When last I’d written about my brother I believe he’d stopped speaking with me because I wouldn’t consent to being his payee (read that: finance gatekeeper, aka cash concierge). His silent treatment didn’t last long once I received mail for him at my address that included a check made out to him. A homeless guy without an income (with or without a habit) is bound to jump at the chance for some free dough. I got a message to him and before I knew it he was calling me (using some stranger’s phone) tripping over himself apologizing for doubting me and professing his undying brotherly love. The check was for almost 350 dollars and he transformed into a Gollum-esque sycophant, slavering and sibilating all over some poor bastard’s phone, adulating and attempting to inveigle his way into getting his hands on his check as soon as humanly possible. I hate lickspittles. I offered to meet him somewhere to pass on the check to him. It was his after all.
The check was delivered to the tune of yet more fawning, boot licking and flattery. He kept telling me about the new bag he was going to get to keep all of his belongings in. A new bag! A new backpack! Not the ratty, ripped, filthy plastic CVS bag he’d been using. Oh the bags he could buy! I tried to get him to stop perseverating on the bag, but could see that he was really stuck there. And then he realized. It was beyond the bag. And suddenly the list of things this mere 300 dollars was going to buy him began to grow to epic proportions, when I wondered (out loud) how he was going to actually get the money. I mean, one generally has a bank account that one can cash a check through by drawing against funds one has in the bank. Oh that wouldn’t be a problem, he assured me. He would go to one of the myriad check-cashing places in the city and pay his 25 to 50 bucks (or worse, a percentage) to get it cashed. It was worth it, he told me, staring with greedy eyes at the check. Well there’s a racket, I thought to myself. It seemed so exploitive, but what choice did he have? You can’t open a bank account with so little money, not to mention no home address, and reputable banks don’t usually have a “walk-ins welcome” policy hanging in their window. I was brought back to the present by his eagerness to live in the lap of luxury with his newfound bonanza and all it was going to get for him.
Within a few weeks another two checks arrived at my house for Peter. These, significantly more money. One was for 948 dollars and one was for 2,200. I called Peter and asked him to come to my office so we could talk. Security called me before Peter got from the door to the front desk (less than 10 feet), assuming he was a vagrant. I have to admit, it was somewhat amusing to assure Joe in security that this was, in fact, my brother. I brought Peter to my office and showed him the checks. He bounced out of his chair, literally jumping for joy, spilling shit out of his pockets and knocking off his scally cap in his exuberance.
Though he was eager to race out of the building and cash these checks, I kept him in my office, a firm but tender hand on his arm, trying to talk some sense into him. “You need to open a bank account with this money”, I told him. I had no idea why the checks were made out directly to Peter and not an assigned payee, but I attempted to drill into him through plain unadulterated fear, that if he mismanaged this money he could lose his chance at any future money. I tried to tell him that if he handled this money well and then a payee got set up he might have a chance, a leg to stand on, of convincing someone he could do this himself. “Oh I will Hali. You’ll see. Everyone will see. This is it for me.” He assured me. “This is my big break, my chance, the answer to my prayers. You’ll see. You’ll be proud of me. I’ll be proud of myself for a change. This is the chance I need to make something of my life. I am determined to get out of this wreck I’ve been living and become a respectable human being. You’ll see Hali. You’ll see.” With tears in his eyes, making his lashes sparkle beatifically he told me he was going directly to the bank to open his first ever bank account. He left, a swagger in his step, walking on a cloud and resembling nothing more than baby huey.
I heard from Peter several days later. He was still on top of the world. He’d found a place to live. A great, airy, big, apartment with a great guy he knows, for just 500 dollars a month. “Oh and guess what?!”, he said interrupting himself, “This is my new phone number. I actually got an actual phone! It’s not a track-fone. It’s a real phone with a monthly plan!” “Wait wait wait”, I said caught up in his excitement, “Tell me about the apartment first! Where is it? What does it have? What does it need? Who is this guy?” “He’s a great guy.” Peter said. “An older guy. A guy I know from the clinic. And it will be such a big help for him to have me there.” Warning bells were beginning to chime in my head. A guy, a guy, a guy. With no name? From the clinic? As in, the methadone clinic Peter has been going to supposedly daily for more than 7 years? More of my direct questions were met with vagueness. He couldn’t tell me exactly where the apartment was and he never once used the guy’s name. And he kept repeating the phrase, “I’m going to be such a help to him.” I tried to talk loud enough to drown out the alarm bells in my head, but with as much gentleness as I could so as not to burst his bubble. I suggested, sort of, in a roundabout way, that I didn’t think Peter was actually in a position to help anyone else out and I mused out loud as if to myself whether this living situation was something his case worker would be in support of. “Oh I haven’t seen her in a while.” he said. “I don’t actually need her anymore. I’ve got this all figured out myself.” He haughtily told me. And that is when my head burst into flames.
Thankfully the conversation didn’t last much longer. Indeed the phone was one with a monthly plan. But he only paid for the first month. I asked about which bank he’d chosen and he hemmed and hawed and skirted my questions with unintelligible ambiguity. He promised to fill me in at a later time, he suddenly realized he had something he had to attend to, hurrying me off the phone.
