Three Close Encounters of the Unsettling Kind

Downtown Chico

Spending an inordinate amount of time daily either at Peets Coffee and Tea or, as I am now, typing away at a key board at Mr. Kopy (both located at 2nd and Main Streets) I watch people striding, sauntering or shuffling by in their daily/nightly lives.
As an aside, I was just pacing the sidewalk as I am wont to do and a not very tall tattered man asked in a shaky voice, “Excuse me, sir I’m so hungry I could eat my own shoe.”
I responded with, “Dude, I’m a bum, too. I don’t have anything I can offer you. Sorry.”
On my way back, I saw a normie man handing a white paper bag to a beat up looking fellow sitting on the sidewalk. I heard him say, “It’s jalapeno. It’s really good.”
I said to the man as he got into his shiny vehicle, “That was very kind of you.”
“Of course,” he smiled.
[Awhile later, I ended up talking with the generous man who had returned and was loading a bike into his vehicle with his young son. He told me, as people often do, I don’t like giving money because of drugs and alcohol. He opened his wallet and showed me a small stack of $10 Safeway gift cards. “I wish,” he said, explaining that he gives out the gift cards instead of cash, “that they would just go for food…”].
I asked him for a gift card and he was happy to give it to me.
The thing is I absolutely believe that most people are not inured to the plight of homelessness and do not view the chronically downtown down and out with contempt – it’s more a matter of frustrated concern which often translates into the gifting of eatery leftovers, a cigarette or money.

Thus far this year, I’ve had three interactions with down and out men I did not know, the experiences of which, the memories, still occupy the back stages of my mind.
Recently after dark, near closing time at Peets, Claire who is its manager had come in as a customer along with her husband and young son.
Shortly thereafter, a tall white man in his 20s entered the outdoor seating area of Peets stumbling into a metal chair, fell over a matching table, knocked over a different chair and banged his head hard against the glass of a large window.
A couple of passersby stopped as did a minivan out on the street essentially to gawk helplessly. Everyone in Peets stopped what they were doing.
Claire’s husband, Brandon (we were about to meet for the first time) and I rushed out the double metal and glass double doors to assist the fellow I’ll call Fuller.
It was very cold that night. Fuller was wearing a light shirt, black trousers, no shoes or socks.
“Dude, what happened to your shoes?” I asked after the initial are-you-okays?
“My girlfriend stole them,” he answered his eyes rolling around in their sockets.
With few words exchanged between us, Brandon and I became an efficient team. Fuller had now gotten himself up and had entered Peets sitting precariously on a wood chair near the doors. Brandon got him several cups of water while I tried to engage him in conversation.
A quick huddle took place among staff and the non-emergency number for the Chico Police Department was called for a welfare check.
Fuller said over and over as he fumbled with bits of debris in his pockets, “I need to get to One Mile.”
Having been in Chico for just over three years and familiar with its street culture, I assumed he wanted to get to One Mile, specifically to an area known as ’12 Tables’, to score drugs.
“What are you on, Fuller?” I asked. I assumed it was methamphetamine by his behavior (arms flailing about, eyes darting, an acute state of stir-craziness) and Fuller verbally confirmed that.
He wanted to use a restroom and it was unanimously decided that was a bad idea. He ran out the door, stripped down to a purple thong and ran out onto Main Street, Brandon and I chasing after him and raising our hands for the traffic to stop.
He came back to the outdoor seating area, sat down and when the three police officers arrived I introduced them to Fuller and said he seemed to need help.
“Fuller, where are your clothes?” one of them asked.
By and large from what I’ve witnessed, the Chico Police Department, some of the officers undergoing Crisis Intervention training, handle such situations well albeit with a sense of resignation.
And why not? Even for me, there’s a part of my brain that wants to be doing pretty much anything else while the rest of my head was, in Fuller’s case, hyper-vigilante regarding the potential for violence. How many welfare checks do any one police officer perform on a given shift?
One of the officers came into the shop and bought a slice of banana bread saying, “He’s [Fuller] coming with us.
There was a collective exhale of relief and thank yous.
I’ve seen Fuller many times since on the streets literally spinning around, dragging a sleeping back, but he’s had shoes on.

