Well, I not only saw my brother this week, I took him to an appointment he needed to get to outside the city. One of our last interactions this winter was after he was paid 20 dollars for shoveling roofs and he offered to take me out to lunch with his money. I was still feeling tenderhearted toward him when he asked for a ride last week, and since the appointment was on my day off I told him I’d take him. I said I’d pick him up in front of the Target where he usually pan-handles about an hour before his appointment time. I got there early and sat in the parking lot watching Peter as he arrived and got himself settled (so to speak) on a bench in front of the store. I could tell he was filthy, even from a distance. But he looked more solid than he had looked the last time I saw him. He stood up, sat down, rummaged in his grubby worn messenger bag, pulled things out, folded and refolded things, dropped things and picked them back up. Then he took off his shoes and began taking off his clothes. He stripped off several layers of pants and sweatpants to get to a pair of shorts he was wearing underneath. No wonder he looked stockier, he had on 5 layers of clothing! He then spent the next several minutes folding, rolling, unfolding and refolding the clothing he’d removed and jamming them into his bag. Intermittently he would sit down and nod off.
He got into my car with his usual, “Hiya sissy!” and we were off. He was very disheveled and his shirt rode up revealing his fish-belly white abdomen with its loose flesh and pasty-grey pallor. A stark contrast to his dark sun-browned and deeply weathered face and hands. We made small talk as he dozed in and out of conversation. He repeated himself often, made little sense some of the time, and generally seemed to be in his own world. But he was grateful beyond measure for the amount of help I was giving him and his end of the conversation was peppered with appreciation. With my help these past few months (I’d filled out a number of forms he requested be sent to my address) he was declared unable to maintain a job and therefore qualified for assistance. This appointment was at the Department of Transitional Assistance to help determine how much help he was going to need and how much he might get. Peter was upbeat and excited. Someone told him he’d be getting a retroactive check for something like 10,000 dollars and he was pumped. He asked me over and over what I wanted when he got his check. Always more generous than I, his first thoughts for his money were what he could buy for someone else. I felt humbled. I am one of the least generous people I know. I can be downright stingy. And I suck at anything that remotely resembles sharing. Peter has ever been the kinder person in that way. Anyway, he rambled on about getting me anything I wanted, and getting himself an apartment a car and getting his life together. The last part a familiar oft-repeated refrain of his.
I wasn’t actually prepared for the DTA. Not sure what I expected, this place made the Department of Motor Vehicles feel like Disney. The dreariness was so palpable I could imagine it clinging to me, on my skin and clothing and even coating the roof of my mouth and tongue – like those things in Harry Potter leeching happiness and color from everything. I couldn’t decide who looked more miserable, the clientele or the employees. I was stunned by the undeniable torpor of every person in the packed-to-the-gills room. Every one of my senses was assaulted by the rank misery there. And as if to declare it loudly for those who might have missed it, several small children were wailing their woe loudly and incessantly.
Peter, seemingly unaffected by his surroundings, found us two seats and promptly sat down and fell asleep. He was given a number even though he had a 10:00 appointment. I learned from those sitting in close proximity to us that there were lots of people with the same 10:00 appointment. Apparently the department hedges their bets as to how many people (if any) will show up for these appointments. Every time Peter drowsed he dropped the slip of paper with his number on it. Then he’d snap awake and fumble for the ticket on the ground, nearly unseating himself in his attempt to lean over and scratch it up off the floor where it was evidently stuck to the floor’s grime. When they finally called his number though he was snoring happily and would have missed his turn entirely if I hadn’t poked him in the ribs.
We passed by the office of a social worker who looked to be about 80 and could not have looked more despairing if he’d been on a plane filled with plague victims headed for a crash. The interview with our person took all of 10 minutes. Peter was asked for the forms he’d been given at his last appointment (which he could not produce because it was in a former bag of his that had been stolen and was apparently making its way through the homeless community). He was asked a number of questions about his work history (which he gave conflicting responses to based on the information they had from a prior interview). And they asked him where he was living and what kind of rent he pays (to which he responded with quite a bit of hemming, hawing and mumbling). He finally said he stays at my house often and, quote, “throws me 75 bucks every so often”. Clearly news to me. The woman across the desk, aware of my expression, sighed with every fiber of her being, having smelled the fetid miasma of a baldfaced lie. She was starting to look as bad as the guy in the next office and I didn’t blame her one bit if she had to wade through boggy quagmires of bullshit like this all day. She printed out the same forms she’d already given him and told Peter he’d have to fill them all out again, including the one his physician had to fill out and sign. Peter’s eyes were closed in serene slumber. She repeated herself louder and crinkled the forms in his direction. He looked at her quizzically and asked when he would get his ten grand. She looked back at him blandly and said, in no uncertain terms, that he was not getting ten thousand dollars. When he argued, she said, “Sir, no one from this office would tell you that you were going to receive that kind of money.” When Peter made no move to leave, her shoulders slumped resignedly and she asked, “Are you applying for SSI or SSDI?” Peter seemed to know what she was talking about and engaged rather ably with her in a back and forth that made no sense to me. Apparently he had hedged his own bets and applied for both. Which, unsurprisingly, is not within the rules.
We were sent on our un-merry way. Peter muttered to himself the entire walk back to the car and I, quite frankly, felt like doing the same. He “throws 75 bucks my way” indeed. I wanted to give him a dakara (an Italian slap upside the back of the head) and knock some sense into him. By the time we got in the car he had worked himself into a frenzy. Don’t call him a liar! Someone DID tell him he was getting ten thousand dollars and by golly it was his, he deserved it and he was going to get it! He spent the car ride back to Target (as if I weren’t sitting next to him in the close confines of the car) calling every recent call on his flip phone and demanding of whoever answered whether they were the person who told him he was getting money. In between calls he grumbled to himself about the horrible state of his life. Driving into the Target parking lot, he pulled himself back together somewhat. He thanked me again for the ride, for my time. He hesitated and asked if I had any cash I could loan him. Just until his ten grand came in. He would double whatever amount I gave him. As soon as the check cleared. I opened my wallet thinking I had a ten. I only had 7 and handed him that. He looked at it and said, “No, I was hoping, um, I mean, well, I actually wanted like 50 bucks.” “Me too”, I said acerbically. He took the 7 without further complaint.
I pulled away and watched him from a distance for a bit. He heaved his bag furiously at the bench in front of the store repeatedly, causing passersby to give him a wider berth. He kicked the bench several times as well for good measure. Then he proceeded to unpack and repack the bag, rocking back and forth, stomping his foot like an irritable steed, talking to himself. He finally punched each item into the bag with the fury of a prizefighter, then slung it angrily over his shoulder and stalked away.
I got a text from him the next day. He found a 15 dollar winning scratch ticket in the garbage. All was well. Life was good. Somehow I doubt I’m getting my 7 bucks back.