Tuesdays are my day off to do with as I please (well… let’s not get crazy… I do clean the house and do laundry, but otherwise…the day is mine). This past Tuesday was also my brother’s birthday. Monday night I went to Target (partly because I will find any excuse I can to go to Target… I love that place!) and bought him a pair of sweatpants, wool socks and long underwear. I wasn’t exactly sure what my intentions were at that point, but I felt pretty compelled. I texted Valerie from the checkout line. And typical Val, the Thelma to my Louise, she texted back, “whatever you’re doing… count me in”.
I checked in with the few of Peter’s friends who have heard from him recently and pieced together what I could of where he might be. Valerie drove me to Andrew’s Square and walked with me through the station. I talked to MBTA police and they pointed me in the direction of a methadone clinic nearby. I approached two homeless guys, showing them the one blurry photo I have of Peter, on my phone, while Valerie bought them coffee and donuts. They suggested some other places we might look, but didn’t recognize Peter from the picture. We drove through some painful neighborhoods. And Val took me to a methadone clinic and waited in the car while I went in. Those folks weren’t so nice, telling me gruffly that HIPAA prevents them from telling me anything. Apparently it also prevents them from being pleasant. The day was slipping away and I was no closer to finding my brother. I thanked Val and drove home fighting back tears feeling stupid for even thinking I might find him.
I wasn’t home long before I decided I had to go back. I don’t know why, but I had to. I parked in a lot on Albany Street and, Target bag in hand, I walked the streets. It was a surreal experience. At first I walked up and down the street, passing by people I assumed were homeless.
Some were standing, others leaning and some completely passed out curled against buildings or using curbs to rest their heads. I walked past a line of homeless people getting ready for admission to a shelter (first come first served). I walked to the McDonald’s where I’d heard rumor that homeless people, including my brother, frequent. I wandered alleys and behind buildings. My eyesight adjusted and changed as I walked. I stopped walking past people, stopped looking at people and began seeing them. I walked my route again, this time with fresh eyes. I hesitantly began to approach people to ask if they knew my brother. Without exception every person I asked was kind and gentle and respectful. Many wanted only to be left alone, but still they answered. Not knowing who I was, there were some who were hesitant to get involved. Nevertheless, everyone responded kindly to me, looked me in the eyes, touched my arm or shoulder gently in understanding when I told them I was looking for my brother. I started seeing them as people. Not homeless people. Just people.
I stopped walking by those sprawled on the sidewalk, using garbage as a pillow. I touched them or turned them over, looking for my brother’s face in theirs. People started responding more to me as I responded more to them. One man looked deeply into my face and said, “Peter? Yeah. uh, Yeah! I see the resemblance! Yeah, I know that dude. He come around here some.” He told me Peter sometimes goes to a shelter on one of the Boston Harbor Islands. That those people take a special bus to the shelter each evening and that buses run every hour starting at 3:00. He showed me where those people line up to wait for the bus. I hung around there for a while, asking people if they knew or had seen my brother. We talked about the weather and traffic and worry and caring — topics all of us could relate to. I was bolstered in some strange small way. A woman panhandling in the street made her way over to me, dirty cup in hand, smelling strongly of alcohol and asked who I was looking for. When I told her it was my brother, holding out his photo, I inexplicably welled up with tears. She instinctively reached out to embrace me and said, “don’t cry. I know him. he’s ok. really. don’t cry. he’s all right.” It shouldn’t have made me feel better, but it did. I stupidly wiped the tears from my face with the back of my sleeve and thanked her. I asked her name and she told me. She asked if I had change, or if I’d give her a blessing. Those are the things she asks of passersby – spare change or a blessing. I gave her both.
I remained with the group lining up. Not one of them, but with them. Sort of. The man who said he could see the resemblance came running at me from down the street, yelling and whistling, waving frantically for me to come. As I started toward him my brother emerged from the alley behind him. A homeless middle-aged man, filthy and ragged and disheveled. My brother. He limped dazedly in my direction, eyes straining to focus, expression questioning, trying to see or even care about what this guy was yelling about. He looked at me and past me several times. And then when I stood directly in front of him, recognition shone in his eyes. For a brief moment Peter was there as he rocked backwards in exaggerated surprise and bellowed, “Oh. My. God!”. We both started to talk at the same time, asking questions and stammering hellos. He excitedly introduced me to the man next to him (the man who found Peter for me) and I hugged him as I thanked him. He told me teasingly not to get all mushy on him and nodded to our time together as he walked away. Peter hurried me toward various people up and down the street, introducing me to each of them as he told bits and pieces of their stories and checked in with them. He seemed to know everyone and have a genuine caring for each of them as individuals. And their affection for him in return was obvious. He made his way down the street shaking hands, touching shoulders, asking about specifics in each life and offering warmth and compassion in return.
