There’s a little clot of blood on the right side of my left thumb from an injury I didn’t even know I received. It travels north to the white of the thumbnail with glacial slowness. As it darkens and turns brown, I wait for the day I can reach in and scrape away this crust of blood.
How long will it take? In the weeks it will take for this injury to move up and away from my body, will Robin die, or will I find a place for him to live? Will his disappeared housing case manager show up and actually look for an apartment for him? Will Pete stay sober enough to remain in the psychiatric respite facility, or will he get frustrated—“I’m getting thrown under the bus again”—and use his SSDI to buy some booze and some friends and get himself kicked out onto the street again? Everyone who knows him is urging him to stay calm, to keep his eyes on the prize, to make it to that hearing so he can try to get off the sex offender registry. Because a man whose only possessions are one leg, a sex offense, and a truckload of lesser felonies is impossible to house. Only person harder to house would be someone who’s been convicted of arson, convicted of manufacturing meth, or some combination thereof.
When I get into work, Rick, the probation officer, says, “Your phone started ringing about fifteen minutes ago.”
“It’s Pete,” I say, without consulting the phone.
Pete calls me many, many times a day: “Tell Maria (James, Craig, Tracy, etc.) to call me ASAP, OK?”
He calls back less than a minute later. “Did you tell Maria to call me ASAP?”
“I haven’t had a chance to call her yet.”
“OK, well, tell her, will ya? Tell her to call me right away.” He usually ends his calls by saying, “OK. I’ll talk at ya.”
I have no idea what he thinks this means.
Pete likes to tell people that two Indians stabbed him, and that’s how he lost his leg. “I know who they are, but I’m not a narc, so I won’t tell on them.” Pete lost his leg when he got so drunk that he passed out on the sidewalk. He must have collapsed backward, his right leg straight, but his left leg bent double at the knee so that he was lying on his own leg. Two sorority girls found him, unconscious and crumpled in a position so awkward that they were sure no living human could sustain it. They thought he was dead and called the police.
He lost his leg to a phenomenon called “compartment syndrome,” in which the blood flow is cut off and no fresh blood can get in or out to nourish tissue. He became his own tourniquet and though Pete didn’t die, his leg did. I found out the true story during the ten months that Pete lived in the drunk tank while he recuperated and we desperately sought a place that could and would house a sex offender. A colleague tipped me off that there was an assisted living facility in Greeley that would take anyone.
The police officers I work with take Pete up for a visit, and come back saying that they suddenly know where several people from Boulder had disappeared to. We all thought that Peace Joe, for instance, had died. Tall and gaunt, Peace Joe only ever said, “Peace,” and “I have stomach cancer.” But Peace Joe is alive, if not well, in Greeley.
When I tell the lady who runs the assisted living that Pete is a sex offender, I brace for her to say that she won’t accept him. She just asks matter-of-factly what his offense was. I tell her that it was an underage sex charge.
“Oh,” she says, with evident relief. “That’s fine. We don’t have any little girls here.”
I pause, then try to explain. “He was thirty-nine and he had a girlfriend who was sixteen.”
“No teenage girls here either.”
I suck on my thumb, try to draw the blood up and out, wonder how my nail can be thick enough to contain that blood but transparent enough for it to show through.
Pete told me that he didn’t know that it was wrong to have a young girlfriend because, after all, she was living with him and his mother and, besides, she was pregnant at the time by a man much older than he was. I try not to comment. Pete’s problem is that his public defender for the case told Pete that he’d get him off with a misdemeanor. In Pete’s criminal calculus, a misdemeanor is always better than a felony. Unfortunately, some misdemeanor sex offenses come with mandatory sex offense registration, effectively dooming Pete’s chances for most employment and almost all housing.
I’ve seen this situation many times with homeless men. Get drunk, go into the university library, watch some porn on a public computer (i.e., one with criminal monitoring), and your life is changed forever. Or get drunk, break into an apartment complex, and decide to go skinny-dipping in the pool, after which you “towel off vigorously,” and you’re slapped with a sex offense that locks you out of society.
