Wednesday, June 26, 2019

This is Steve



This is Steve. Steve is a friend of mine, within a somewhat limited definition of that term.

When I took this picture, Steve was sitting at the end of the offramp from I-5 into Bellingham, holding a sign, panhandling. It's what he does. When he gets enough money for beer, he gets up and goes to buy beer.

To take this picture, I sat down with Steve, and asked if I could, and he said I could. He was a little drunk, but not as bad as he sometimes is. Slightly past lucid. He admired my wedding band (plain gold, the ring my father married my mother with) and showed me his wedding "ring" which is a tattoo on his wrist. It's mostly a scar now, he burned it off with matches (he told me) after the marriage broke up. There was also a proper ring, copper, tin, another metal. Braided, maybe. Custom made in Pike's Place in the 1980s. That one may have gone missing in the aftermath of a fight. This story, as with most of what I know of Steve, was given me in bits and pieces.

His wife's tattoo on her wrist was positioned so that when they held hands, the two tattooed patterns formed a whole. Steve's tattoo is mostly gone, I don't know about hers. The first match is pretty easy, but after you burn off a few bits you start to get pretty shy of the matches, so there's a few strands of Steve's tattoo left.

Anyways, within some limits, Steve is a friend of mine. I like him, he likes me. He knows my name, the names of my daughters, the name of my dog. I wouldn't trust him to look after my dog, or my kids, or my car, unless I was really up against it. It's not that Steve wouldn't try, but he drinks, and when he drinks he doesn't always exercise good judgement. And when he doesn't drink, he very very much wants to drink, and so again, doesn't always exercise good judgement.

We know Steve in this way: the elementary school is on the other side of the highway, so my children and I, and sometimes the dog, walk to and fro under the highway underpass every day during the school year, and thus we cross the offramp where it meets the street, waiting dutifully for the walk signal twice a day (four times for the parents, who walk both directions for each trip.) Steve is not always working that spot, but he's there pretty often. If we don't see him for a while, he's probably in jail. We always hope that he's not dead.

Steve spends a few weeks in jail every year. His main crime is stealing beer, which he needs and sometimes cannot raise enough money to buy. Perhaps he loses the money, or likely he shares what he has more freely than his alcoholism demands he ought. However it works out, Steve steals beer. When he gets caught a few times, he is then banned from premises, which means that he also gets busted for trespass when he goes to get beer, even if he is in funds and intends to purchase beer. There are not too many places left that Steve can be without risking a citation for trespass.

One of the many tiny tragedies of Steve's life is that the court hears his case some months after the crime, and if he is sentenced to time in jail, that will occur sometimes quite a while after the rigmarole of the courts. This makes any sort of self-improvement a bit tricky, as Steve generally has at any given moment something close to a year's worth of hearings and punishment stretched out in front of him.

Steve was married, I think he married quite young. He's about my age, but wed some decades before I did (I was rather late.) He has two boys, grown and living, I think, in Alaska. I don't know anything about his wife. Steve was a welder by trade, building ships up and down the coast of Washington. He took up the trade some time after getting married, worked at it for some time. Eventually he worked his way up to being a crew boss, running a crew of welders on the night shift. Steve was a rotten boss, though, because he'd weld too even though he wasn't supposed to. He likes welding.

It is true that welding is easier and better if you do it when you're a bit stoned. It's not great, though, if you drink.

There were, I suppose, episodes involving drink, and then recoveries in addition to Steve not being great at not welding. Then the alcohol had a serious conversation with Steve and laid down some rules. One of those rules was that Steve doesn't work, he drinks. Nowadays, Steve is pretty single-minded in his pursuit of being drunk.

Having run in to him from time to time during some stints in recovery, I can attest that sober Steve is pretty rough. He does not track well, his personality is almost completely blank.

I like Steve, and I think he likes me. I know he's not mean, or vicious, or stupid. He's an alcoholic, and he's not very good in groups, which makes it hard for the systems which attempt to help homeless alcoholics get better to help him much. They're all about the groups. Groups in shelters, groups in halfway houses, groups in therapy. Steve isn't very good in groups. Attempts at recovery run in to, I suppose, more problems than that, but still, Steve isn't good in groups.

So, between stints in jail, and less frequent stints in recovery, Steve lives outdoors. There's a shifting, loose, association of mostly men who look after one another, share a bit of this and that, occasionally get in fights. Steve used to hang out of Lyle, but I think Lyle's in a pretty decent run of recovery now. Steve's been hanging out with Michael and his wife a fair bit, they're First Nations (Indians) and generally pretty sober near as I can tell. Seth and Chris kind of circle around the edges of the same crew. I think they get along with Steve, but not with Michael and his wife. There might be a bit of racism here, I don't see much of anyone but Steve with the Indians.

Sleeping outdoors is pretty tough. I know I'm not all there even after a couple days of camping and these fellows do it month after month after month with vastly inferior camping gear, except when they're in jail, in recovery, or maybe on the very coldest nights when they'll unbend enough to go down to the Mission and sleep inside, with all them people. That does't add up to too many indoor nights in a year. Some of the guys may actually be housed, I'm not certain. Steve, I am pretty sure, is generally outdoors.

