbage, just because he is in homeless attire. In the same streets where you have an amazing man like father Dan, you have these awful people. It hurts his heart. People can be treated worse than invisible, in a supposedly progressive place like San Francisco.

What is the hardest lesson you learned on the streets: Sonny says his hardest lessons were actually indoors. When things go wrong in relationships, you are stuck there, you can have people with demonstrous behavior and you can't just leave. His hardest lessons were from people who on the outside looked like they wanted to be loving and nurture and care for him. But often these people did the opposite.

Something you are proud of: Sonny says he's proud of his unofficial father Ralph (Sonny Berger). Barger was instrumental in unifying various disparate Hells Angels chapters and had the club incorporated in 1966. Barger served a total of 13 years in prison, following a conviction for cocaine trafficking, but Sonny says he was a decent man who got throat cancer, and in the last years of his life was able to atone for any sins and ride out of life with a clear conscience.

What tips might you offer someone newly homeless: To keep doing good for others, and stay peaceful always. "Violence is the last resort of a desperate individual who's stopped using commonsense".

What are your aspirations: Sonny would love to write books. "I know I have at least 5-6 books in me". If it makes money, some of it would go to buy some of the kids some prefab houses, and some would go into Slab City, an unincorporated, off-the-grid alternative lifestyle community in the Sonoran Desert in California. Aside from that Sonny would want to just continue what I'm doing, there isn't a reason to change.

Sonny's reading recommendations: I haven't done "watching recommendation" for anyone else, but I really love the Sonny told me a list of three books I should read: (1) "Black like me", a story about prejudice in the 60s, (2) "Jonathan Livingston Seagull", a story about freedom and self-realization, and the "The Art of War" by Sun Tzu. He says the one movie everyone should watch is "Pay it Forward", which he hopes would have a ripple effect on the world.

Sonny and I