The man you see above is Tim Plummer . “It’s Plummer like the football player,” Tim tells me, alluding to longtime NFL quarterback Jake “The Snake” Plummer as we speak casually on the front steps of my San Francisco apartment. “I’m supposed to be famous anyways!” he exclaims with a huge smile and a chuckle, acknowledging the irony of his previous statement. Tim is one of nearly ten thousand estimated homeless members of San Francisco’s population, although you would never know this was the case given the cheerful demeanor he constantly exudes.
My friends and I first met Tim one night not long after I moved to San Francisco. We were returning from a music festival, all of us dressed in ridiculous costumes, when we stumbled upon Tim sitting on a fire hydrant on my street corner. Rather than asking us for money, as most people would be inclined to do if they were in his position of need, Tim approached us as if he was a friend we had planned to meet up with at exactly that moment all along. He greeted us with high fives and fist bumps, seemingly disregarding the fact that he was now interacting with a group of twenty-somethings disguised as penguins and furry green monsters, among other things. It wasn’t long before our conversation turned into to a full blown dance party, Tim exhibiting a beat boxing talent that far exceeded the horrible dance moves we were putting on display for a group of slightly disturbed onlookers. As all good things do, our festivities with Tim that night came to an end before too long, and we headed home after tossing him some money that he would later use to buy food. Tim had never so much as made a mention of us giving him cash. He seemed to know ahead of time that we would enjoy his company so much that we would offer him some help without request.
After that night, I would stop and have friendly conversations with Tim on a daily basis. He was always jovial and polite, not just to those who gave him money, but to every person he encountered on the street corner. Each time I spoke with Tim, I couldn’t help but wonder how a person who lived his life with so little could maintain such a positive outlook. I also began to notice how hard he worked for any scrap of income he could bring in.
Tim was nothing like the stereotype society attributes to the homeless. He was not lazy, in fact, he was just the opposite. It would not be an uncommon occurrence for me to leave for work at 8 am and find Tim power washing the side walk on my street. It was also not uncommon for me to come home from dinner at 10 pm and see him hauling heavy items from a nearby basement to the back of a van. Tim received most of his work opportunities from a kind neighbor who would employ his help for handyman tasks of a wide variety, but he never hesitated to accept an additional odd job from a local business. As long as there was money involved, Tim would tackle the task with a determined spirit.
Tim’s upbeat attitude and unflagging work ethic made him a popular man in our area. It seemed that everyone knew him, but even those who had never met Tim were immediately drawn to his personality. Like many others in the neighborhood, I soon came to consider Tim as an indispensable part of our community. It was not until late one fall night, however, that an unforgettable event would occur. An event so powerful, that it would lead me to forever call Tim a true friend of mine.
Half a Life Squandered
Before we get to the happenings of that pivotal night, it is only fair that I tell you the harrowing tale that is Tim Plummer’s life. Tim told me this story over a series of long interviews that took place, as many of our conversations did, on my front steps. No matter how tragic the topic he was addressing during these interviews, a smile would remain on his face. Tim held nothing back during these exchanges. He was honest about his mistakes and the continuous neglect he demonstrated. It is certainly not a pretty narrative, but the path that his life has taken has shaped Tim into the man he is today.
Tim was born in Berkeley, CA in 1967. His biological father was absent during his childhood, and Tim was raised by a single mother for the majority of his formative years. As the youngest of thirteen children, Tim has nothing but fond memories of his early youth, despite the fact that his mother had the responsibility of him and his many siblings entirely upon her shoulders. “My mom did what she could. I was raised by a single parent. I’ve only seen my Dad two or three times. Other than that, everything was good. We was raised good, we ate good, we were clean, had clean clothes. My mom, she provided for us real good.”