About a week prior I was sitting on a stool at a window counter at Peets. A customer, male, middle-aged had walked in and asked barista Megan, “If you were going to die tonight, which of these chocolate bars would you buy?”
I’ve written much of my friendship with Megan. We’re close. She asked another barista to ask me if I would talk with the troubled customer.
My rote social behavior, honed over six decades seems sometimes comical.
I approached the man — I’ll call him Tom – thrust out my hand to shake his and said as if I were about to give a sales pitch, “Hey, Dude, how are you? Would you like to talk?”
He looked at me tearfully, nodded his head and hanging on to his hand, I escorted him outside where we sat on chairs.
We spoke for about 30 minutes. His plan was to kill himself by train.
A friend I was relating this story to later said, “Ah, yes, trains – the Golden Gate Bridges of Chico.” I thought that was clever.
“That’s kind of mean to the people who drive the trains,” I explained to Tom. “It must have a negative affect on them.”
Tom pondered this and his methodology turned to jumping off a bridge. He was sad. He was drunk. A tall plastic water bottle of vodka sat on the table before him.
“The staff inside is concerned about you, Tom,” I began my pitch. “I’m concerned about you. I don’t think you really want to die tonight.”
He uncertainly shook his head.
“So there are two options,” I went in for the close. “You can go off and jump off a bridge or I can ask staff to call the police for a welfare check.”
Tom looked at me with fear.
“They’ll be very nice. If they can, they’ll help you out and if you want I’ll stay by your side.”
When the officers arrived I introduced them to Tom as if I were a non-official host at a social gathering. “Thanks for coming,” I said. “Tom’s having a hard time.”
One of the officers asked me what Tom had been saying. “His theme was death by train, but I talked him out of that. Then his theme became jumping off a bridge.”
“Thank you, Sir,” the officer said.
They took Tom away as well. To where, I don’t know. Jail? Butte County’s Behavioral Health Crisis Unit for 23 hours of evaluation.
The tragedy in all of this is that the U.S. mental health system is entirely broken and there are scant services for those in trouble. And there’s a factory mind set to mental health systems manufacturing patients dependent on pharmaceuticals.
I often think that the only people who think mental health services work are those who receive a pay check from the system and even the insightful ones have their doubts.
These were unusual situations at Peets, but probably erratically common for many downtown businesses. Peets, with its corner location and, at night, brightly illuminated large windows appears inviting. And, I have to hand it to all of Peets’ staff, they handled these two anomalous situations professionally and humanely.

