Life under the bridge

Homeless man tries to make a difference in his community

Ron Bauer, called Dwarf
Photo by Susan France

Someone lives under the Boulder Public Library bridge that spans the creek, and he’s not a troll.

He’s a Dwarf.

Or at least that’s the nickname given to Ron Bauer, whose stature, graying goatee and hooded, weathered, leathery face fit the description. He has a surprising twinkle in his crystal blue eyes for someone who has lived on the streets for 32 years.

He tells me that his last name means “tiller of soil” in German, which only makes sense later.

Dwarf, one of Boulder County’s estimated 1,500 often-forgotten homeless people, has a story. Lots of them, actually. Like the one about how he got his nickname: Dwarves are key characters in the fantasy game Dungeons and Dragons that he has played since he was a kid. Under his many layers of clothing, he says, is a dwarf tattoo, and he has named his two beloved dogs for characters of fantasy as well. Cooshee is named for a D&D character (but he also fondly refers to her as “mama”), and Rohan J. Bear’s name melds a Lord of the Rings kingdom and the dancing bear that his face resembles — a symbol from his years following the Grateful Dead after he first hit the streets of San Francisco in the 1970s.

Dwarf looks older than a 45-year-old should. He has only been in Boulder about four years — this time. He has traveled the country since he was 13, and in his short current stint in Colorado he has become a prominent member of the local homeless community, cleaning up trash and encouraging troubled teens to stay in school.

He knows the local scene: who’s dealing what drug, who’s drunk, who is mentally unstable. And they all know him. At one point during a Dec. 21 memorial at the bandshell honoring the 15 homeless people who died this year in Boulder County, a thin, 19-year-old blonde girl approaches Dwarf as we talk, and he waves her off with, “Not now, kiddo.”

A week later, when we’re back under the bridge, an older kid walks up to him and begins to ask where he can buy something, and Dwarf cuts him off by pointing to a group of people smoking what could be cigarettes or marijuana — or both. He says he only refers people to where they can buy weed, not harder stuff.

Dwarf | Photo by Susan France

Dwarf used to drink heavily, used to do a variety of drugs, but now he prefers pot — and the occasional mushroom or acid trip.

“Anything you’ve gotta puke to get high, there’s no reason to do,” he says.

Dwarf smokes cigarettes constantly as he sits under the bridge, next to his bike and an attached trailer loaded with all of his earthly possessions. Those include military-grade winter clothing, a 30-sided Dungeons & Dragons die, an old Playstation game system that plays DVDs and two sleeping bags in which he and his dogs share body heat to survive the coldest Boulder nights.

“I just need to get a good pair of boots for the winter,” he explains.

Dwarf says he usually sleeps somewhere next to the creek, under a tarp, taking his chances with getting ticketed by local cops enforcing Boulder’s anti-camping ordinance.

“If you have a blanket under you, it is camping,” he says, adding that it seems to be OK to lie down with your gear, as long as there is nothing covering you.

These days, after 11 p.m., even the homeless who are awake and upright are getting citations for trespassing, since the public parks are closed at night.

Dwarf hasn’t gotten a ticket for sleeping next to the creek in a few months, but then again, some nights he just drinks coffee all night, reading at a bench that he likes near the St Julien Hotel. Some of his colleagues hang out a local hookah bar that stays open until 4 a.m. The parks reopen at 5.

One night last week he and another homeless man slept under the bridge; the cops seemed to be giving them a break because it was so cold.

Or because it was Christmas.

Dwarf says he’d like to find a place indoors instead of sleeping outside virtually every night of the year, but the homeless shelters in town won’t let him bring his dogs in, and they are family.

“I wouldn’t be able to get rid of my dogs,” he says. “They are part of my life, they are my kids. … If you want to hurt me, hurt my dogs. That would hurt more than if you hurt me.”

Besides, Dwarf says, he gets claustrophobic behind walls unless they are part of a tent, and he doesn’t need to be in a homeless shelter or warming center.

“I’ve got the gear for it,” he says of sleeping outside in the winter. “If I go inside, I take the place of someone who doesn’t have the gear for it.”

As for his real family, his dad died at age 49 from a blood clot in the brain. He speaks fondly of some nieces and nephews. Other than that, he seems to lean on the homeless community, on friends who watched each other’s stuff under the bridge in shifts as they took turns going to the Walnut Brewery on Christmas Day to enjoy a free holiday meal of chicken, mac and cheese, potatoes and green beans.

Even the drug dealers are part of the community. “They’re all Boulder family,” Dwarf says. “It’s just sad to see. Just as long as our youngsters aren’t doing it. … This is like a lost generation out here.”

He says he’d look for a job, but he has trouble dealing with people and their attitudes. Dwarf says he’d prefer to just be with his dogs, reading. He likes Westerns. Besides, his monthly disability check would get docked if he had additional income.

One day, a stranger gave him an envelope containing $325. He spent about $100 of it on dog food. As for the rest of the money?

“I ate on it and kept myself in tobacco for a few days,” Dwarf says.

He seems proud of the fact that he helps keep downtown parks clean and tries to help the wayward kids that show up under his bridge due to problems at home. If he has a legacy, he says, it will be for keeping some of those troubled teens off the streets and away from substance abuse.

“So many doors are open for them,” he says a bit wistfully. “Even though I’m a homeless man, I want to be remembered.”

Chris Mitchell, who was homeless himself before becoming an advocate for that community and helping found local groups like Friends Encouraging Eating Daily (FEED) and the street outreach group called The God Squad, describes Dwarf as “the elder here in Boulder” when it comes to the homeless community.

“He’s a father to a lot of kids on the street,” he says. “When people have problems they come to him because a lot of people respect him in the homeless community, including a lot of these kids. … Anything that goes on in that park, he knows about it. All he cares about in life is his dogs and trying to make the community better.”

Mitchell, with the help of the church Creekside, took Dwarf and a few others on a trip to Haiti in February to help construct a new earthquake-resistant community center. They ended up spending most of their time interacting with the Haitian people, and Mitchell says the trip was a powerful experience for Dwarf, because he saw people whose living conditions were inferior to his own.

“He realizes how good he has it,” Mitchell says.

Even certain Boulder cops recognize the role that Dwarf plays.

“He cleans up after himself and urges others to clean up as well,” Officer Jenny Paddock says.

“He’s always been polite and cooperative with me.”

Before his trip to Haiti, Paddock gave Dwarf $20 so he could buy some food and coffee in the airport. He used the money to buy her a Haitian necklace instead, and also brought her a seashell.

“That was a pretty cool thing,” she says of the Haiti trip’s effect on Dwarf. “I think that was transformative.”

“In some ways, I’m a rich man,” Dwarf says. “I have plenty of friends and family and support. … I wouldn’t change a thing about my life. My cards of fate were played one way.”

As the temperature drops and I get up to leave, Dwarf notices that I’ve dropped something.

“Don’t forget your gloves,” he says.