I would like to tell you that Dennis and I had a sit-down today, but we did not. It rained during the time he was supposed to be doing some carpentry work, but I lugged all of my equipment to the car anyway, figuring he might be hanging out at McD’s or such. I drove to the different dumpsters he mentioned, where he fishes for food, goods to trade, clothing, etc. I checked the wood lot where he said he stays. I did see a grey Save-a-Lot buggy overturned by the rough-and-tumble area where he lays his head. I wasn’t too comfy there, and I was in a car. I drove up and down the side streets, checked the laundromat, all to no avail. It’s possible, since he has short-term memory problems, that he forgot. Or that he was re-hospitalized for his diabetes or seizures. Or, that he simply decided he didn’t need the things I was bringing enough to want to sit still for that long, and let someone examine his life so closely. I’ll leave the things in the car for a while, in case I spy him again. What you get below is constructed from what Dennis told me in the brief time we spent chatting in a parking lot last night. I don’t know if it is fact, or fiction, or some combination of both. For that night, it was his truth.
Dennis is skinny, rail thin; maybe 5′ 8″ – 5′ 10″, wearing ill-fitting basketball shorts, a too-long, non-matching T-shirt, and cheap flip flops. His gray hair is tied in a short pony-tail, topped off by a baseball cap, the logo of which has long since faded. His flashing brown eyes are the perfect counterpart, with their weighted, heavy brows, for his hawkish nose. He looks directly at you when talking, no casting about with the eyes, no shyness or downward looks present. He moves with agility despite the obvious evidence of diabetic issues on the heels of his feet. His tennis shoes were wet, and he disliked the flip flops. I took him a pair of my late husband’s heavy-soled and durable Bjorn sandals, which seemed cooler than tennis shoes, yet sturdier than flip flops, and wouldn’t require socks. I took him some socks too. He doesn’t like his feet exposed to cuts and such, which can be a death sentence for a diabetic. He gets his clothing from things tossed in the trash at laundromats. He says no one throws away shorts until they are slap worn out, and wondered if there were any among my late husband’s things. Dennis is quite a lot skinnier than that, and those shorts or jeans would fall right to the ground. I know his size now though, so when I am dropping things off to donate at the thrift shop, I might take a peek for a clean, right-sized pair or two of drawstring shorts for someone.
Dennis talks in a rapid-fire, pause, rapid-fire, pause, speech pattern. He seeks your face for impact at some of the things he says. His term in ‘Nam was “Mole” – digging tunnels. He discovered a darkness in himself there, that cost him an honorable discharge at the end of his tour. After enduring the atrocities of warfare, a warfare unknown to our troops at the time, he became unable to separate ‘friendlies’ from ‘enemy’ while there. He discovered he liked to kill. I’ll pause here for a moment. How else DOES one endure month after month of war, when one is always on the edge? When every misstep could be a mine, a booby-trap, a blind corner, and rain is persistent, dousing everything you own, rotting your feet and your crotch, making every step an exercise in misery.
Dennis is matter-of-fact about these things, like saying he went to the grocery store today. I recognize that flatness in tone, when talking about trauma. It is almost metallic, devoid of any emotion. Not because there isn’t emotion, but because the emotion behind it, once unrestrained, takes on a life of its own. It is the ground-level force behind PTSD. Such trauma often produces Disassociative Disorder as well, in extreme cases, formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder. Dennis then throws in Korea, which I know he is too young to have served in, and call him on it. He looks a little abashed, and tries to tell me of post-war activities there, to control certain things without requiring official sanctions. I wave him off of that, as I don’t want to know.
Dennis had a family, and a very successful tile business at one time, owning multiple homes, caring well for his family. He is fatherless, his father being shot down in front of him at fourteen. That a human being can go forward, serve their country in the ugliness of all war, re-build a life, and reach success after all of this, only proves out the strength of the human spirit, our will. There were terrible race riots here in 2001, and he was working at a construction site when the worst broke out. He was assaulted with his own tools, hammered so hard into unconsciousness that, according to him, one of his eyes popped out. He does have a huge dent mid-forehead, in the formation of a hammer head. His skull is slightly misshapen as well, and one ear is damaged. During his recovery from the assault, he lost everything, except a house that he signed over to an elderly, ailing aunt. Supposedly it is still inhabited by his uncle, who survived his aunt at death.
