“Who are you?” William Derek asked, ignoring the attempt of his co-worker, Fred, to warn him off.
“I’m his friend!” Carla stated loudly and bold.
“You’re also a cutter,” Hammond responded savagely.
Too late did Carla bring her hands behind her back to hide the evidence. She knew they would never take her seriously from this moment onwards. She would have to force the issue. Not exactly her style.
William Derek began to pat the chair down. “What was he looking for, weapons of mass destruction?” Carla wondered. A smile, made arrogant as it reached the man’s eyes, told her he had found what he was looking for. Holding up a half-empty bottle of vodka, he asked, “How much? Today?”
“I, ah, I’m afraid I can’t help you,” Sandstone replied. His sight fell on Carla, his eyes opened wide with helplessness. “I honestly don’t know.”
“Look. What is it exactly that you want us to do?” Hammond asked, his voice heavy with exasperation.
“I don’t know. Could you just make the pain go away? I’m not used to pain — especially this much, this kind.”
“Come on, Sandstone,” Hammond continued. “You’ve been on these streets for years. We’ve given you dozens of rides to the hospital.”
“You know, the hospital won’t be happy to see you,” his partner chipped in.
“Maybe you’re right,” Sandstone said when he slumped further into his chair.
“No! That is not acceptable.” Carla was as surprised as everybody else by her sudden outburst.
The two paramedics exchanged resigned stares and shrugged their shoulders. In a well-rehearsed maneuver, they had the stretcher out and beside Sandstone without further ado. Feeling somewhat chastised by her pushiness, Carla bent down to help them lift Sandstone. His cry of pain tore at her heart. Looking back at the seat of the wheelchair when they placed him into the ambulance, Carla’s stomach did a back flip that threatened to empty it. There stood a pool of urine and blood, dead maggots floating in it.
The above is an excerpt from For the Love of Death. I read it recently when I was getting this novel ready to shop around. While the book is fictional, an actual person inspired Sandstone, the character. He was a cantankerous man, with a beautiful full gray beard and long white hair. He was also intelligent and cursed with demon rum. A contagious sense of humor and sardonic wit — born both by the ironies and cruel detours of life — were his drawing card. He lived on our streets years ago; his wheelchair was his movable place of residence. The incident described above was likewise inspired by the last time I had him taken to the hospital.
A few days after the incident, I found him back on the streets. His flowing hair and signature beard were missing. Also gone was his arrogant pride that hid his personal casualty of a life sentence in a wheelchair.
He sat low in his wheelchair, his eyes failing to rise when I approached him. He mumbled to me that they had cut his hair and beard off as punishment for going there. I tried to tell him of another possibility: Perhaps it was a medical call. He let me know what I could do with that explanation.
More importantly, he was still in pain and not feeling well. To me, he looked like death warmed over. He refused my offer of another try at the hospital. After much pleading, all I could get out of him was his willingness to think about it.
Sandstone taught me a valuable lesson that day. The doors that lead to help and hopefully a better life can only be closed so many times before one stops trying to walk through them. In fact, to save the remains of a fragile ego, one pretends that they no longer care. With a hardened look on life, sometimes an arrogant persona develops to protect one’s sense of self. It’s a self-defense mechanism.
I remember telling Sandstone I would look him up the next day. Hopefully he would change his mind and allow me to place the call. The call I received the next morning was not the one I wanted. His body, folded over in his wheelchair like a broken doll, was found on lower State Street. It was cold, so he had died some time during the night and had sat like this. I often wondered how many people passed him by not realizing he was dead.
This is a simple story — perhaps one without a meaning, except that I remember this colorful man from the streets from a long time ago. Perhaps there are others who remember him. There aren’t many of us left from the old days.
A number of unique people have come and gone from our streets. But as long as the memory of Sandstone lives, he lives. None of us can say that we have any further claim on life than that. In the end, perhaps that is the great leveling agent that unites us all. Knowing that we only leave memories behind when death claims its due should humble us all — reminding us it is not the monetary things that measure us, but what people remember of us. Were we kind and helpful to the less fortunate, or judgmental and mean in spirit?
An Outbreak of Death
Three homeless people died over the weekend, five people without homes within the last three weeks. My sadness for these people is equally matched by my dismay of cold-hearted responses, such as the suggestion that the homeless should die: “Let the thinning begin.”
Can’t everyone simply respect the sadness of the waste of precious life? Of course there were poor life choices by some, but that is no excuse for our callous responses. Can any of us be so arrogant as to be assured that our sons and daughters — or our brothers and sisters, or our parents — will never become homeless? Is it ever right for someone to die alone, cold, wet and frightened?
As for James, at least the sounds of the angry guns and horrifying memories of the Vietnam War are now silenced. I’m not sure dying homeless and alone in Isla Vista was the “welcome home” he was looking for.
A Disturbing Update
Upsetting reports from multiple sources have led me to believe that a greater look is needed into the circumstances of the recent death of a homeless woman. Attorneys Joe and Emily Allen are trying to help ensure the safety and rights of homeless women in Santa Barbara.
— Ken Williams has been a social worker for the homeless for the last 30 years. He is the author of China White and Shattered Dreams, A Story of the Streets.