When Tim was eight years old, his mother was remarried. Since Tim was the baby of the family, he was the only one of the children who went with his mother when she moved with her new husband to North Oakland, about 5 miles away. While the rest of Tim’s siblings stayed in Berkeley and were taken care of by the oldest of his sisters, Tim was whisked into a much more fortunate situation. His new stepfather owned a trucking company, and they moved into a nice, small home in which Tim had his own bedroom. It wasn’t long, however, before things took a turn for the worse. “My step pops was an alcoholic,” Tim told me during one of our conversations, “he was a functional alcoholic. He was the type of alcoholic that functioned, but he was a violent alcoholic. I had never experienced that. It scared me.” One night, at the age of twelve, Tim could not bring himself to look on silently as his mother was once again beaten by his drunken stepfather. He went to the kitchen and retrieved a knife. He then approached his stepfather from behind and plunged the blade deep into his back. Tim’s stepfather was rushed to the hospital, where his life would be saved by the resident doctors.
Just a twelve year old boy, Tim was sure that his fear motivated act would land him in prison, but that would not end up being the case. Instead, Tim was sent to live with the rest of his siblings back in Berkeley. While it seemed like avoiding juvenile hall was a blessing at the time, it turns out that moving back to Berkeley may have been one of the most detrimental events to have taken place in his young life. “When I moved back to Berkeley with my brothers and sisters, I got hooked up with the drug trade.” It did not take long for Tim to find himself deeper in the drug trade than any pre-teen should ever be. At the ripe age of twelve, Tim sold his first crack rock. His dealings in the drug game would only escalate from there.
The stabbing had a very different effect on Tim’s stepfather’s life than it did on that of the young boy. Upon being released from the hospital “Step Pops”, as Tim now affectionately refers to him, swore off all alcohol. He would end up never having another drink for the rest of his life after that night, and eventually went on to become a preacher. With a clear head now on his shoulders, Tim’s stepfather forgave him, and it wasn’t long before Tim moved back in with his mother and Step Pops.
Fearing that North Oakland was too dangerous an environment for Tim, his stepfather soon moved himself, the boy, and his mother to Pittsburgh, California. Pittsburgh was much more affluent than North Oakland, but that didn’t mean that Tim stayed out of trouble. “Pittsburgh, at that time, they didn’t know nothing about being ghetto; the hood and stuff. But I did, so I kind of took advantage of that.” It wasn’t long before Tim had created a name for himself in his new neighborhood. He began doing the pesky jobs that no one else wanted to take on for the families in the area, giving him a good reputation among the parents and allowing him to assemble a group of friends his age. “I was like a leader. I don’t know how it became, but they kind of followed my lead. I had a nice little crew.” Unfortunately, Tim began using his role as the leader among his friends for shady purposes. He soon had the group of children stealing bike parts and engaging in many other misdemeanor activities. But for Tim, this petty theft was not enough. “I found out where the drug trade was at in Pittsburgh and I started selling dope.”
When Tim entered high school at the age of fifteen, he had already become an experienced drug dealer. Taking advantage of the naivete of the students at his school, Tim would spend much of his day selling drugs to his classmates at prices that far exceeded the street value. As a 9th grader, Tim found himself working in a routine that saw him arriving at school for his first period gym class, after which he would sell pot in the school courtyard. He would then leave the school grounds, heading for the streets to sell crack and other drugs to the more hardened users of Pittsburgh. Tim would return to school several hours later each day, always making sure to be back in time for his favorite class, wood shop. “I loved wood shop because I’m an artist. I would always come back just in time for wood shop, which was sixth period. I used to make my Mom all kinds of stuff.” The small bit of teenage normalcy that found its way into Tim’s life was entirely contained in that sixth period each day. As soon as the woodworking class ended, Tim would return to the streets to sell dope.
By the time he turned sixteen, Tim’s life had turned upside down once again. Just a junior in high school, he was already expecting his first child. With this life changing event in mind, Tim dropped out of school to work full time at his step father’s trucking company. Despite the fact that he now had a stable source of income and a daughter on the way, Tim showed little advancement in terms of his maturity. Failing to recognize how detrimental his conduct could potentially be to his daughter once she was born, Tim continued to plunge deeper and deeper into the drug trade. With his mind clouded by personal drug abuse, he showed a complete lack of poise when his his daughter was born a shocking five months premature, weighing in at just one pound and one quarter ounces at the time of birth. “The day she was born, her [the mother of the child] family came to get me. So I told them ‘Ok, I’m on my way’. But instead of being on my way, I went and got drunk. I was celebrating. I was a youngster, I didn’t know what was going on.” It took Tim two more days to finally make it to the hospital, at which point he saw just how troubling the premature birth was: “She was littler than my hand.”
