Monday, July 14, 2008

Finding A

I enjoyed the first day of class, where we talked about writing process and did some exercises. Afterwards, I went downtown, bought lunch, and did some decadent shopping: an opal-and-silver hamsa pendant, a fancy new pen, and a set of three small journals for the reflective writing required by the class. Then I came back to my room and did my homework, reading an essay about research into writing and healing and then writing about my own metaphors for writing, which involve fire and water.

I still hadn't seen A, so on my way to dinner, I made a concerted effort to find him. I asked the shopkeeper on the corner where A usually hangs out; the merchant said, "Oh, he's around the corner now," and gestured at the street one block over. On my way there, I saw someone I thought was A, but it turned out to be another homeless man, who introduced himself as J, shook my hand, and told me where to find A, about a block away. "He's there all the time. At night the Spanish ladies come and talk to him and bring him food."

I checked the spot: no A. I retraced my steps and ducked into a takeout place to buy dinner. J poked his head inside and said, "Hey, Susan, he just went up to the burger place!"

"Thanks," I said, and when I'd gotten my food, I canvassed the block again, and finally found A exactly where J had said he'd be.

He was clearly delighted to see me: his whole face lit up, and he wanted to know where I'd been. The last time I saw him (last summer), I gave him a copy of my story collection, and he'd read it and had opinions about the stories. "I loved Rodney! He's a great little mouse! But the one about the heart -- that was too much. That's a weird story."

"Well, I'm weird," I said. (It's good he wasn't at the SF in SF reading!)

He laughed, shaking his head. He was holding four packages of hot dogs someone had given him, and he had a hibachi set up in an alley, where he was grilling franks and chicken breasts. He's clearly not starving, at least not this week.

In other respects, though, he's deteriorated. More teeth are missing, and for the first time since I've met him, he seemed clearly mentally ill: talking about being under siege by the Taliban, for instance, or getting very agitated about landlords and how they'd have to pay him to live in an apartment, and repeating the same set of statements over and over, like a refrain. He'd given me a shy hug when he saw me at first, and then apologized for being dirty, but when I said it was okay, he gave me more shy hugs. He was clinging to my presence so desperately that I got a little nervous (which made me feel guilty, of course); I told him that I had to go eat my own dinner, but that I had a box of books for him -- Gary packed it up for me before I left: thanks, Gar! -- and that I'd bring it by tomorrow. He enjoys reading and also sells books on the street, and a lot of people in this student-rich area give him books.

He was clearly crestfallen when I started leaving, and kept yelling comments after me to try to get me to stay. I decided to drop by with the books tonight, partly because I won't be around much tomorrow; after class, I'm going into the city to walk on the beach and then have dinner with David, Danny and a friend of theirs. "I'll come back," I promised A, and he said, "You always do. You always come back."

On my way back to the dorm, I ran into several of my classmates having a picnic outside. They invited me to join them, so I did. It was very pleasant, but talk about cultural whiplash! Chatting with these well-dressed women, who were sharing stories of expensive restaurants and international travel, couldn't have been more different from talking to A.

After dinner, I drove by A's hangout and gave him the box of books. His face lit up again when he saw me. It was getting dark, and he and another homeless guy had been sharing the food on the hibachi. I didn't feel entirely safe in the alley, even though I was in clear view of a well-traveled sidewalk, so I told A that I had to get back to my dorm to do my homework, but that I'd see him tomorrow.

His face fell, and he clutched my hand. "Please stay! Please stay!"

"A, I can't. But I'll come see you tomorrow, okay? I promise."

He stood looking forlornly after me as I drove away. I felt wretched, but I was glad to be leaving.

Yeah, I know. It's my own fault. If you make friends with chronically homeless mentally ill people, you're going to get your heart broken. A few weeks ago, one of my favorite ER nurses gave me a long lecture about how I'm too tenderhearted, how I can't get so emotionally involved with hardcore homeless patients. I told her that being tenderhearted is my job, and that if I couldn't handle it, I'd have burned out by now. She'd have had a fit if she'd seen me tonight. This is harder than the ER, because it lacks the safety, structure, and automatic boundaries of an institutional setting.

I keep reminding myself that there are reasons A's been out there for fifteen or thirty years (he's told me both). This isn't something I can fix. He's remained in as good shape as he has, I suspect, largely because he's been so coherent for so long, and is so good at enlisting help and support from the people around him. He's dialed into social services -- he's gotten eye surgery from the county -- so I'm sure he's been in various rehab programs. They clearly haven't worked out, though, and given the change in his manner, enlisting help may be harder now.

Please pray for him, and for me as I interact with him this week. I've given him books and some cash; I'm sure I'll give him more cash and some food before I leave on Friday. He told me that what he really needs is soap, a washcloth and hot water. I can manage the soap, but not the hot water. Maybe I'll bring him soap and hope that someone manages the hot water. Or baby wipes, or that cleansing gel? Does anybody have any great ideas about how to help someone get clean without a reliable water source?

When I came back to my dorm, one of my classmates had her door open. I stopped in and talked to her about it for a while, but I felt like I was starting to sound crazy myself. So I thought, "Well, I'll blog about it."

There will be further updates later this week, I'm sure. Thank you for listening!


  1. A metal cup or pot plus the hibachi grill might help with the hot water situation. Would various restaurants give him cups of water? It's not a bath, but even a little bit probably helps.

    And i'm guilty of getting involved with the heartbreaker patients/people myself. But i prefer it to the opposite - those nurses who are too hard, who are mean and bitchy when a little softness would go a long way.

  2. Ah, of course! Great idea, Nurse Bear. Thank you!

    And a pot would mean he could cook more things, too.

  3. I'll pray for A, Susan. Don't know what else to do. Does he get enough to eat that it might be called a "balanced diet"?


  4. Stay safe, both physically and emotionally. Many blessings! My prayers will be with you both.


  5. Too many years of camping, plus a mad scientist/survivalist boyfriend, equals metal pot. (;


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