Friendship, second chances and rock ‘n’ roll
Ernest Coleman (right) with his friend Erskin Gregory, relaxing and listening to music at Dupont Circle Park. Photo: Annette Birch
by Annette Birch
Ernest Coleman is 62 years old, living in a homeless shelter, without a job or much money. But for now, that doesn’t matter. Right now, he is just sitting on a bench in Dupont Circle Park with his friend Erskin Gregory, blasting Chuck Berry’s version of “Roll Over Beethoven” from a tiny portable stereo.
“I come here every day, play music and make people happy,” he says. “It helps us and it helps them.”
The two men are a common sight in the park, sharing their love of rock ‘n’ roll of the 1950s with the people walking by. Some may find it a distraction, but on this day Coleman is happy, because in two weeks he gets an apartment and he is no longer addicted to alcohol and drugs.
Gregory, who has just turned 66 years, nods, making the Redskins chain around his neck rattle. “I met Ernie out here at Dupont Circle. Three years ago. He is my buddy. We play music and dance with people.”
Some people passing by stop and listen to the music. “I come here every day. I love the old rock ‘n’ roll,” Kenny Auster says and sits down at a nearby bench. He is supervisor at DC Main Streets, which is a local governmental program that supports retail investment in the District through the retention and expansion of existing businesses and the recruitment of new businesses.
Michael Kay agrees. He works nearby as an architect and comes here every day with his yellow-orange dog Rosie, a mix between a golden retriever and Australian cattle dog.
Steven Oliver, who manages the small park for the National Park Service, believes the music makes a difference for the people in the park and people passing by. “The music is good for the area. It reduces a lot of stress around here. Some people stop and listen. Some stop and dance.”
Gregory pops another tape into the stereo and Carl Perkins begins singing “Blue Suede Shoes.” Coleman dances a few steps and then sits down with Gregory. “Erskin is my friend. We want the same things like being drug-free, having a good time, talking about positive things. I can always talk to him about problems I am having and he gives me some good advice.”
Coleman and Gregory met three years ago in the park, where Gregory was playing music and Coleman used to come with his father. Both Coleman and Gregory enjoyed listening to rock ‘n’ roll from the 1950s and they found that they could talk about everything. It was also Gregory who supported Coleman, when he decided to stop drinking and join a rehabilitation program for men at the Oxford House, which is an umbrella organization with connections to treatment facilities for houses established, supported and run by recovering individuals. “He is a pretty good influence, because he does not drink or take drugs,” Coleman says about his friend. Although Gregory used to drink and take drugs, he stopped when he realized it was getting him nowhere. “So he is doing pretty good now. Since I stopped drinking and doing drugs, I have been doing pretty good,” Colemna says.
But it has not always been like this. Coleman has been drinking since he was 17 years old, a habit he picked up from his father. The drinking escalated when he went to Vietnam for three and a half years. He also got into heroin in order to deal with the shock of seeing his friends getting killed and the daily fear of being destroyed himself.
Back home, Coleman lost his job to alcohol and heroin, and after he lost the woman he loved to sickle cell anemia, things just went from bad to worse and in the end he left where he was living and went to the streets. For over 15 years Coleman lived from day to day on the streets, sleeping in the parks, drinking out of open containers and getting food where he could find it. “The truth is, it is a living hell being homeless. Because you know you sleep on the outside, you don’t know if someone’s going to hurt you or not, you cannot really sleep, because you have to have one eye open and one eye closed all the time.”
Sitting on a bench at Dupont Circle Park with his friend Gregory beside him and Bill Haley and the Comets singing “See you later, alligator” in the background, it seems like a long time ago, and yet the consequences remain. Coleman still needs to move into his new apartment and find a job. But for now, he is sitting in the park on a nice day with his friends, blasting their favorite songs.