Do I excuse these men for exploitive, misogynistic behavior? I do not. No more than I excuse the many middle-class men who’ve done stupid, similar things but who had the financial resources and legal acumen to get off (pun intended).
Punishment is a poor substitute for justice. When, after all, does punishment end? And what is punishment meant to do? The man who watched porn on the library computer had no prior sex offense, and in the ten ensuing years he’s been living on the street since his conviction, he’s had no additional sex offenses. But he’s got pages and pages of misdemeanors for public drunkenness, camping, open container.
I was sexually assaulted twice, both times in highly public circumstances, and on neither occasion did it occur to me to report the assaults to the police. Literal crowds of people watched what happened, and no one stepped forward to intervene. So why should a man who had ill-advised sex with a consenting minor still have to live under the onus of that conviction a decade after he completed his two-year jail sentence?
How is it possible that I feel sympathy for a person who has done what I might once have agreed was unforgivable? Why do I keep flashing back to the dilemma of another homeless man who was dying of liver cancer, but couldn’t get into a hospice because he had a sex offense?
These days when I walk my dog at night, I think of what my mother would say if she knew—that she’d worry. “It’s OK, Mom,” I imagine saying cheerfully, “I know all the sex offenders in Boulder County.”
I don’t mean that I’m not vulnerable. I’m as vulnerable as anyone. Which is to say that I’m no different from anyone. I too have made stupid mistakes. Punishment doesn’t rehabilitate, it just separates.
So often, that kind of punitive judgment is a form of self-protection; it lets us deny what we know about ourselves and impute it to someone else. To the others.
We get Pete admitted to the assisted living in Greeley. He is afraid to leave the drunk tank, and I keep saying, “Hey, this isn’t a place to live permanently. Look at all the intoxicated people coming in here, vomiting, fighting, crying.” But it’s the closest thing he’s had to a home in years.
While he was at the detox center, Pete got approved for disability, and started buying T-shirts. We load his black trash bags of T-shirts into the police car and start driving north. We drop him off Thursday afternoon, and I talk to Pete on Friday morning.
“I can do this,” he says. “It’s not so bad. I had eggs for breakfast.”
On Monday morning, I come to work and find frantic voice messages from the facility administrator on my phone.
“He must leave,” she says. “We had to call the police twice. He held a knife up to his roommate’s throat, so we moved his roommate into a different room. Then he began buying liquor for all the residents.”
Later Pete tells me that in two days he spent $900 on booze. He is officially kicked out on Monday.
From going out to look for people all the time, my hands become chapped and red. Hefting a bag of donated clothes into the trunk of my car, I break my fingernail. I look at the jagged edge. I think: at least the nail is shorter now, so this little blood spot can make its way out sooner.
Meanwhile, our search for housing for Robin comes to nothing. Robin, who under the worst of circumstances, is courteous, who remembers the details of what I tell him about my own life, who is, in the end, truly my friend. I pull up a mental picture of Robin at People’s Clinic, stiff with the pain of his diabetic neuropathy, smelling of the street, while he gently converses with a toddler who is somehow attracted to him.
The first several times I met Robin, he told me that he was ready to die, that he’d had a series of seizures from which he should not have recovered, and that each near-death experience brought him a sense of peace and resolution. He wears a ring that he found on the street: it says “Faith.”
I’m having trouble writing about Robin because when I think about him, I feel the grief and rage that come of trying to help a kind and decent person get to safety when nothing in the world will cooperate. One day when he was constricted in pain and we couldn’t get anyone at the clinic to see him, I stood in the hallway between a nurse and the police officer with whom I work and started to cry.
“Sorry for losing my shit,” I told the police officer later.
She said, “You are recognizing Robin’s essential goodness.”
It took me a few meetings to even persuade Robin to do the housing questionnaire because he’s never had an expectation that anything in his situation will change. His score for vulnerability was so high, though, that he was almost immediately tagged for permanent supportive housing. We scrambled, got his ID documents together with the help of his ex-wife and his mother, and he was assigned a voucher through the local mental-health facility.
But how do you do a successful housing search for a profoundly alcoholic man with multiple medical issues and a vast record of misdemeanors?