Dennis recently had a multiple seizure episode, and was Baker Acted for three days, and then went through intake at the VA. He says they are getting worse, but that the medication helps quite a bit. He doesn’t know what triggers the seizures. He suspects they told him, but short-term memory issues keep him from recalling the reasoning currently. He says he has to say things over and over to get them burned in. I know that he did not recognize my car when I pulled back around to bring him his food last night, and was embarrassed that I got out and walked it to him, leaping to his feet and meeting me half-way, buggy and all, when I called him by name. When I gave him cigarettes, he said “I know you gave these to me, but I smoke menthol. Is it all right if I trade them, as these bring 3-to-1 in exchange for menthols, ‘cuz no one smokes those.” I told they were his, he could do with them what he wanted. The night security guard at McD’s came by while we were talking, and Dennis spoke to him, asked him how he was, and said he was wondering when he’d show up. The guard was friendly and kind back.
When I last saw Dennis, he re-arranged the things I had given him, especially the tent, folded carefully in the buggy, covered all with plastic, and pushed on off into the night towards the wood lot. I hope he is okay, and that I see him again sometime.
I drove home, fired up my laptop, and wrote about Dennis last night, from the comfort of shelter, air conditioning, a stocked fridge, and a shower nearby. I have a bed to sleep in. I’ve not known serious want in several years, although I have been homeless for a period of time after losing my job, my farm, and a lot of my dignity in the process. I picked vegetables for a farmer, and helped at a farmer’s market booth, in exchange for the culls at the end of the day. I weeded yards for people, and helped with other chores, in exchange for fresh eggs and milk. I cooked for others, in exchange for keeping the left overs. I stood in line for food stamps, only to find out that, on unemployment, I made six dollars too much a month to qualify. If not for friends and wonderful former co-workers, I’d have been stuck. I’ve had friends in the hospital, husband out of state working, that I went to stay with so they wouldn’t be alone, hand me an envelope with money, while they were sick. I have some really, really good people in my life. One of those people is right here on WP, but I won’t embarrass her by pointing her out. Everyone doesn’t have that. Sometimes, whatever is wrong with them in their life, of theirs or other’s making, keeps them from forming friendships of any duration. I know, I’ve been there.
I realize that homeless or unemployed people are viewed with suspicion. And I think everyone should do their part, no matter how small. I am aware that some people choose to do so; I’ve known a couple. But, in photography, especially macro photography, sometimes what you really want the lens to focus on gets thrown off by something else in the frame, and the subject matter is blurry, while that other thing is in perfectly sharp focus. I believe that at times, we are like camera lenses. We focus so much on the ‘why’ someone is in that situation, that we lose focus on the situation itself. We suffer from frame intrusion, so to speak. I’ve been homeless twice, once due to Domestic Violence, once due to losing my job after my husband’s death, before I really had a good grip on supporting myself solely again with all of the obligations I carried after the death. I regained my footing both times, with help from others. I’ve read comments of disdain about people showing up in the Food Stamp line in nice clothes and shoes, perhaps driving a nice vehicle as well. If you’ve never been there, let me tell you something. When you are going in to ask for help, your dignity is under pressure. You are admitting failure. That as a grown adult, you haven’t met muster, haven’t done everything right. At times, the only way to get out from under that heavy burden is to dress with pride in yourself, to remind yourself that this is temporary and it too will pass. My obligation for my pricey SUV didn’t go away when my husband died, or I lost my job. That was what I had to drive. You can’t trade in an upside down vehicle when you have no job and there’s no equity in it yet. And yes, I dressed nicely, and smelled good, when I went in that office. It was all I had left.
I write about labels, because I’ve worn many of them. Yet if you met me, you’d never guess a single one of them. You don’t know that person from a five second glance through a window. You simply don’t.
Tonight, when you crawl into a bed, be thankful. Hundreds of thousands here in this country don’t know that luxury, that safety. And that doesn’t even touch the world-wide problem. My belief structure teaches that special consideration should not be given to either the rich, nor the poor. You see, I think we have both for a reason. It’s called opportunity. There will never be fairness in all things. But what you do wherever you are on the spectrum, is your choice. Both positions offer opportunity – one for generosity and compassion; the other for humility and thanks. You can’t have one without the other. It is opportunity to become better people, for each of us.
I hope Dennis, and I, make you think.
Be well. Be the best you, that you can be today.