Tuesday, January 15, 2008

One Day That Killed Life Forever

Lawrence, or Larry as he likes to be called, was a business consultant who planned events for local and out of town night spots and establishments, as well as the occasional housewife planning a big shin dig at the family home. His many friends thought him not only warm and kind hearted to a fault, but knew him to be a good provider for his ever growing family. His children, Andrea 7, Jacob 5 and Theresa age 2, thought him to be an angel descended from Heaven, as did his wife of 10 years Angela. A good hard working American, Larry had plans to expand his business, and hire a couple of more consultants to his burgeoning enterprise.

Meeting Larry on the streets of Lincoln, Nebraska, one would never know or even consider that this was once a successful person who owned not only a growing business, but a beautiful home, two cars, and had been living the American dream. Larry doesn’t talk to many people these days, his life having gone from happy and hopeful, to a bottomless well of despair and toil in the blink of an eye. After having a shot of tequila at a dingy gin joint, Larry can still hear the screech of brakes from the truck that mowed his family down on a day trip to Omaha to visit the zoo, and feel the warmth bleeding out across his arms, as he held tightly to what was left of his family. Even after five years, the screams and the cries haunt his every moment, his only solace lying in the bottom of every bottle he can now obtain.

Arranging to meet with Larry to follow his routine, and to try to garner whatever information he was willing to part with, I awoke at 4a.m. to set off to find him. We met on the corner of O Street in the chill morning air, while everything was still closed, another hour till the first of any coffee shops opened, but Larry wasn’t concerned about coffee shops, his worry was how to scrounge out a few dollars for the day. Wondering if he’d at least spent the night at the shelter because of the cold, Larry said that he doesn’t like going there because of the no drinking rule. So on most nights, if it’s cold out, he’ll try to find an open apartment building door, and sleep in the relative warmth of a hallway, or rooftop landing. During the warmer months, he camps out in a sleeping bag he managed to glean from the distribution center run by the rescue mission.

We set off to the Labor Ready on Randolph street, the place where Larry goes to try to get a day’s worth of work in, and must be at by about 5:15 a.m. to sign in, or his chance of getting out that day decrease by the minute. Upon arrival, there were already a few early birds, waiting for the door to open, which it did about ten minutes after we got there. Larry said or nodded hello to a couple of people, but for the most part stayed to himself. As we warmed up, more and more wishful workers straggled in, some drawn no doubt by the free coffee that’s provided in the morning for those who wait.

As we sat there, Larry told me how he’d fallen to this degree of poverty, and made no excuses for his plight, only asked that I try to understand. After the death of his family, a complete accident by all accounts according to Larry, he just could not bear the burden of suffering, nor the guilt he felt for being alive when his loved ones were gone. Not even pretending to be interested in his business any more, he sold it to one of his employees for pennies on the dollar, spending the money in the casinos and bars on the Council Bluffs, Iowa side of Omaha, trying desperately to get lost in the murky haze that only a lot of bourbon can bring about. His house foreclosed because of his being lost in the horrifying pain, Larry found himself going back to Lincoln to use some of his remaining cash on low rent motels, and even lower rent bars. For a time, he thought about trying to make a comeback of sorts, dismissing the idea almost as soon as he thought it, becoming if not content in his new station in life, then feeling that this was all he deserved, still blaming himself for an event beyond all but God’s control.

Morning wore on, with Larry announcing that at this hour, there would be no new day job tickets arriving, and he wanted to get a head start back to the side of town where free lunches are served to the poor and the homeless. We arrived at The Matt Talbot Kitchen in time, taking up our place in line just as the doors opened and the hungry started inside. Everyone that worked there, all volunteers, were friendly enough, and welcomed these, those who have the least in our society, with open arms. The meal consisted of macaroni with meat and carrots mixed in, a salad mixture and some bread. Not steak and potatoes mind you, but with
the temperature outside being around 25 degrees, a welcome respite from the hardship of a futile morning. Hot coffee rounded out the meal, as well as a small piece of cake, and then it was back to the streets in search of someplace Larry might be able to score even a little cash to extinguish his growing thirst.

Inquiring as to whether or not he’d tried going the inpatient route at one of the detox centers, Larry said he’d been through the Center Pointe program about a year or so ago, but that it hadn’t taken, because he wasn’t ready to call it quits yet. He realized that he wasn’t done self flagellating, and didn’t know if that day would ever come. And so we were off to the spot under the O street bridge, which is being overhauled, and where homeless men gather during the day hoping for an hour or two’s worth of dumping garbage for the construction firms refurbishing the span. Having worked for two hours a couple of days before, Larry caught up with one of the foremen who said he didn’t have anything for that day, but if Larry were to come back early the next morning, he could use him for a few hours. Knowing the situation, this kind soul fronted Larry twenty dollars, taking his word for it that he’d show up the next day.

We made a direct beeline for a dingy bar, dark and dank outside, filthy and stinking of urine inside. Larry wanted a shot, to steady his nerves he said, which he had, and then we were off to a mini mart, where a twelve pack of Busch beer was the order of the day. Making our way to Haymarket park, the home of the Nebraska Cornhuskers baseball team, we sat under the concrete walkway that leads people into the park grounds, near some railroad tracks, where Larry opened his first beer. Lighting a cigarette, while drawing a great draught, for the first time, I saw the tension ease from Larry’s face. I sat with him while he smoked and drank, talking the small talk two people who barely know each other do, until the time came when the realization set in that Larry was pretty smashed. Expecting him to try to hit me up for some money, I was surprised when Larry said that he knew I had things to do, and actually thanked me for hanging out with him that day, without judging him, or telling him what he ought to be doing. Not being able to just leave him there that night, I called for a taxi on my cell phone, and brought him to a motel on 27th street, and got him a room for the night. The tears that came to his eyes made me wish that I had a million dollars to give this man, but alas, the best I could do was to leave him with an extra twenty dollars, and my best wishes. And so ended my day with Larry, a kind man who was struck down by a cruel flip of life’s coin.

The worst thing that I can imagine that could ever happen to someone happened to Larry. Good hardworking man. Played by the rules, paid his taxes, provided for his family. All of that was wiped away one day that killed not only a man’s family, but killed his life as sure as the bumper of that truck. Larry will never read this. He doesn’t go to the library to use the internet. His day to day existence is a struggle to find a day’s pay, food to eat, and maybe something to numb the searing pain in his mind. But Larry’s case is in no way indicative of the majority of homeless Americans, many of which are children, and the vast majority of whom live nowhere near a merciful city like Lincoln, where they go above and beyond to try to take care of those less fortunate. Something to think about on your way to and from work, as you pass those outstretched hands and decide not to fork over that sixty eight cents in change jangling in your pocket, because Heaven forbid! They might buy alcohol with the money! Maybe so. Maybe sometimes that’s all that’s left for people like Larry, solace at any cost. Batmanchester

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