The streets of Modesto continue to torment John and Cheryl Barnes through life, death and horrible luck.
I first met them in 1993. They were homeless then, boyfriend and girlfriend, and living along the banks of the Tuolumne River near John Thurman Field.
They survived in no small part that summer by chasing down foul balls during the Modesto A's baseball games. They'd return the balls to the ballclub, which rewarded them with a hot dog and a soda per ball. Or they'd take them to Play It Again Sports, which paid $1 per ball. Their income and ingestion relied almost entirely on retrieving the balls and collecting recyclables, mainly aluminum cans.
Meanwhile, they survived along the river, always aware of the dangers of homeless life that included the ransacking of their camp and physical assaults by other homeless people.
They lived on the river while Cheryl's two sons from a previous relationship lived with her mother.
I wrote about them in a June 1993 sports column. When the playoffs arrived that August, the Modesto A's players embraced them John, always wearing an old Confederate rebel hat, and Cheryl, whose bad knees limited her mobility and left John to do most of the foul-ball chasing.
The players pooled their cash and bought the couple bus fare to and from Stockton for the playoff series with the Ports. The players also bought them team gear hats and jerseys and left them tickets on will-call at old Billy Hebert Field.
It was an act of kindness unlike anything the couple experienced while living on the streets, along the river, in cheap motels and wherever they could find shelter at the time.
That same summer, Cheryl became pregnant with her third child, who will figure into this momentarily. She and John married in 1998.
Eventually, John found steady work as a day laborer. Cheryl qualified for disability income because of health issues. The family John, Cheryl, the three children and a grandmother lived together in a tiny room at the Driftwood Inn on South Ninth Street at the time. It wasn't much, but it sure beat homelessness.
On the evening of March 12, 2004, though, tragedy struck. Cody Brey, Cheryl's 12-year-old from a previous relationship, was hit by a car as he walked along Yosemite Boulevard.
One moment, they had a happy child. The next, they were donating his organs.
California Highway Patrol investigators determined that the driver made an unsafe lane change. She was charged with vehicular manslaughter without gross negligence. John and Cheryl said they ultimately received a $10,000 insurance settlement. And it could have been worse. At least the driver had some insurance at the time. That same woman, according to court records, was cited in 2008 for failure to insure her vehicle.
Before Cody's death, that stretch of road was part of a scheduled $8.7 million project to widen Yosemite Boulevard to four lanes, adding sidewalks, bike lanes and traffic signals. The work was completed, though too late to help Cody.
Now, fast-forward to last Monday morning and the Barnes' 18-year-old son, Dustin. He's the child they conceived while living along the river in 1993, and was born in 1994. Dustin was 10 when his older brother died, and he is skittish about crossing even quiet streets, let alone major thoroughfares.
"Overkill paranoid," he calls it.
Even so, each day he leaves home early in the morning and walks several blocks to the small home where his girlfriend, Kunthea My, lives with her parents in west Modesto. Then they walk together to school. Monday morning, he said, they looked several times in each direction before starting across the five-lane Tuolumne Boulevard. The cross street? Yosemite Avenue, eerily similar in name though an entirely different roadway than where Cody died.
They clearly were in the crosswalk and had the right of way when a westbound car struck them. It was 6:45 a.m., about a half-hour before sunrise. Though the streetlight at the corner worked properly, the accident happened during that "tweener" time when daylight hasn't quite taken hold but when streetlights are losing their effect.
Modesto police traffic officer Billy Boyle said the driver had just completed a graveyard shift at work and was heading to his west Modesto home. The driver, who cooperated completely with officers, told them he didn't see Dustin and Kunthea until it was too late.
Likewise, Dustin said, "I never saw the car until it was a foot away from us."
He suffered back and rib injuries, along with abrasions. Kunthea said she suffered a skull fracture, and her facial injuries are obvious. Both went to local hospitals. She remembers nothing about the incident not even that Dustin came to visit her in Doctors Medical Center's intensive care unit.
Dad John was up and about when a Modesto police officer arrived at the door of their two-bedroom rented home in west Modesto to tell them Dustin had been hit. Mom Cheryl slept in that morning.
"John came in and said, 'Hurry, wake up! Dustin's been hit by a car,' " Cheryl said. "It went right through my stomach. It was a sickening feeling."
"Just as you start to get somewhere, you lose one son," John said. "Now this. At least (Dustin) survived."
They believe Tuolumne Boulevard, which borders the south side of Modesto High's campus, needs better lighting and pedestrian safety features.
Boyle said police maintain a traffic complaint database and encourage residents to voice their concerns. When they receive multiple complaints about a specific area, officers will step up enforcement using radar and electronic message boards, and will monitor traffic in the area. Tuolumne Boulevard, between Roselawn and Yosemite avenues, is one of the complaint areas.
"More people are walking and cycling to work," Boyle said. "We're trying to slow people down."
And to get them to stop, particularly when pedestrians are in the crosswalks.
Said Dustin, wearing a torso brace and using a cane he borrowed from his grandmother, "I don't trust people in cars."
Neither do his parents. Perhaps more than anyone, they know just how mean the streets can be.
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at email@example.com, @jeffjardine57 on Twitter or at (209) 578-2383.