Paco is always a cheerful presence around the day center. He’s charming, clean and has all his wits and teeth about him. He seems like he should be one of our alumni, and some days I’ve felt like asking, what are you still doing here, man?
Today, I got an inkling. His eyes were hangover red.
He was there to take shower he didn’t seem to need, but it soon became apparent he’d come to talk. To say goodbye to his friends.
“I’m leaving for Ohio,” he said. “My sister needs a kidney transplant and I’m a perfect match.”
Paco had his kidneys pronounced healthy and his tissue matched hers, something that occurs 25 percent of the time between siblings. He agreed to be a donor and told his brother he was coming.
How will you get here, his brother asked. Walk, said Paco. No you won’t, said his brother, who sent him a bus ticket.
“I’m not looking forward to this, but I am,” Paco said. “It scares me, but I want to see my sister well again. I can do it. I got no life, and I can give her one.”
One woman was explaining to another: “He’s here — not my son, but the guy who looks like my son. Imagine that guy without a hangover.”
Earlier this week, one of our guests made the police blotter for the second time this month and at least the ninth time since July 2009. That doesn’t count his other interactions with police or EMT crews who respond to his fake medical emergency calls.
The latest incident described Lee being found on the sidewalk, intoxicated enough to be taken to the hospital. “[He] was accused of swinging his right arm toward the head of [an EMT] and swinging his left arm at and spitting on a police officer who rode with him in the ambulance.”
Lee’s a short man in his late 50s going on 70, has a stub for one arm and is missing a fingertip on the other. In the police reports, he’s disorderly, harassing hospital staff, trying to punch officers, threatening to rob banks, stealing beer and throwing away tickets.
Around the day center he’s quiet, even cowed. It’s hard to imagine him in a fight he could ever win.
Jim is heading for Salt Lake City, he says. A nurse at the VA refused to reauthorize the emergency oxygen tank he’s carried for the past five years. He thinks the Salt Lake VA will be more sympathetic.
I don’t know if the tougher VA is part of it, but there’s a slow crackdown going on against the homeless here on a lot of different fronts. It’s designed to get them off the river and into more stable settings, but for some, it’s just going to drive them to another town or a different part of the river.
Jim’s been going to Gold’s Gym and working out. They’ll transfer his membership to Salt Lake, he says. He’ll just have to come up with another $75 for the new club.
So he’ll have a VA and a gym just like in Grand Junction. He didn’t mention where he planned to live. I wonder if he’ll also have a place like this one.
We don’t let people in when they’re intoxicated or have liquor or drugs on them. They can get off the street and sit in the vestibule, but won’t be admitted inside.
Today, a falling-down drunk was stopped at the door, while a wobbling one made it past the checkpoint. He made some tea and started chatting up a woman folding her laundry. Hey, he said, I’ve got some money. Let’s you and me go get wasted.
She lit into him, letting him know she wanted nothing to do with him. He was aggrieved. Look at you, he said. You’re here and you don’t want to party with me? As if having a drunk asshole willing to spend money on you was supposed to be a complement if you were homeless.
I need this place, she said fiercely. And I don’t need anyone like you. So don’t come in here talking to people like that. We’re here to get away from it.
One challenge in observing people here is deciding what I can write about without invading their privacy. Over the last several months I’ve been watching her struggle with a raft of issues, and her marriage looks about to crumble under the pressure. Getting to know her and her husband, I’ve seen more clearly how they’re treated by the various systems meant to help them and to protect society from them.
It’s sad to be a witness to these minidramas of self-destruction but also heartening to see what happens when people are given a place to recover their dignity and gather their strength.
The lowest of the low, the drunkest of the drunk, the poorest of the poor and the craziest of the crazy are welcome here if they can behave with respect for each other. Whatever may be happening outside, no matter how in over their heads they may be, they can float through that door and get their feet on something solid just long enough to thrust themselves up again to the surface and maybe float another yard closer to shore.