Being at Family Service in Redlands in the 80s and 90s taught us all something.
It’s hard to remember some of the fears of those days. We huddled around a tiny portable black and white TV in the pantry to watch the first Gulf War.
AIDS was in the news; I didn’t need any extra information because my brother ended up dying of the disease in a prison halfway house, but most of my coworkers and friends knew little about it. From what we heard on television, it was a terrifying death sentence, as bad as Ebola.
These were the days when you’d hear “AIDS came from sex with monkeys” in casual speech.
We saw a group of perhaps 40 to 50 street people on a regular basis, out of a relatively wealthy town of about 50,000. We treated them differently from homeless families and there was a residual prejudice. The families had children and thus “deserved” more assistance. We did give sack lunches and care kits to the homeless every day, we let them get any bread or fresh food they wanted without question, and they could get clean clothes and have a shower at the Y once a week.
My supposed “father in law,” Charlie Castle (it’s a joke — I didn’t start it, but it spread like the flu) was our town’s best-known homeless citizen. Charlie’s “issues” resulted in a ban from the YMCA, where the street people had shower privileges. Gilberto, who had a small pickup, took him to the Community Center in the back of his truck bed to get hosed down. Charlie smelled so bad, Gil said, there was no way he was letting him in the cab.
Charlie’s paranoid schizophrenia and other issues kept him away from others for the most part; he was a loner.
But the other homeless men and women formed societies of their own. They lived in a park, under the freeway overpasses, in flood control channels.
Or, like John, they eschewed encampments and simply hunkered down for the night under a convenient tree or bush in the nearest dirt lot.
John was a dark-skinned homeless man only an inch or two taller than me, whose voice carried the hint of a Caribbean lilt. How he had come to be in our small town in Southern California, I’d never know.
He had epilepsy, and did have a doctor at County Hospital. We gave him bus tokens to see the doctor and pick up prescriptions. John never complained of his circumstances, and was very willing to work. Sometimes he did day labor, and when he had daily work, we didn’t see him for food, care kits, or clothing.
John wasn’t the only street person who refused to accept any type of assistance without working. He was the one who stuck to his principles all the time. If he needed food, clothing, or any other item, he would do any kind of labor we needed, usually long beyond the time that would suffice for a “value” for the simple donated things. He’d work two or three hours for a kit with a tiny bar of soap, a disposable razor, a cheap plastic comb, and some Handi-Wipes.
The main reason John wasn’t working regularly and didn’t seem able to hold down a job or make rent, was his epilepsy. It was poorly controlled. He told me one day that he hated his prescribed medication. It made him feel sick to his stomach, he said. It made him feel like he was dead. So, he would often stop taking it.
One day I was in my office typing up some worthless report when I heard a heavy thump, then an arpeggio of tumbling cans. It was lunchtime, and therefore I was alone, or so I had thought.
The sound came from the pantry, a narrow room lined by shelves of heavy boxes filled with cans. As soon as I got there, I saw what had happened. Was still happening.
John thrashed on the floor amid dozens of scattered cans of beans, sauerkraut, and pumpkin. He was having a Grand mal seizure.
My memory tells me I stood there for five minutes with my mouth open. The reality? Probably two or three seconds.
I knelt beside him and tried to put my body between his and the shelves filled with more heavy boxes of cans. His feet kicked out this way and that — any of the heavy boxes full of cans could have tumbled and covered both of us.
His hair was matted and filled with leaves, sticks and pebbles.
It was a hot July day in Redlands, a town that routinely ran over 105 degrees for three, four, even five weeks in summer. The Annex had no real ventilation, just tiny windows set above the donated grocery shelves where we kept the backup donated canned and dry foods that were later transferred to the grocery-store style main pantry and then gave away.
John reeked. So bad. Pungent, stinging, foul. Not only sweat and dirt; he’d soiled himself.
The front door pinged. Someone was back from lunch.
“Help!” I cried. “We’re in here.”
The outer door opened and Loretta’s kindly face peered in. Her dark eyes grew enormous. “Oh no,” she said.
“Call 911 Lori,” I said, as if she needed extra advice — she certainly did not.
Loretta was and is one of the most powerful prayers I have ever known; her prayers meant something and were certainly heard. She was and is, a pure spirit of love.
“Lori, we need some blankets or towels please,” I yelled. I’m sure I was screeching.
His heavy boots buffeted me. This was the early 90s so if we were “dressed” as I was that day, we were wearing pantyhose. The hose, and my legs, were scraping and tearing while I tried to keep him from hurting himself on the jagged metal edges of the bottom shelves — about five inches off the floor.
Maybe I was an idiot. Maybe I shouldn’t have —
Something hot and copper-smelling splashed across my face.
“Oh my God,” I said.
Lori handed me a much-laundered, threadbare old towel. “They’re coming,” she said.
“Lori, just let them in, okay?” I said as I pressed the towel between his head and the sharp metal.
I didn’t want her near the blood — there was no reason for her to get—
The front door opened wide, letting a stream of light through from the outside, through the pew-lined lobby of our former church building, and into the annex.
The paramedics had arrived.
They wheeled their gurney and cases all the way in, and stopped by Lori’s reception desk.
And there they stayed.
By this time, the blood was smeared all over the floor, but John’s thrashing has subsided. His eyes were shut tight. He seemed unconscious. The blood had come from his mouth — I hadn’t asked for the towel soon enough. Just as we’ve all heard can happen during a Grand Mal seizure, he had bitten his tongue.
“Help him!” I said.
Here were four guys about my age or younger, not a one of them under 6 feet tall, all extremely healthy and strong. Heck I might have even gone to school with one or two of them. One of my high school crushes had become an EMT. But Sam wasn’t with them. Him, I could have —
They stood there with their hands at their sides, staring.
Then I realized. The blood. AIDS.
“He has epilepsy,” I said. “I’m sure he doesn’t have AIDS.” I wanted to scream at them, force them, but I’d had enough experience already to know that wouldn’t work. And I wanted them to help him — somehow.
Finally they moved across the threshold. They all wore gloves but that wasn’t enough. After one of them helped me to my feet, they took elaborate precautions to isolate John’s unconscious body from any contact with themselves.
One guy muttered, “We don’t get paid enough for this.”
Every one of them griped about the way he smelled.
And it was bad. He’d clearly been working hard in the heat for days without a shower or change of clothes. I realized Lori had probably let him in some time in the morning. Too proud to ask for real help, he had tried to work as usual. We trusted him, and there was no reason he couldn’t have worked by himself in the annex with no problem: except for what happened.
They took him away, and we didn’t see him for weeks. He had suffered a concussion, but the paramedics had taken him to Loma Linda University Medical Center by mistake, so he got a new doctor that didn’t see homeless guys all the time, and new epilepsy medication.
When he came back, he brought me a little present, a teddy bear I felt certain a volunteer at the hospital had given him.
I wish I could say I knew what happened to him after that, but I don’t. That is my — our shame — for he certainly deserved better. He was a good man.
He wasn’t the first person whose blood got on me while working at Family Service, nor would he be the last. That honor goes to La Pastora, and I delivered her stillborn baby in a 7 foot-square bathroom. That is a story for another time.