About six months into our housing search, Robin’s doctor asked him if he ever heard voices.
“Oh, yeah,” he responded. “I’ve got three: two guys and a girl named Misty. They’re my handlers.” The doctor and I are stunned. Nothing about Robin seems psychotic. Once the cat’s out of the bag, though, he’s very comfortable elaborating: “Every time I’m in the hospital” (a frequent occurrence) “they implant me with transponders. It’s the illuminati who are after me. If you look carefully, you can see a wire coming out of the roof of my mouth.”
He obligingly opens his mouth wide and I look carefully, but see nothing.
Robin throws up steep barriers to success. He will only live in Boulder or up in the mountains in Nederland. Not Longmont. Not Denver. Not Louisville. It has to be Boulder, because he needs to be near his ex-wife, Shelly, who works at a King Soopers. She constantly texts back and forth with me, helping to arrange appointments even though her live-in boyfriend would be furious if he knew. Robin insists that she believes him about the transponders and everything else. One day I ask her and she becomes wary.
“Well, there was a period where he was predicting things that came true.” Like that they would both become homeless.
And they both did, though she found a job and got back on her feet. Robin didn’t.
The most hopeful, almost wistful, that I’ve seen Robin is the day we drove him up to Nederland to look at a place there. It was a dump, just a kitchenette and a tiny room, but Robin immediately hobbled over to the gas range and looked on appreciatively. In his former life, he had loved to cook.
The property manager hovered nervously. Later, we realized that maybe it is not such a good idea to bring a potential tenant to check out an apartment in a police car, accompanied by a uniformed officer. Also probably better if the applicant doesn’t reek of alcohol and can walk steadily. The property manager turned down Robin’s application, citing his extensive criminal record (trespassing tickets and open-container citations) and the alcoholic vapors wafting off him. The property manager also noted that he’d had thirty-six applications for the space. We’ve never made an apartment visit since.
In the ensuing months, the intervals between hospitalizations are shrinking. Some days Robin’s face is swollen and his eyes are rheumy. Some days he can’t walk at all.
His friend Thomas alternates between telling me that Robin needs my help more than he, Thomas, does and abandoning Robin altogether. Before Thomas lost his car on a drunk driving spree, he used to take Robin to a park that has public showers. Robin’s profuse drinking has destroyed his lower GI tract, and he is increasingly incontinent. Thomas sent Robin off to the shower while he sat in his car drinking.
“I realized, Elizabeth, that I’d fallen asleep and it had been a really long time, so I went into the bathroom and there was Robin passed out on the floor, naked, with the water running all steamy. Someone else came in, and I thought, ‘Oh, shit! I have a warrant out on me. I’ve got to get out of here.’”
Thomas noticed that Robin’s ass was pink from the heat of the shower, so he figured he was still alive and someone would call for an ambulance.
A conversation weeks later:
“Elizabeth, the difference between Robin and, say, you and me is that when we shit our pants, we are able to clean ourselves up, and Robin isn’t.”
I think about all the weird things I’ve discussed in the last year and then proceed, “Thomas, there’s a further distinction I’d like to make. Some of us never shit our pants.” Thomas rolls his eyes and looks at me scornfully. “Oh, come on. We all do it.”
A few months after Pete is kicked out of the nursing home in Greeley, he’s moving between acute psychiatric care facilities and his brother’s house. He hates his brother so much that he sleeps in the garage, or just takes off altogether.
He wants to go back to the detox center and offers to pay them rent. They say no. I’m getting the calls again, ten, sixteen times a day. I notice I flick my thumb anxiously against my forefinger while I’m talking to him, talking in my consciously calm and patient way.
“Pete, what did you do while you were in Denver? You have a bunch of new citations, and pretty soon there’ll be some warrants out for you.”
“I’m just getting thrown under the bus again, thrown under the bus. Just spent some time with this girl. She had a camper. I bought her a little booze.”
“Please, please, just hang on. We really are trying to find a place for you. Getting tickets, getting kicked out of places, isn’t helping.”
I don’t know why I’m trying. I’m exhausted. I see no options for Pete.
It is at this juncture that Pete begins using meth.
