Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Panhandler and pooch still have each other

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There's a reason I went to bed Sunday night rereading a book I had begun last year, but never finished.

Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend is the story of a famous movie and television canine actor and Lee Duncan, the owner who adored him, and the other Rin Tin Tins who came after. The relationship originated on a First World War battlefield where Rin Tin Tin was born, and where the American gunnery officer rescued the German shepherd pup in a shell-shattered military kennel. As a child -- before he was rescued by his mother -- Lee Duncan had spent three years in a kind of kennel for kids: a California orphanage.

"The experience," wrote author Susan Orleans, "shaped him. For the rest of his life, he was always deeply alone, always had the aloneness to retreat to, as if it was a room in a house. The only companion he would find in his life was his dog... "

That's the reason I was re-reading the book. The story reminded me of a column I had written earlier this month about my search for a man and his dog, and the relationship between Ernie the panhandler and his now hobbled-and-nearing-the-end-of-the- trail pooch, Gypsy.

Monday morning I was planning on continuing my month-long street search at the Exchange District rooming house where they occupy a room, but I can never find them home. That's why I wanted to be up early, hopefully before they woke and wandered off.

So, a few pages into the book, I put it down. And fell asleep.


-- -- --

Like Rin Tin Tin, the lives of Ernie and Gypsy have created its own legend in Winnipeg. Which is why I'm not the only one who has been wanting to do a well-being check on the popular pair since they stopped appearing at their regular corner a block from Siloam Mission. After the column appeared, emails began arriving with testimonials like this one:

"A number of years ago my wife and I began regularly visiting Ernie and Gypsy at Logan (Avenue) and Princess (Street). Quick stops soon turned into long conversations with Ernie and pets for Gypsy. We began bringing dog and cat food as well as a sandwich and small donation for Ernie every two weeks."

The couple last saw Ernie and Gypsy at the corner on Nov. 30.

"Gypsy's back legs were no longer functioning. He had to carry her down and up the stairs. She was barking and alive then. Ernie stated a friend was supposed to come by and take them to the vet. He was quite scared as Gypsy has been his best friend for years."

That's what originally prompted my search; their absence from their corner and learning that Ernie was carrying the big German shepherd-cross up the steep wooden fire escape to his room's back door.

I went there earlier this week, up the stairs to his back door. It was -22C. And the screen on the backdoor was peeled back, exposing the room to the cold.

Inside, beside Ernie's bed, there was a blanket on the floor, and a small space heater. The space heater was directed at the blanket on the floor.

Then another email.

It was from someone who has known Ernie for almost all of his 46 years.

"I will share with you because I want you to know why Ernie is who he is and why he deserves everyone's compassion. And why it didn't surprise me to learn that he named his dog Gypsy."

It turns out Ernie was struck by a vehicle and critically injured as a little boy. His father -- whom he would eventually end up caring for until he died 2 1/2 years ago -- was a truck driver when Ernie was young and rarely home. The family member closest to the sensitive little boy growing up was his a big black Lab.

Her name was Gypsy.


-- -- --

I awoke just after 7 o'clock Monday morning surprised to find Ernie on my family room couch.

Gypsy was cuddled on top of him.

I didn't think to ask him how he found me or got in the house, I just began asking him all the questions I'd been hoping to ask him, and he was answering them. I woke up to the realization it was just a dream while pouring milk into Ernie's bowl of cereal.

It was -37 C at 8:30 Monday morning when I arrived at the back of the rooming house where Ernie lives. Mercifully the gaping hole in the torn screened door had been plugged with something. I called his name. There was no answer. Not even a bark.

Before I left, a man who rents a parking spot at the back drove up. He said he had last seen Ernie two or three weeks ago. Ernie sounded distraught talking about Gypsy's health problems and the prospect of his companion dying. Then Ernie shared this with the man: When Gypsy goes, I have no reason to stay.

Another man drove up next door. He had more hopeful news. He had seen Ernie Sunday when a woman in a red Kia had picked him up.

Gypsy was in the backseat.

I hope the panhandler and the pooch are safe and warm and grateful to still have each other this Christmas Eve.

We should all be so blessed.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 24, 2013 B1

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