Being outdoors always, and drunk a lot, isn't good for you. You can see that Steve's nose isn't straight. I don't know if that's a fight or a fall, but my guess would be "yes." Several of his fingers are permanently mangled, crooked, from being broken and never set properly. He has no idea how the little finger on one of this hands (right, I think) came to be at right angles to its normal position one day this spring, but there it is. It looks better now, but it's not right. Still, Steve is slim and upright, a fine looking figure of a man. When he's sober, or too drunk, he shambles a bit, but with right blood alcohol level, he strides along steadily with a spring in his step, a regular man about town.

Steve looks mighty serious in this photo, and he was pretty serious that moment. He does laugh a lot, and smile a lot. He needs a fair bit of beer in him to bring a smile, but that's just because it hurts quite a bit until he's got a bit of a load on. When he can get that pain down to a dull roar, he can be a pretty happy guy. Sometimes he's pretty chatty, I've heard a lot about Steve in little bits and pieces over the years, in those times when I've met him drunk enough to talk, but not too drunk to talk.

Steve has regrets and sorrows, but at the end of the day, of the possibilities available within the constraints of our world, this is the one Steve wants. He's pretty clear-eyed about that. It's not great, and sometimes it's terrible. But the alcohol won't let him work, and he's not good in groups, and this is pretty much what's left. One of his case workers told me that he thinks Steve (and guys like Steve) have something of a death wish. Steve told me that this case worker is a complete fuckhead.

I wouldn't say that Steve is happy, excepting now and then, but he is positioned in the place he wants to be, of all the places that are available to him and the beer.

He gave my wife some tulips once. He gave my dog a ball once.

I gave him $5 after I took the picture. I don't usually give him money, I give him attention instead which is harder for him to get. I ruthlessly use him as a lesson to my children, that all men are deserving of our kindness, our regard, and our respect. That not all men make good choices, that not all men are granted good choices to make. That we should treat each person with a little bit of love, but also within boundaries. Boundaries that are different for each of us, but laid down with care, respect, and kindness, the best compromise between ourselves and them that we can navigate.

This is Steve. He is a friend of mine, after a fashion.

10 comments:

  1. Just a minor tidbit I learned listening to a radio documentary about the homeless a while ago. One thing they need and request most is socks. They can't enough clean and dry socks. I heard of a group of podiatry students that conducts a weekly free clinic at a homeless shelter in Montreal. Their work is cherished.

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  2. Great story, great post. Thanks.

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  3. Your statement that you use this as a lesson to your children, that all men are deserving of our kindness, our regard, and our respect speaks so much to what we as a society seem to have lost. We do not seem to be able to have empathy towards anybody anymore. Not the wretched refuges and homeless we have created in the Middle East, nor the children in the concentration camps on our border. I am truly despairing. So thank you for this wonderful post.

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  4. Good story, well told.

    I grew up in a nice suburb of Rochester, NY. There were no homeless, nobody was begging, that was a different world.

    Many years ago, I moved to New York City. At some point, I had two kids and began to raise them. They were exposed to people sleeping rough and asking for money from the day they could toddle down the street. Walk to school and somebody is sleeping outside. Come out of the deli and someone asks for change.

    “What can they be thinking?” I wondered about my children. What is it like to be exposed to that world, one that was so carefully hidden from me when I was a child?

    I don’t remember the children ever asking the very basic questions about the homeless. I can’t recall either one asking me, Dad, why is that man sleeping on the sidewalk?” It was just part of their world, and they accepted it. They knew that we could get an icee at Uncle Louis G’s, and they knew that a man would be at the door asking for change when we came out.

    Like most New Yorkers, sometimes I gave them a dollar, sometimes I didn’t, usually based on nothing more than a whim. My kids seemed to accept this, too.

    Turnover was too high for me to form a relationship with anyone in particular like you have with Steve, and I don’t know if I have your courage and patience to do so. I’ve had general talks with the kids over the years about charity and respect but never about anyone specific like you do about Steve. Mostly, I’m just curious about my kids’s perspective. What is it like to grow up with these people as part of your world? How do they see them?

    They don’t realize it, but New York is a very strange place to grow up.

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    1. Bellingham is small enough to support a, hmm, let's say "very slowly evolving" group of chronically homeless folks. There are also people who are clearly chronically homeless, but more transient. In a week I might see 10 different people working "Steve's" corner, and of them I know about 5-6, and perhaps 2-3 more are slightly familiar (relative newcomers, might move on soon?), and 1-2 more are people I have no memory of.

      A different approach to policing would force these guys to move around more. A larger city would make it easier for them to move around more.

      And, of course, there is the invisible majority of homeless who are, by and large, not chronic as such, but temporarily -- usually -- inconvenienced by the current economic situation. Those folks, I am given to understand, can and often are usefully given a hand up back into the ranks of the (barely) employed+housed.

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  5. Well, you just got my Pulitzer nomination. As is so often the case, that next-to-last paragraph brings it all together beautifully.

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  6. Very nice piece of writing. And of life.

    Good on you for taking time to get to know Steve -- not too many would do that.

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