We are so alike, I realized in a flash of understanding. Watching him with these friends who have welcomed and accepted and loved him. Just the same as me with my residents who have also welcomed and accepted and loved me. The same but different. Each of us always wanting/needing to belong. Apparently we will go to great lengths in order to find connection.
I watched Peter as glimmers of him came and went. His face and hands brown with sun and windburn. His scraggly beard with some grey in it, mixed with dirt and fuzz and flecks of his last meal. His eyes closed and his head nodded often as he fought I don’t know what, sleepiness or after-effects of drugs or both? His teeth, brown and rotting, with roots showing beneath receding gums, were grotesque. But his smile and his dimples tempered the negative effect of what can only be termed “meth mouth”. His clothes were dirty and ill-fitting and I’m pretty sure he got the thin wind-breaker he was wearing out of a dumpster. It looked as if a cat had used it a scratch post, with cuts and slits all over it. He swayed and shook as he chain-smoked, turning to passersby on the street (whether he knew them or not) to ask for a light. And in between puffs he alternately chided me about being in such a dangerous neighborhood alone and thanking me for coming.
I told him I’d come for three reasons. As I started to list them, his attempt to focus and understand was palpable. I told him that I brought him a birthday gift. He seemed momentarily taken aback. He had no idea it was his birthday, and seemed confused about the fact. But he loved the gifts I brought. He explained that his backpack had been stolen and that he’d been wearing the same outfit for he didn’t know how long. He told me unashamedly how desperately he needed these clothes. Uncomfortable with the awkwardness, I pressed on with my list. I told him that I was sorry my letter of a year ago had hurt his feelings. He pulled himself up to stand taller as I spoke. He squared his shoulders as he said, “yeah, well I hope I’m vindicated.” I hesitated, not knowing how to respond, and he continued, “I’m totally clean you know. I go to a methadone clinic every day and they swab me and I’m clean, clean as a whistle.” I could feel the wall of sadness begin to surround me. Before it could shut me away from him completely I said, “well, the last thing I came to tell you is that I love you, Peter.” Then we were both silent. He said quietly, “I love you too.” I noticed he was shivering and asked if he had anything warmer than the air-conditioned nylon thing he was wearing and when he shook his head I removed my coat. He looked at me sheepishly and with a wry lopsided smile asked, “really?” He put it on halfway and then with the coat dangling from his arms and shoulders he began to dance in a circle singing the relatively famous line from one of my favorite movies, Tommy Boy, “fat guy in a little coat…. fat guy in a little coat…” My lips smiled, but my eyes stung with tears. My brother. The big homeless goofball.
He took me around the corner to a building and walked in like he owned the place. He sat in the lobby as if he belonged there and motioned for me to sit in the chair next to him. He showed me his foot (the reason he was limping). He’s had two surgeries on it since getting it run over by a car (as he was panhandling in the street) in July. He is still wearing a surgical boot on it. In no small part because he only has one sneaker. He said it definitely helps when he asks strangers for money and that he may keep it for just that purpose.
We talked, and he told me stories about his girlfriend, how she is battling her own drug addiction, how they spent so many summer nights sleeping under the stars, free and happy and in love. He remembered he had a doctor’s appointment and I walked with him to that. Soon enough it was time for me to go back to my own life. I had to pick up Nina from preschool at 4:30 and I was dangerously close to being late (again). I asked if there was someplace I could drop him off and he gratefully accepted a ride to Dudley Square. He told some story about how they have a free cell phone program in Dudley and he was going to check that out.
As we drove slowly with the traffic through Dudley Square, Peter said, “oh yeah, hey, this is where I want to go.” With that he leaned toward me and gave me a peck on the cheek. “Love you sis.” In one swift motion he unclipped his seatbelt and slid out of the (moving) car. Without the magician’s puff of smoke, but just as surprisingly and quickly, he was gone. I tried to open his window to yell out to him. But cars were already beeping at me and Peter was gone.