Tim’s daughter spent a full year and a half in an incubator before miraculously gaining enough strength to finally be taken home from the hospital. During this time, Tim completely disregarded the fact that his infant was continually in a life or death position. Rather than making an effort to be by his child’s side, Tim once again spent his time on the streets, rising through the ranks of the drug game. His extensive involvement in the trade of narcotics, however, would soon come crashing down upon him. Just two days after his daughter was released from the hospital, seventeen year old Tim was caught by the authorities with 5.5 kilos of cocaine, several guns, and more than $180K in cash. He was also found to be in charge of six homes that were being used as drug outposts.
Shortly thereafter, Tim was found to be guilty of all the charges on his Scarface-esque rap sheet and was sentenced to time in the state penitentiary. Luckily for the seventeen year old, Tim’s older brother had served an extended sentence at the same prison to which he was headed. “When I got to the penitentiary, as I’m standing in line, four guys came up to me and their like ‘Yo, you John Boy’s brother, right? Get out of line, we got you.’ They helped me through the penitentiary. They showed me how to do it.” With these four mentors in tow, Tim soon experienced an unlikely turn around.
Whereas the majority of Tim’s young adulthood up to this point had revolved around drugs, his new life within the prison walls was entirely devoid of the sinister substances. Once he lost the ability to sell and consume drugs, Tim found himself becoming a productive individual. He soon began focusing intensely on his first love: Art. He would hand make customized t-shirts using his artwork and sell them to his fellow inmates. Lacking any formal art supplies, Tim also began producing paintings and drawings on any surface which he found to be even slightly suitable to satisfy his vast creative imagination. With art as his inspiration, he started to make strides in other aspects of his life as well. It was not long before Tim had obtained his GED after completing the necessary course load offered within the penitentiary. He was also designated as a low risk prisoner. This classification allowed him to walk freely in the area closely surrounding the outside gates of the prison without supervision and granted him the opportunity to work with sharp knives in the prison butcher shop, a job that was coveted by most inmates.
When Tim was released from prison six years after his sentence had begun, it looked as though he may have a bright future in store. Given the fact that he had honed so many skills during the length of his sentence and had spent a full seventy-two months as a drug free individual, it was no surprise that he was a much different man upon emerging from the confines of the penitentiary. He soon had a new, very serious girlfriend and was back working at his step father’s trucking company. The progress in Tim’s life would not last long, however. Just months after being released from his first prison stint, Tim was caught trafficking drugs once again and was sent back to state prison.
Nine months into his latest prison sentence, Tim received a letter from his girlfriend with a photograph enclosed. The photo was of Timothy Plummer Jr, his son who had been born just a few days prior. Just a couple weeks after missing the birth of his second child, Tim was released. As soon as he was a free man once again, Tim and his girlfriend were married in a shotgun wedding in Reno, Nevada upon the insistence of his Step Pops, who had by this time become a pastor.
Following a familiar trend, Tim quickly bucked his new found role as a husband and family man. He returned to the streets to sell drugs and once again began neglecting everyone who was important to him. Unsurprisingly, he was promptly caught by the authorities and was sentenced to hard time in county jail. When Tim was set free from this, his third sentence, he had a new plan in mind, ” I was used to being locked up.” he told me, “That was easy. I asked my parole officer to come by my house. I felt like if I left my house I was going to get in trouble.”
Tim spent the next thirteen months on self imposed house arrest, never venturing past the fence that surrounded the small home he shared with his wife and son. As had been the case in the past when drugs were purged from his life, Tim became a valuable member of society. He spent his time looking after his son, fixing the house, and truly being a part of his young family for the first time. When Tim’s old running mates in the drug game would come by the house to solicit his help in one ploy or another, he would politely greet them and make small talk, but would never allow them on to his property.