“Elizabeth, you’ve got to get the police officers to pick me up for my appointment at Mental Health. Tell them to call me ASAP.”
“Pete, why did you leave the respite housing? If you had stayed there, you’d be right across the street from Mental Health.”
“Well, some people—I can’t tell you who—offered to make me part of a threesome. And then I did meth with them.”
“It was just a sex thing, Elizabeth. When you get that kind of offer, you have to go along with it.”
A few days later, we are driving Pete to Brighton for a court hearing, trying to get him off the sex offender registry. Before we picked him up, I told the police officer who is driving about Pete’s threesome.
“Who wants to have sex with a one-legged sex offender?” she asks skeptically.
As soon as he is clicked into his seat belt and we are on the road, Pete swears that he won’t do meth again. I see a window of opportunity.
“Pete, who did you have the threesome with?”
Officer Jensen glances sideways at me while she drives.
“Oh, it was Caylie and John, but it wasn’t that much fun, because, you know, they live in that field near the railroad tracks, no place to lie down. And they are always fighting.”
He begins to elaborate, but I cut him off.
Later I text Jensen: “Now you know who has sex with a one-legged sex offender.”
She texts back: “Ick.”
The hearing is inconclusive because Pete’s attorney doesn’t show up. A month later, we go back and try again. The hearing is inconclusive because the prosecutors first try to contact the victim to ask her for input (a legal requirement in such cases) while we are sitting in court, and they can’t reach her.
“I know where she is,” Pete volunteers. “She’s in jail.”
“Shhh,” says the public defender, “we don’t need to help the prosecutor on this one.”
A month later, Pete goes back to court and tries a third time. The judge denies his request to get off the sex offender registry.
I trim my fingernails down to the quick. Working with homeless people has made me aware of the almost medieval stain of grime on their hands. Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether blackness is frostbite or dirt.
My hands look pink and middle class, except for the blot of desiccated blood slowly growing up my left thumbnail.
Robin tells me, “I start with people at one hundred percent.”
I don’t understand—“What?”
“I give them the benefit of the doubt and they start at one hundred percent. I only subtract my good regard on the basis of experience.”
This seems to be true. I can’t remember seeing Robin actively nasty. Homeless society is complex, with many strata and many interchanges. The drunks hang at Drunk Park, unless they are in front of the Best Buy. The meth addicts like the band shell or Scott Carpenter Park. Lately, the Meth Witch has been hanging with the drunks at the Best Buy. She’s the meanest person I’ve ever met, with her ice-blue eyes and armload of bangles. I’m sure she’s hanging with Robin and his crew because she’s safe there, because when she’s mean Robin will tell the other guys to leave her alone. But her presence is a disruption of the homeless social system as I know it, and I’m surprised to see her with the guys two days in a row.
I stop by to see how things are going and to get some paperwork signed. Robin seems to be passed out on a bench, his head cricked at an improbable downward angle toward the sidewalk. Tico and Farmer John greet me, and we shoot the breeze. The Meth Witch gears up. First she complains that I have no right to be there. Then she says that I stole her husband. When she starts commenting on my fat ass, Robin’s head jerks up.
The Meth Witch makes a move to start up once more. Robin’s eyes are closed again, his head perilously close to the pavement.
“Fucking fat ass,” she hisses.
“No. More. Of. That,” Robin enunciates. She shifts on her own ass. Tico and Farmer John make clear that they are Robin’s deputies on this issue. The Meth Witch rises in contempt and anger and departs.
One day Robin asks if I’ve ever actually met Shelly, his ex-wife. By now, I talk regularly not only to her but to Robin’s mother, who lives in the upper Midwest. “No,” I say, “but we’ve talked on the phone.”
The last time Robin was in the hospital, the social worker told me she didn’t know why he was still alive. Robin can hardly walk because of neuropathy, vitamin deficiencies, advanced alcoholism. The social worker thinks it is time to call Robin’s mother to tell her that her son is dying.
I call Shelly to get her opinion, but also to make sure that she knows how sick Robin is. We all know, really. I spend weekends determined not to worry about whether he has died. I know I’ll have to be the one who calls his mother to tell her.
