Two weeks had passes since I handed Mark a copy of The Old Crow Book Club. I was worried. He was clearly in decline.
The sun finally came out for one day and I was driving past Mark’s sidewalk, and there he was! I pulled over to check on him and see what he thought of the book.
I called out, “Mark, where have you been?”
“Matt!” said Mark. He was smoking a Lucky Strike but not drinking. Near him, a young homeless man I didn’t recognize was sorting cans and bottles, talking to himself, and drinking a bottle of champagne. Yes, champagne.
“I had two heart attacks,” said Mark.
In short order I learned: a week ago he ended up in Emmanuel Hospital and was treated for a heart attack and then another one. He had no idea how he got there the first time or who had called for help. He was hospitalized a total of eight days, given some medication, and a free cab ride right back to Sellwood! Not a single employee from any of Multnomah County’s legion of agencies and nonprofits dedicated to addressing the crisis of homelessness had visited him. Apparently there wasn’t a social worker on the hospital staff to do anything for him, either. Who knows? It’s the same old bureaucratic morass, only this one isn’t delaying your DMV tags, it’s killing people.
Mark had nothing but high praise for the medical team that cared for him. He somehow hadn’t lost his backpack and sleeping bag during the ordeal but his ID and food card were missing.
“You could be dead,” I said.
“I was six feet under but wasn’t ready yet, I guess,” said Mark. I’m like a bad penny that keeps showing up.”
I asked Mark if he’d read any of the book before the heart attacks.
He had not. He’d been reading another book but would get to mine next.
For some reason, I sort of liked that Mark hadn’t read it. He was in the middle of another book and wanted to finish that one first. That’s a hard core reader for you.
It occurred to me that Mark might never read the book. If you ever write a book, never expect the person you most want to read the book will ever read the book, even if that book is about that person. I know this from personal experience.
I slipped Mark a fiver and wished him well. I reminded him about the book launch pizza party that was scheduled for the park as soon as it warmed up.
Mark said he was looking forward to it. I told him I’d see him soon.
A few days later…
I passed three homeless men on the half mile drive to the grocery store at seven in the morning. One, a regular in the neighborhood whom I’ve never met, must be at least 80 years old. He was pushing a grocery cart full of cans in 38-degree weather.
Upon arrival at the grocery store, I noticed a man slumped in a wheelchair outside the main entrance. He was barely holding up a sign. In the parking lot, I saw another homeless man near the back entrance to the store. He was holding a sign with words asking for help. I did not help.
I stepped inside the store. Heat blasted me. There was Mark! Shit! He was alive!
We said hello to one another. He looked much better than the last time we’d met. He told me that later today, he was heading downtown to the hellhole abyss of Old Town to try and get housing. He apparently was on their radar because of his recent heart attack and that friends and family had notified someone in authority. He had tried the previous day, taking the bus, but, according to Mark, he had arrived during the lunch hour and the office was closed and he didn’t want to wait around. If you’ve seen this place, as I have, you would understand.
Can you believe that at noon they close the office of the biggest homeless services provider in Oregon for lunch. Is this really true or was Mark just confused or outright lying? If it is true, it’s outrageous. I thought this was a crisis. The director of this non profit should get off his/her/them ass and cover the lunch shift. I’ll cover the lunch shift!
I said to Mark, “It’s time, you’ve got to do it. You’re going to die if you don’t.”
“I know,” he said.
I believed him. I believed Mark was going to try again.
“You know it’s going to be fucked up like last last summer,” I said.
“Yes,” he said.
“See it through.”
I said if it worked out, they might get him into housing right away. I asked how I could reach him if that happened. He gave me a name and description of a house in the neighborhood of someone who cared. I am beginning to learn there are a lot of people in my neighborhood who care about Mark and other homeless people. The city and county and nonprofits have utterly failed in marshaling this caring.
I did not offer to drive Mark downtown, although I had nothing to do all day. He didn’t ask. I didn’t offer because I made the choice right there that Mark had to do it on his own or it was never going to happen.
And yes, I felt terrible at not offering.
My old football coaching instincts kicked in. I pumped up Mark with some Vince Lombardi bromides. They occasionally worked in my youth; maybe they would work on a homeless man in his mid 50s who was going to die within months or weeks unless he got off the streets.
I gave Mark a $10 bill for bus fare and something to eat or drink. I did my shopping and as I checked out, I saw Mark drinking a coffee and kneeling on the floor. A clerk came up to him and asked if he was okay. He said he had shortness of breath but was okay.
I walked out of the store, got in my car, drove home. It’s an unnerving feeling driving home, feeling like a total piece of shit.
A day later, I heard that Mark had gone downtown again and all the shelter beds were full. It also hailed three times that afternoon and Mark was somewhere out in it, and I know this because I drove by the grocery store and he was out in front, sitting on the sidewalk, and reading The Old Crow Book Club.