ACROSS THE street from Odi's Greasy Spoon Restaurant, Brian "Caveman" Cummings and his dogs stood at the foot of the southbound I-95 Cottman Avenue off-ramp - as they have done every day for years, weather permitting - and relied on the kindness of strangers to survive.
A hand-lettered cardboard sign attached to Cummings' shopping cart made the no-frills pitch: "USMC VET W/DOGS. WE NEED: WATER, FOOD, MISC. STUFF. BATTERIES SIZE: D, AAA, AA, 9-VOLT. Thanks."
The cart overflowed with donated bottled water and bags of dry dog food, along with several heavy coats and a small boom box.
Cummings, 47, who grew up in Frankford and Holmesburg, but who has been homeless since the early '90s, said that loving the wrong woman compelled him to forsake the comforts of home for the vagabond life, and to choose exposure to the elements over exposure to heartbreak.
"I'm like the fowl of the earth," he said, spreading his arms toward the heavens. "I survive day to day. And I do a damn good job of it. No wants. No warrants. I'm free as a bird, brother."
With his weather-beaten face framed by a heavy salt-and-pepper beard, Cummings looks like a grizzled old sea dog who survived a shipwreck and is now living by his wits on a deserted island that just happens to be under I-95.
He is one of more than 400 homeless people living on Philadelphia's streets, according to Project Home's latest count. But unlike many of them, who drift in and out of temporary shelters, Cummings sees himself as hard-core, committed to a life defined in Kris Kristofferson's "Me and Bobby McGee" as "freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose."
Cummings said that his love life has always been about loss.
"I fell in love with a highly educated woman," he said, reflecting on the years when he operated La Dolce Vita Limo Service in the San Diego area.
"We got married in the '80s," Cummings said, "lived for nine years in California, then moved to Alabama and bought a house on October 11, 1991 - three-bedroom rancher, red brick, $29,000, $1,000 down, $500 a month at 8 percent per annum.
"She cheated on me, then called the cops on me," he said. "I left her on April 23, 1992. Spent the next few years hiking the Appalachian Trail with my dog, Platinum.
"Got back here five years ago. Lived under the bridge here. Met this Lithuanian gal - 103 pounds, rich auburn hair, green eyes - oh, those green eyes. You know why I left her? She was cheating on me with her husband."
Cummings paused to let the significance sink in. Then he laughed.
"She never told me she had a husband. He came after me. Almost got me. So now, I got no woman because here's what I learned: Woman means trouble; no woman means no trouble.
"You know, the crazy part is, I still love both of them," he said. "If they both pulled up here right now, I'd go with either one of them. And I'd tell the other one: 'Wait here, I'll be back.' Crazy, huh?"
Neither of Cummings' past loves has pulled up under the overpass since their farewells.
So he remains unattached and unencumbered on the corner of Bleigh Avenue and Wissinoming Street that is his small world - the off-ramp, the overpass that he calls "the bridge," Odi's Greasy Spoon across the street and the car-storage lot behind Odi's.
As he worked his corner under a summer sun, Cummings focused more on his dogs' needs than he did on appealing to drivers passing within a few feet of him.
He let the tableau speak for him: a hard-times veteran and his dogs - Katerina, a 5-year-old German shepherd, and her year-old puppy, Platinum Jr. - struggling to get through another day.
Platinum Jr., Cummings said, is the spitting image of his late father, Platinum Sr., whose love life was even more ominous than Cummings'.
"Platinum Sr. and Katerina were doing the wild thing under the bridge on May 27, 2007," Cummings said, "when his poor old heart gave out. And then, months later, Platinum Sr. showed up again, back from the dead in the form of his son, Platinum Jr."
Cummings gazed lovingly at mother and son.
Odi, who declined to provide his last name, opened his Greasy Spoon breakfast-and-lunch place five years ago, right around the time that Cummings settled under the I-95 overpass across the street and started working the corner.
"People don't care about you," Odi has often told Cummings. "They care about the dogs. Try standing there alone and see what happens."
Cummings believes that people respond because they want to help a veteran. He described his relationship with Odi as on-again, off-again. Odi agreed.
Whatever motivates his benefactors, Cummings has lived off their donations since he became homeless in 1993.
He started calling himself "Caveman" after taking up residence under the I-95 overpass, furnishing his makeshift cave with an old mattress and whatever trash he picked up off the streets.
Last winter, Joe Notarianni, owner of Pro Tech automotive repair services and the car-storage lot behind Odi's, told the urban cave dweller that he could sleep in an old trailer on the lot if he put Katerina and Platinum Jr. to work by guarding the cars at night.
"I used to give him water and dog food when he lived under the bridge," Notarianni said. "I saw him laying there last winter. I knew he had to be freezing.
"I had been broken into a few times. I figured having his dogs in the yard would put an end to that. So I bought him a cheap camper at the auction. It's got electric heat and air conditioning. I'm helping him out. He's helping me out. Nobody's broken in since those dogs are in the yard."
"I'm glad I'm not exposed to the elements anymore," Cummings said, while his dogs did their best to lick the skin off a reporter. "I'm starting to get a little older now. I'm 47, creeping up on 50. I was under that bridge for years. I'm getting too old for that.
"I can see my corner from the trailer," he said. "I'm right across the street from what I like to do."
He called the dogs off the reporter. They ignored him.
"Katerina is the one you've got to watch out for," Cummings said. "She bites."
But only, he said, if you're outside the carlot fence, trying to break in, or if you're trying to harm him. "I couldn't sleep under that bridge without them," Cummings said, affectionately.
When he gets tired during the day, he still sleeps under the I-95 overpass, even though he could walk across the street into the air-conditioned trailer. "Force of habit," he said. "I lived there for so many years."
Cummings naps during the day but has trouble sleeping at night, so he's usually up when the neighborhood critters come calling, attracted by the smell of dog food.
"I got stray cats at 2 a.m. and possums at 3 a.m.," he said. "The possums know how to fool Katerina and Platinum Junior. Dogs have no interest in messing with something that seems to be dead. At 4 a.m., I got Pepe LePew and his old lady and their three kids. Nobody messes with skunks. Not cats. Not possums. Not dogs. Nobody."
He's up early and often stops by Odi's for coffee and insults before wheeling his shopping cart and walking his dogs across the street to work his corner, relying on the compassion of people like the postal worker from the bulk-mail center in Northeast Philadelphia who identified himself only as Carlos.
"When I get off at the Cottman Avenue exit going south, I drop him off a little cash," Carlos said. "Sometimes, I bring ham hocks, pork necks and bones for the dogs. I started helping him last summer. I brought him ice, got him breakfast at McDonald's, cheesesteaks from Pete's Steaks. It made me feel good, you know? I was down that road once myself.
"I'm a recovering alcoholic," Carlos said. "When I was drinking, I'd walk into a bar with 400 dollars in my pocket, buy everybody a beer, walk out later with three dollars and two cigarettes, and not know where my money went. When you ain't got nothing, you find out just who your friends are.
"By the grace of God, I'm OK now. But I know what it's like to lose it all. So I'm happy to help him out."
Cummings appreciates the help, especially the donations for Katerina and Platinum Jr.
"One day," Cummings said heatedly, "a guy from the humane society pulls up in his truck and he comes over and he goes, 'Are these dogs fed well?' I showed him bags of every kind of dog food you can think of. His eyes were bulging from all the dog food, and he says, 'What about water?' I showed him 32 gallons of fresh water in plastic jugs.
"I know he was thinking, 'How dare this homeless guy have such beautiful dogs.' I know he wanted to take them from me. But he couldn't after I showed him that my dogs have more than the people who live in Bel Air, California."