Shelly says, “Not yet.”
I wait on the line.
“Don’t call her yet. She’s an old woman. It will kill her.”
“But doesn’t she have a right to know? What if she wants to come down and say goodbye?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know.” Shelly is crying. I am crying. I decide not to call his mother. I decide instead to bring my phone every time I’m out looking for Robin so he can call his mother himself, just so they can hear each other’s voices. Only sometimes Robin refuses to call her. Robin may start with people at one hundred percent, but he’s so far from one hundred percent himself that some days when I hold out the phone he just croaks, “No, no, no.”
My caseload is something like 125 people, most of whom I can’t find on any given day, some of whom would be much easier to house or help than Robin. There’s hardly anything I can do to help his aching, ruined body, to ward off his legal troubles, the voices he hears, his impending death.
Why Robin? Why the obsessive, doomed effort to get him inside, safe? When I began working with him it was already too late.
Meanwhile, it appears that miracles do happen. A place in Denver takes sex offenders, and Pete moves in.
It is a relief to feel that I no longer have responsibility for him. I tell Jensen that I can work with a dozen new people, that’s how much time I have now that Pete doesn’t call me all day long every day. Silently, I bless his new case manager.
Then Pete starts calling.
“Elizabeth, my neighbor got a PA system and he is broadcasting out into the street that I’m a sex offender. He’s playing this song about Chester the Molester.”
“Pete, are you using meth?”
“Yes. No. He’s really doing this. I’m moving to Hawaii, I can’t take it here, and I won’t lie—I fucked up big-time. I just can’t stand that guy telling everyone that I’m a child molester. And they won’t fix this place so that it’s handicap bound. They won’t help me out at all. It will never be handicap bound.”
I call his case manager. I can tell just by the sound of her voice that she’s got dark circles under her eyes, that Pete has been calling her incessantly. She tells me that he fills up her voice mail every day.
The case-management team wants to get grab bars on Pete’s shower, pull up the carpeting that makes it hard for him to maneuver his wheelchair. He won’t let them into the apartment.
“Why does he refer to handicap accessible as ‘handicap bound’?”
“Hell if I know.”
“And what’s with this neighbor?”
“He’s just a gentle old guy who likes Marvin Gaye.”
Over the next several weeks, Pete uses meth, gets psychotic, goes to acute-care behavioral facilities, comes back to his apartment on a regular rotation. One day he calls me to say that he promises to stop calling 911 on his neighbor and that he will try to stay in the apartment.
I talk to the case manager. I want to know if it is getting better. She thinks probably not, but if they could just keep Pete off meth, maybe he’d stay lucid enough to settle in.
“Still fighting with the neighbor?”
“Oh, he’s just a quiet old man who likes to listen to Marvin Gaye.”
“Why does everyone who mentions him say something about Marvin Gaye?”
“Well, we think that’s the basis for the problem. The day Pete moved in, this guy was next door playing ‘Sexual Healing’ on repeat all day long.”
A week or so before Robin’s latest trip to the emergency room, I’m home in my kitchen when I reach with one fingernail under my left thumbnail and flick out a bit of dirt. I realize it is the last fleck of blood that I’d been watching as it moved up toward my fingertip. After all that tracking, it was gone, clean: healed. I’m disappointed that it was no more notable than that.
I go visit Robin in the hospital. I bring a coat that his mother has mailed for him. He refuses to open the box and I set it on an easy chair. Yesterday, Robin was detoxing and he doesn’t even remember that I came by. I talked to the social worker about getting him into a nursing home: she’s sure he will qualify. But Robin is uneasy, says he has things to do before he’d consider that.
“Robin, it’s getting cold outside. I’m afraid you’ll die of exposure.”
“Yeah, I’m fine with that.”
In what I intend as a gesture of affection, I squeeze his foot through the blanket. He winces in pain, “My neuropathy.”
I feel ashamed, at my wit’s end. He closes his eyes.
“Robin,” I say, looking at the hands resting across his stomach, “what happened to your faith ring?” He opens his eyes, lifts his hands, looks at his fingers. “Oh, I gave that to someone who needed it more than I do.”