Once the thirteen months were up and his parole had ended, Tim finally ventured outside of his fence once again. Predictably, as soon as he was no longer confined to a drug free space, Tim returned to his old ways of dealing. “I was addicted man, I was addicted. It was all I knew how to do. Man, since before high school, the only thing I knew how to do was sell drugs.” Understandably, Tim’s wife could no longer deal with his antics. She divorced him shortly thereafter and took their son with her when she moved in with a new boyfriend. “I was so consumed with my business that I was never home. I was neglecting her and my son, I realize that now.”
Tim’s wife was not the only one who had had enough of his perilous conduct. Influenced by years of mistreatment by their son, including such heinous acts as forging their payroll checks to get the money that he needed to buy crack, Tim’s mother and step father decided to move from California to Mississippi and to take the trucking business with them. With Tim’s only opportunity for steady work now gone, he moved to North Oakland and began dealing drugs full time. With little else on his mind but selling dope and getting high, his life spiraled further into the void than it ever had before. He spent the next ten-plus years serving sentences in San Francisco and Alameda County jails and bouncing from one court ordered rehab program to the next. Whenever he was not locked up or in rehab, Tim was dealing on the streets of his newest hood, San Francisco.
In the year 2000, when it seemed as if there was little hope for his life to ever turn around, the many years that Tim had remarkably remained physically unscathed despite being so deep in the drug trade finally caught up to him. One night, after selling a large amount of cocaine on the streets of San Francisco, Tim entered a convenience store on the busy South Van Ness Avenue. When he exited the store after making a purchase, an unknown assailant, likely motivated by a previous drug deal, approached him from the side and stabbed him several times. With multiple gaping wounds in his torso and legs, including a slice that had severed his femoral artery, Tim weakly stumbled down the city block, leaving a trail of blood as he went. He soon collapsed due to massive blood loss. EMTs arrived at the scene not long after and rushed the quickly fading Tim to the hospital. By the time he arrived at the ER, his heart had stopped. “My blood ran out.”, he relayed to me in one of our later interviews. “They had to crack my chest open and everything. Massage my heart. That was the last stage of death. They told me after that it was the last procedure they would do on you before you done. I mean before you’re dead, literally. But they saved me.”
After being revived by the medical staff at the hospital, Tim fell into a coma and spent several more weeks in intensive care before showing major signs of improvement. After another couple weeks of care, his health had progressed to the point where he was given the OK to leave the hospital. When he was given back his belongings from the night he was stabbed, Tim discovered that the EMTs had failed to find the cocaine that he had left over in a bag in his pocket at the time of the attack. The white powder was now tinged pink from blood that had seeped through the plastic that held it. Tim stared at the cocaine, contemplating what to do. In the past, this would have been an easy choice. He would have numbed his mind by consuming some of the drugs and then would have ventured to the streets to sell the rest. But now, standing outside the hospital, something had finally changed Tim. Being so close to death seemed to have awakened something inside him. After a long period of silent reflection, Tim did something he had never done before. He walked down the street, found someone who was desperate for the drugs, and gave the cocaine away.
Since that day nearly 14 years ago, Tim has never once sold drugs again. He has also rid his life of personal drug abuse. With these vices separated from his livelihood, Tim has made his way down a road that has by no means been easy, but has seen him return to demonstrating the kindheartedness that had always been intrinsically part of his being. For a number of years, Tim even had an apartment he shared with a girlfriend, and a job as the maintenance man for a downtown San Francisco complex. Unfortunately, when the building manager for that complex changed several years ago, he insisted that Tim be removed from the position due to his criminal background. Tim has been homeless ever since, his only means of refuge a homeless shelter that lies a couple blocks from my street corner, a corner where he spends most of his time.