Another several days passed. I heard from a friend of Peter’s that she’d met him in Boston and he told her he had about 1,000 dollars left. And it was in his pocket. In cash. But days later, when she called me again, she told me Peter had called asking her for money. She gave him 50 dollars (that she herself could ill afford) as an early birthday present. I finally heard from Peter a few days after that. He still sounded mostly upbeat and happy. Instead of asking about the money, which I knew would only aggravate me (and him), I asked about the apartment. His enthusiasm audibly quieted as he told me he had to wait another few days before he could actually sleep there because it had to be fumigated. Some problem with pests and an infestation of bed bugs. Nothing to worry himself about. I asked after the *guy* he was going to be living with and asked if he had a name. “Ah, uh, um, ahhhh (5 more uncomfortable seconds) Rick”, he stammered with a questioning lilt in his voice. I wondered, briefly, if he was asking me or telling me. He told me that he couldn’t wait to get in there and help Rick out. Against my better judgment I asked about the money. Peter assured me with an angelic sincerity that made his duplicity even more painful that he had a bank account all set up and he was good to go. He even offered to show me his bank book if I wanted to see it (as if he could and would produce it directly through the phone if I asked). I asked how much money was left and he faltered momentarily before proudly telling me he had 400 dollars left in the bank. “Peter, where did 2,500 dollars go?!” I shouted into the phone. “What!?”, he stammered confused. “Where do you get 2,500 dollars!?” he demanded. I added up the checks he’d received out loud for his listening pleasure, including the fictional 400 he theoretically had in the imaginary bank, totaling it up for a whopping 3,000 dollars. He demurred. More stammering, stuttering mumbling and senseless evasion. He had to pay some people back for some things, was the best he could offer. And then he sheepishly admitted, “Well, and I did celebrate a bit. I deserve to celebrate once in a while you know.” I tried not to let my disappointment and irritation show in my voice. In the course of the conversation it became clear that he hadn’t actually paid *Rick* for a full month’s rent yet either.
As October drew to a close Peter called me to remind me that it was his birthday. I’d planned on calling him, but he beat me to it. I wished him a happy birthday and asked what he was up to. Living in his new “crib”. Enjoying actually having a home, a place to live, not being on the street, being clean. Thankful to not be homeless anymore. Though he did offer in what felt like a calculated manipulation, that he was kind of *worried*. He was down to his last couple of bucks and he needed to know when his next check(s) were coming in. He owed Rick money and Rick was becoming more demanding. I was having a hard time following him, making sense of what he was telling me and what he’d told me. I couldn’t figure out what he’d spent the 3,000 dollars on and what he had to show for it. Apparently nothing. Not even a bag. I also missed his intended legerdemain and didn’t offer him any birthday money.
He called me the following day to tell me that his phone was being shut off. His buddy Rick had a home phone though and he said he’d use that to call me. He called me on rapid-dial repeatedly and frequently over the next few days. At first he would pretend to be calling to say hello. But it was clear to both of us he was only calling to see if any mail had come for him. I told him at 7am, 9am, 1:45pm, again at 3:20pm and yet again from my car on my way home at 4:30; I work all day and don’t have access to my physical mailbox at home, my mail arrives daily in the late afternoon or occasionally early evening, I don’t see it before then. I told him directly and clearly that I would call him if anything came. I even jokingly used the old, “don’t call us, we’ll call you” line. But still he persisted. I stopped answering his calls. I turned my phone ringer off.
Peter’s friend Jen called to tell me that Peter’s case worker called her and left a message saying that Peter had mail at her office. I suspected, as did Jen, that Peter’s court-appointed payee had been assigned and set up and that he would no longer be receiving checks made out to him at my address. Jen was afraid to tell Peter. It was Saturday night and Emily and I were headed out for what we were looking forward to as a pleasant evening at a fancy dinner at her work. My phone rang while we were driving. It was Peter. I took a deep breath and answered. I told him, once again, that there was no mail for him at my house. I also told him that his case manager called Jen. His agitation was palpable through the phone. I told him I wasn’t able to get into a discussion in the moment and offered that he could still get his rent money to Rick through whatever payee had been established (if, in fact, that was what was happening). He burst into a tirade about not needing a payee and how self-sufficient and responsible he is, how he could manage his own money and didn’t need help. When I didn’t respond he screamed, “What?! You don’t agree?!” In my best chaplain’s voice I calmly suggested, “Well, less than three weeks ago you did have 3,000 dollars.” A quick, “I gotta go” was all I heard before the line went dead. Almost immediately he called back, but I didn’t answer.
His diatribe on the phone minutes earlier was nothing compared to the invective he unleashed into my voice-mail. Beginning with, “Who the FUCK are you to tell me how to spend MY money?! Who the FUCK do you think you are!?!” and ended with, “Don’t ever fucking call me again and stay away from my fucking mail!”
Ah well. I wasn’t even remotely surprised. But something felt different to me. I don’t know if it is my tender, newfound, sprout of inner self-respect, but I felt a definitive understanding that I no longer wish to tolerate being spoken to like that. Whether or not I had actually done anything *wrong* (which, as an aside I hadn’t) is irrelevant. I will no longer accept being spoken to disrespectfully. This realization was followed by a deep abiding confidence.