A Happy Ending

The third encounter was much more involved, salient and had a clear positive ending. It occurred on a Sunday in January.
I was sitting at a picnic bench in the grassy area off of Vallambrosa Avenue near the bronze sculpture on an erstwhile physician sitting on a bench and across from the Chipotle/Rite Aide shopping area. I was reading Michael Chabon’s ‘The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.
A young man (everyone below 60 seems young to me and this fellow turned out to be 30) approached me wearing a heavily textured red poncho, light-colored slacks and was carrying a copy of Alice Sebold’s ‘The Lovely Bones’. He asked me if I had a cigarette.
“Only if you’ll have a seat and engage in conversation,” I said to him.
With subdued enthusiasm he sat across from me and said, “I could use some conversation right now – someone to talk to.”
His story was harrowing. He had left his rehab three months prematurely, driven to Chico, got into a single vehicle accident (which destroyed an axle), scored some heroin at the Downtown City Plaza, spent the night in a motel room with his new junkie friends and was robbed of his wallet, computer and other valuables after he passed out.
He was sweating earnestness in the way that some people do when they’re desperate for help.
He was unusually articulate and I later learned he had a communications degree from one of the seaside Universities of California. I’ll call him Ed.
He had family who he hoped would help him, but his phone was stolen as well.
“You could have been killed, Dude,” I said.
“I know.”
“Or raped or beaten up. It happens.”
“I know,” Ed said hanging his head.
He explained that his broken-down auto was parked on Wall Street near Fourth – “By the Hands” – and he was planning to sleep in it that night.
“I’m really hungry and thirsty,” he told me. I’d never been around anyone coming off of heroin before, only knew what I’ve learned from reading, movies and TV.
I was wary. “Here’s the deal, Ed,” I said, “I’ll pick up some food and drink at Safeway. I’ll meet you at your car.”
He expressed gratitude sheepishly. 30 minutes later, there he was all forlorn sitting in his not-drivable vehicle. He looked at the sandwiches, Chip Ahoy Cookies and two liter bottle of ginger ale as if they were marvels. We ate.
“I have a phone,” I said. “You can use it to call your family, but if you try to score heroin, I’m out of here.”
For the next many hours I listened to him and the folks he was talking with. Bargaining. Apologies. Pleading. Shame.
The funny thing was that his mother was familiar with me as a writer and that gave some credibility to me as someone trying to help her son out.
A flat bed tow to storage was arranged for the next day. After a lot of finagling, the rehab agreed to accept him back ($650 a month picked up by his family) and a ride was arranged through an Uber-style service.
What kept me engaged was the conversation between us. He was intensely articulate, a great conversation. Withdrawing from heroin aside, the intellectual volley between us was thrilling for me who craves dialogue.
“Throughout my life many people have helped me when I was down and out and you seem worth the trouble,” I told him.
We spent 26 hours together, me trying to sleep next to him as, for a couple of hours he seemed to be crawling out of his own skin. I had been sleeping in a friend’s truck at the time, so this wasn’t a big inconvenience.
The next morning, Ed was able to draw some money out of his Wells Fargo checking account. He knew the PIN number. While I was sitting in the waiting area, three different staff people asked me brightly, “Do you need to see a banker?”
Ed wanted beer, something to settle his nerves. I went back into Safeway and got three Fosters which we split.
In the late afternoon the tow truck appeared and after a very satisfying hug good-bye, Ed was off.
His mother and I email.
Ed and I email as well in a pen pal fashion and he is doing really well. He writes about his NA and AA meetings, his sponsor and his house mates in the rehab, everyone working at staying clean.

Rescued in Italy

In July 1999, I got into journalistic trouble at the Croatian/Yugoslavian border shortly after NATO had bombed the heck out of Belgrade, the capital of Yugoslavia.
I was interrogated for several hours during which, with the Serbian’s guns always pointed at me I thought I might be killed. They wouldn’t let me drink water, but encouraged me to smoke cigarettes from the two cartons I had brought along as tips and trades.
I smoked 16 in the time I was there. It was really hot. I had never chain-smoked before and had been a light cigarette smoker.
Days earlier, on the train from Paris to Venice, I met a woman named Lella Bertaso who was a few years older than me. Unusually, we were the only occupants of our six berth sleeping car. We split a bottle of wine and feasted on the food Lella had brought along.
“You’re an idiot to go to Yugoslavia,” she told me matter-of- factly in her excellent English and French.”You’re an American. You’ll get into trouble. If you come back through Italy call me and I’ll take care of you.”
After the Serbs, I made my way back to Venice where I had friends who had gone on a many day hike in the Alps. I called Lella and she told me what train to take to get to her town of Ferarra.
That was when I learned that medical care, even for foreigners was free in Italy. I was treated with steroids and antibiotics for a 16-cigarette enhanced lung infection.
I met her adult daughter (an architect) and son (a tech guy) and they confirmed what Lella had told me, “For me this is normal. Helping strangers I meet on trains.”
Lella had a house on the Adriactic Coast (I mean on the coast) built out of stone by her father-in-law in a village called Bonelli.
During the day I would slowly walk to the beach and lie there in the lovely Adriatic sun which burned away my fever.
One of the most charming memories of my lifetime was Lella preparing a dinner, a carnival of fresh seafood (Bonelli’s main industry is mussel harvesting) and always wine.
Post-prandial, we sat next to one another watching a 1950s film on television, Roman Holiday with Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck. It was broadcast in English with Italian sub-titles.

There are many such examples of strangers who have helped me out in my life. That is why It was easy for me to become involved, to varying degrees, with the three encounters I’ve written about above.

Love and Peace,

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