A True Friend
This brings us to the night that deeply impacted the way I viewed the man who I, at this point, thought of as little more than a friendly character on my street corner. I did not yet know Tim’s story and the journey his life had taken when I foolishly indulged in way more alcohol than I should have on one night late in the fall of 2013. In a moment of less than stellar judgment, I had made a decision to head out to the bars that night without eating dinner after having completed a 10+ mile hike earlier that day. When I arrived at the bars that Saturday evening, I did what many twenty-somethings tend to do. I binge drank. Exhausted, and with a completely empty stomach, the alcohol hit me quicker than it ever had before. It wasn’t long before I had wandered away from my friends and found myself completely lost in an unfamiliar area of the city. Drunk to the point that I could comprehend very little, I was helped by some strangers into a cab. Remarkably, I was able to tell the driver my address and pay him when I arrived, but when I emerged from the vehicle, my legs were rendered useless. As the cab driver pulled away, I found myself losing my balance and consciousness.
What happened next is very vivid in my my mind. As I stumbled down the sidewalk, on the verge of falling to the ground, I found myself being braced by an individual who I had not noticed was on the street corner. Clearly aware of my dangerously intoxicated state, the man who had kept me from falling then picked me up and began walking with me in his arms up the street towards my apartment. When we arrived at my door, the man reached into my pocket, removed my keys, and unlocked the entry way. He then gently placed my keys back in my pocket, carried me inside, placed me down in a safe place, and left, locking the door behind him. That man was Tim Plummer.
Tim Plummer, a hardened criminal. A man who had spent much of his life dealing with the most morbid of individuals. A man who had little to his name besides the clothes on his back. A man who I had spoken to on various occasions and had given a couple dollars to here and there, but had never truly done anything to help. A man who had no reason to make the effort to keep me safe that night, but did so anyway. A man who, given the little he had for himself, could have easily stolen every one of my possessions that night, but instead exited my home harmlessly. Tim Plummer. A man who I now consider to be my friend.
Masterpieces, Straight From The Street Corner
After that night, I made it my mission to learn more about Tim. I asked him about his life, and discovered his troubling past. I also found out more about what it was like to be homeless. I began to understand just how tough Tim’s life was without a place to call his own. I learned that he awoke each morning at 6 am to search for jobs and affordable apartments before heading to my street corner to complete odd jobs and to politely receive change from passerby’s. He told me of his life at the shelter and how difficult it could be; a night in the shelter being comparable to a night in an insane asylum. He described to me how much he wanted to live somewhere other than the shelter, but that the only places he could afford to rent were in run down hotels in the inner city where he feared he would be tempted to start selling drugs again. I was taken aback when he told me that he stayed out on the streets til 2 am each day, the latest time he could before the shelter doors were locked, just so that he would be exhausted enough to sleep even just four hours each night with the screams and voices that swirled around him in the shelter. I was thrilled when I discovered that he had reconnected with his children, and that they came to the city to see him whenever they could. I was encouraged when he informed me that he was in the process of getting his record expunged.
Most of all, I was desperate to find a way to truly help this man, in the same manner he had selflessly helped me on that fall night. I wanted to tell Tim’s story to the world, but couldn’t figure out how telling his tale could bring him the help he needed. Then one day, a couple months ago, the missing piece I needed to bring Tim’s story to the forefront fell into my lap. This missing link returned to Tim’s life much like he used to return to school each day for sixth period when he was fifteen years old. No matter how dire the circumstances were, this passion found a way to resurface in Tim’s life. All along, as Tim cycled through being labeled as a convict, a thug, and a bum, one thing had never changed. Underneath it all, he was still an artist.
One day, several weeks ago, as I rounded my street corner, I found Tim sitting on the fire hydrant where I had first met him. He was doing something I had never seen him try his hand at before. He was drawing. With a large piece of Styrofoam propped across his lap and a couple colored office pens in his hand, he was hunched over in a state of deep focus, only looking up to examine the building that lay in front of him. When I approached Tim and looked over his shoulder, I was amazed at what I saw. Tim was not just drawing, he was creating an amazing work of art. The piece was so vivid and detailed, that I had no words to describe it. He had transformed the Styrofoam into a landscape that perfectly depicted the building that sat in front of him, with aspects of his imagination expertly blended in.
Watch a detailed video profile of this piece here.
