Tim Cumer’s grandchildren call him Hobo Pap.
“I’ve got nine grandchildren, all in New Jersey,” he said. “They see me coming with my backpack, and they get excited and say, ‘Hobo Pap! Hobo Pap!’”
Cumer, 55, has been homeless since 2008, but he prefers the term “hobo.”
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, Cumer says, hobos jumped on trains and traveled from town to town in search of work. They weren’t bums.
Looking at Cumer, 6 feet 2 inches tall, with a muscular frame, it’s easy to picture him as an athlete in high school in the early ’70s – a speedy wide receiver on the Peters Township High School football team and a high jumper who cleared 6 feet.
It’s also easy to imagine that Cumer, a skilled mechanic who loves driving 18-wheel trucks, went on to buy a couple of tractor-trailers and became a successful businessman.
But a lot can happen to a man in nearly four decades, and cocaine, alcohol and bad marriages derailed Cumer’s plans. Three days after they were married, his second wife shattered his hip when she ran him down with a car in the Walmart parking lot following an argument.
“I’m disappointed,” said Cumer, who once owned three tractor-trailer trucks but lost them because of alcohol and amphetamine addiction. “But what are you gonna do? I like speed too much.”
After he graduated from high school in 1975, Cumer joined the U.S. Marine Corps.
When he completed his duty, Cumer attended truck driving school on a Veterans Administration loan and began driving freight around the country, a job that suited his free spirit.
“I love driving a truck. I love being on the road,” Cumer said. “There’s nothing better.”
In 1990, he bought his first truck and became an owner-operator.
During his years on the road, though, Cumer became hooked on speed, commonly used by truck drivers on long hauls to help them stay alert, and drank heavily.
“Drugs cost me my trucks; I’ve been homeless off and on for a long time. I used to live in a three-bedroom house. I had nice stuff,” said Cumer.
He’s gone through rehab several times and stayed clean for about nine years, but relapsed in 2008 when his second wife left him.
“I’ve been on the street ever since,” said Cumer, who has battled a crack addiction for the past five years.
He doesn’t mind being homeless, except on cold, damp nights when the ache in his hip throbs.
Until Cumer moved south at the beginning of April, he in and his friend Paul – who calls him “Sarge” – were nearly inseparable. They shared a camp near an abandoned building where they roll out their sleeping bags each night, duffel bags filled with their possessions nearby. From their spot, yards away from one of the city’s main streets, they could hear the cars driving past.
They woke up in the morning and walked to a local grocery store for a cup of coffee before heading to the City Mission for a hot breakfast.
Afterward, Cumer and Paul trekked to the Circle Center, a drop-in center run by the Mental Health Association of Washington County on North Main Street and spent most of the day, until the center closes at 9 p.m. Then they found a place to watch the Pittsburgh sports teams (Steelers or Penguins), or went to a bar.
Cumer said a few kids come around the camp occasionally, but they don’t bother him.
“We have fun out there, don’t we Paul?” asked Cumer.
He’s on disability because of his hip and degenerative bone disease in his knees, and he doesn’t earn enough money to afford an apartment. Cumer was trying to get housing through Connect Inc., but nothing has panned out yet.
Cumer has four children, including a son with Down syndrome who lives in a special home in New Jersey.
He said he wasn’t a great father because of drugs and alcohol, and he regrets it.
“I could have done better,” said Cumer, who tries to keep in touch with his children and is thrilled with his grandchildren, whose pictures he happily produces to show them off.
It’s never too late to start over, though, and on April 1, Cumer left the city for Nashville, Tenn., to drive a truck on long runs with his ex-wife. He said they bought a truck last year, and he headed down in the fall for a few runs (they dropped off auto parts and Coca- Cola) before he returned to Washington around the holidays.
“I’m happy. I wish my health hadn’t gone downhill,” said Cumer. “But I’m free. I don’t answer to anybody. It’s a hobo life.”