Stories from the Streets: Old Man’s Body

Sometimes you have to offer help even when you know it will be turned down

A middle-aged man in an old man’s body shuffles into the back of the rescue, groans, and then sits heavily on the bench. I follow and take my seat in the captain’s chair. He’s 53, looks 75, and has been vomiting blood for two days. This isn’t the first time I’ve taken him in for similar problems, but it may be the last. He’s about done.

“You have to stop drinking.”

“I been good for two months, just a couple a day.”

“That’s too many, you have cirrhosis of the liver.”

“My doctor said I could have a drink now and then.”

“When was that, 1968?”

He looks away, first out the rear window, then at the floor. His vitals are stable, amazing how little vital signs actually tell us. He is dying. I look at him as we ride in silence toward the emergency room, knowing that within a month or two he will be dead. For now he maintains that strange fearless optimism, thinking he can go on drinking forever, as if the party will never stop. His body has quit, his mind never really got going.

Good luck, David, I say to him as we leave the hospital. He nods and looks around the ED, looking for somebody to talk to.

In a few hours he will be released, back into the city, back among his “friends.” Those friends dissipate as the money dries up, and are completely gone when it disappears. Life on the streets is a lonely one; the lack of a roof over one’s head, or walls to give room definition, is more oppressive than any confined space could ever be. It’s too big, simple as that. Walls offer intimacy, family and safety. Living in the “Great Outdoors” is overrated.

We ride back to the station in silence, lost in our thoughts. I have no idea what Adam is thinking, I’m sure the faces of dozens of similar people with similar stories are not running through his head. As the years add up, the body count rises, people who gave up, let their disease win and died alone. Adam hasn’t witnessed the parade yet, but he will. It is inevitable. In a few years, he will have seen his share come and go; for now, I envy his status as a “new guy.”

Few make it out of their fifties. The ones who do end up in a state-run nursing home, with wet brain, dead liver, heart problems, diabetes or any number of ailments that resulted from hard-lived lives.

If I did not know these people personally and saw them as people with a can on the off-ramp and a cardboard sign that says “Will work for food,” it would be much easier. They would just be gone, and I would never have known. But I do know them, and it kills me to see them kill themselves slowly, and there isn’t a damn thing I can do about it. I take them to the ED for detox, and they get the same treatment they did yesterday. They ignore the same doctor’s orders and wait for a bed in a psych unit to open up, but those beds seldom open for homeless alcoholics.

It doesn’t take long for another one to call. It’s another familiar face, in the same spot as always. We help him into the truck, Adam gets in front to drive, and I stay in back and try again.

“Barry, you’re nearly 60, you have to stop drinking.”

He had been lying on the sidewalk, empty vodka bottles next to him, his painter’s pants soaked with his piss.

“I’m trying.”

“There’s no time for trying. You have to stop.”

He gave me a lopsided grin, and the sparkle in his eye was all I had to see.

“You have no intention of stopping.”

“I said I was trying.”

I worked with his brother. They were brought up in the same home with the same parents, went to the same schools, had the same friends. They drank together, got in trouble together, got older together. But Greg grew up; Barry stopped growing when he took his first drink. Something grabs hold of an alcoholic and doesn't let go until that alcoholic lets it.

“Barry, let it go. You still have time. Call your brother, maybe he can help.”

He looked at me like I was crazy.

“My brother? He don’t have nothin’ to do with me. Big-shot fireman, got all the breaks. I got nothin’.”

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