If you have not seen Tim create a work of art in person, it is difficult to comprehend the skill it takes to produce something of such beauty with nothing more than a slab of packing Styrofoam and several run of the mill colored pens. If you want to try to understand, I recommend grabbing a piece of Styrofoam from around your house and trying just to write your name. Then imagine producing one of these works, complete with shading. It is unfathomable how Tim is able to create such lifelike images, without even the use of a ruler, on such an unforgiving surface.
As the weeks passed, Tim created more and more works of art. It was not long before I knew that these amazing pieces were exactly what I needed to be able to tell his story. I was confident that I would be hard pressed to find the person who did not appreciate what Tim was creating with so little at his disposal. There was only one problem. Tim was garnering so much interest from people passing by while he was working on his pieces, that he was selling the treasures faster than I could photograph them. I could hardly blame him. The sale of his art work was necessitated by the little money he had. Even though Tim knew he was selling the pieces for less than they were worth, he had little choice if he wanted to be able to eat each night. After a bit of convincing, Tim agreed to hold off buyers at least long enough to allow me to photograph the artwork. Since then, he has even given me several completed pieces to hold on to so that he is not tempted to sell them for less than they are worth. Below are some of Tim’s works of art that I have been fortunate enough to capture on film up this point.
Watch a detailed video profile of this piece here.
Watch a detailed video profile of this piece here.
Watch a detailed video profile of this piece here.
Watch a detailed video profile of this piece here.
Note: This piece is on cardboard, not Styrofoam
Watch a detailed video profile of this piece here.
Watch a detailed video profile of this piece here.
The Past Does Not Dictate The Future
Imagine if I told you that I had a friend that I wanted you to meet. I then went on to tell you that this particular friend had been a notorious drug dealer, had been to prison upwards of ten times, had stabbed another man and had been stabbed himself, and had repeatedly neglected and abandoned his family. Would you come with me to meet this man?
Next, imagine that I told about another friend. This friend was about as cheerful and positive as they come. He is an aspiring artist with a massive talent, has an incredible and undying work ethic, is polite and thankful even when things are at their worst, and is an incredibly devoted person who would do anything to help anyone in need. How about this friend? Would you object to meeting him?
What if those two friends were the same person? If I asked you to come with me to meet Tim Plummer, would you? I fear that in the present day and time, there would be far too many people who would not. There is no denying the fact that Tim has made more mistakes in his life than any of us could count. It is clear that he wasted a large majority of his years, years that he could have spent nurturing his wife and two children, growing his beloved step father’s business, or even working to be a famous artist. Tim could have done things differently, but he did not. There is no changing that. Why then, do we find it necessary to focus on something that cannot be altered?
It is truly a shame that many people will read the story of Tim’s life and highlight nothing but his mistakes. They will fail to acknowledge the most crucial part of this piece. It is not that this man’s life has been down a dark path, but rather that when he found himself at the deepest of depths, he fought to persist. He did not fall into the abyss, despite how close he was to disappearing into its darkness. Instead, he has fought and clawed each and every day to become a better man.
One could say that Tim has changed, but I don’t think that is the case. I think Tim has always been kind and valuable, but that he made decisions that caused these traits to be masked. It took until he was middle aged man for him to come to the realization that he was throwing away his life, but he is now showing himself to be the man that he truly is.
Tim believes in himself. I believe in him too. There is no reason not to. If you can find it within yourself to look past his troubled history and instead judge him for the man he is today, you will see a motivated artist who is doing everything he can to live up to his potential. He is trying to make it in this world. Who are we to tell him that he cannot just because of his past mistakes?
I am expecting big things from Tim. I know that he will not give up on his dream to become a successful artist. He will persist and he will succeed, even as those who focus solely upon his past stand in his way. Tim can teach us all a vital lesson: A person’s past is not always reflective of their current character.
Next time you walk by a person in need, homeless or otherwise, do yourself a favor and do not allow your mind to wander towards the negative. Do not dwell on what they have done to end up in the position they are in. Instead, focus on where they are going from here. When I look at Tim Plummer, I do not see a former convict and drug dealer. I see a friend, and an artist on his way to the top. Everyone deserves to be judged in this manner. We are all deserving of a second chance.