"But for the Grace of God?" would never have been made but for my dog Mobo (who, sadly, didn't live to see the premiere). He didn't share my trepidation about approaching homeless people. He was an equal-opportunity sniffer who did not discriminate on the basis of race, socioeconomic status, or even species. As long as you smelled interesting he was your friend. So naturally he was very friendly to the panhandlers.
They weren't always friendly to him though. A surprisingly large number of panhandlers were afraid of him even though he was never aggressive (except occasionally to other dogs). I suppose they had encountered a few too many unfriendly dogs to give anything bigger than a chihuahua the benefit of the doubt. But there were exceptions.
One of the exceptions was Walter.
If you've watched the trailer then you've seen Walter. He is a solidly built black man with a goatee, dreadlocks, and an ever present black stocking cap, the kind of person that one might wish not to meet in a dark alley. He was sitting on a blanket in the park overlooking the Pacific ocean. There were a lot of homeless people to choose from that day, but for some reason Mobo made a beeline for Walter.
There was always a tense moment when Mobo approached a stranger, not so much because I worried that he would be aggressive -- he never was with people -- but because so many people seemed to be afraid of him regardless. But Walter took to him immediately, so I relaxed and watched them bond. They played around for a minute or two, and then Walter looked me in the eye and said nine words that would change the course of my life.
"Thank you, sir, for letting me pet your dog."
That floored me. It was unusual for a panhandler to be unafraid of Mobo, let alone enjoy his company. But no one had ever thanked me for letting them pet him! I fumbled for words, and I think I managed a "no problem" or something like that.
But something about this person at the very bottom of the social ladder conducting himself with a level of civility that seems to elude many people (myself sadly among them at times) caused a seismic shift in my brain, and I found myself following up with something that ten seconds earlier I would not have thought myself capable of.
"I'm Ron. What's your name?"
"Hi Walter, nice to meet you. Do you mind if I ask you a question?"
And so I asked him. And he told me. And it broke my heart.
No, I'm not gong to tell you Walter's story here. You'll have to see the movie for that :-) But I will say that in the span of five minutes my image of homeless people was changed forever. And I thought to myself: this story has to be told.
So the next day I rented a video camera and came back to the spot where Walter had been the day before. There was no sign of him.