I had expected a quiet evening. And yet somehow I found myself outside in the dark and wind, guiding a short convoy of emergency vehicles into the church parking lot. Beyond it lay a man who might need their help.
The farting klaxon of the paramedic engine, the warbling siren of the ambulance, the flashing red lights: they all lent urgency to the scene. Never mind that these screaming, flashing vehicles were crawling along at 10 miles an hour, trying not to overshoot the church’s driveway from the ill-lit boulevard That’s why the deputies sent me out there.
All this effort for a guy that nobody cared about until he looked to be dying. And so a call went out, and programmed caring kicked in.
Step back a moment: my wife’s knitting group meets each Thursday evening at St. Bob the Informal’s Presbymethertarian Church. The knitting group is open to the community, and nothing much is discussed except yarn and the knitting of it. And there is tea and banana bread, and a knitting DVD on the church flatscreen.
I don’t knit. I stay around to mind the door and walk the knitters to their cars. The church neighborhood is industrial: dark and deserted at night. Homeless campers come around when night falls, because almost no one is here to care.
Some sleep on the church grounds. That’s not so much an issue; except when they set up camp right in front of the main door. Or try to come inside the church uninvited.
The “main door” is actually in the back of the church, by the parking lot. At first glance, a camper might judge the doorway to be a good flop: secluded, with a covered porch. But it’s not, as campers find out when cars roll up for evening meetings.
You might say: you’re a church. Why won’t you give them shelter? Why won’t you give them help? And I’ve yielded to that very human impulse a few times over the years.
It has never worked out. Never. The clear-headed ones just move on. They want quiet, not trouble. Do they really leave, or just move to some shadowy corner of the lot? We don’t care.
But the ones who refuse to move, or want to get inside, have too many demons for me to cope with. Or for them, for that matter. The last time I let someone stay camped in front of the door — it was going to rain that night — she eventually stormed inside screaming, because she was sure that the voices in her head were the knitters, laughing at her. And the law came to drive her off . It did rain that night, and hard.
After that one, the pastor asked us to lock the door during meetings. Seemed to help. But in a way, nothing does.
A couple of months later, the knitting group again did not lock the church door. We couldn’t; a volunteer group had booked the big hall for a night of training, and some of them were making cell calls in the church parking lot. I kept one eye on the front door and the other on my laptop. But I expected no issues. Not with so many people around.
Heh. I walked down the hall to the bathroom and found a guy sleeping on the floor. He’d wrapped a blanket around himself and wedged himself against the wall between a bookshelf and a tub of preschool equipment. You know how messy churches can be; I almost didn’t notice him.
He was sawing serious wood: a lean, battered guy in his 40s in a tee and jeans and reasonable shoes. And now I remembered seeing his face as he walked in: tired, distressed. But that’s in the normal range these days.
I sought his attention for a few minutes, but he wasn’t having it. I thought about shaking him, but couldn’t bring myself to touch him. And I had a problem: all the people would leave the church within the hour. There was no staff in the building to take over. Just me. I needed him out of here.
So I called the sheriff, and told them he wasn’t causing problems except by being there, and that he wouldn’t wake up. They promised a response, and I gave the score to the knitters and the volunteer group and asked them not to freak. They didn’t. This happens.
But I resented him. I resented that he disrupted my orderly evening. I resented having to see to him instead of relaxing. I resented being bothered.
Two deputies showed up in reasonable time, and I led them in. Both were linebacker-sized in clean brown uniforms, backs as broad as love seats. One was older than the other, and led the festivities. Neither was interested in my opinions on anything; so I just showed them the gentleman.
It became their turn to shout at him. They took turns screaming in his ear. The man on the floor remained happily oblivious.
The older deputy sighed and slipped on a pair of blue nitrile exam gloves. Then he leaned down started shaking him. I felt a little better about not wanting to touch the guy.
“See the bruises down both arms?” the older deputy asked. “These are typical of IV drug abusers.” He shook the man again and yelled in his ear again. “Hello! Sir! Wake up!” Then he noticed something.
“Look, he’s pissed himself. I’m going to call in a Code 3.” The deputies didn’t bother to explain anything to me; just asked me to go out to the street and guide in the emergency vehicles.
So there I was, waving the trucks into the parking lot. Belatedly I realized that Code 3 meant “lights and sirens;” and that the deputy thought he might have an overdose on his hands.
The trucks rumbled toward the rear of the church. I trotted after them waving hand signals and, oddly, felt a little better. Yes, the wandering man had upturned my evening. But in his way he was just a man in bad shape looking for help on some visceral level: for warmth and light at least. Should he have overdosed out in the darkness, alone, where nobody could help him? Maybe this was all happening as it was supposed to.
But in the end: not really. I led the line of medics in the door to find the unconscious man surprising on his feet and answering questions. The older deputy turned to me: “Looks like I wasted the taxpayer’s money,” he called cheerfully.
The medics spread out around the man anyway and started doing business. The deputies got the man’s name and point of origin out of him, and punched it all into handheld terminals.
“There’s a warrant out for him in Louisiana,” the older deputy said. “But they don’t want him back.”
“What do you mean?” the younger deputy asked.
“They don’t want to send someone out here to get him.”
“Money,” I said.
“That’s right,” the older deputy answered. “It costs money to come get him, and it costs money to keep him, and Louisiana doesn’t want to spend it.”
The younger deputy looked bewildered. He must have been very new indeed. But processing went on and soon the medics walked the confused man out the door to God know where, packed up their trucks, and left. The two deputies thanked me for my assistance with mechanical smiles and handshakes of identical firmness.
And in a few days, most likely, the man no one wants will be out on the street again, a loose cannon rolling across an America that doesn’t care a thing about him — except that, wherever he is, he should be elsewhere. And millions like him. More every day.
Don’t say that America doesn’t make things any more. It makes men and women like him, out in those parts of the country where money is scarce these days. Strip away the jobs, don’t fund the schools, bring the drugs to kill the boredom. Let them slip into degradation, become anti-social and unemployable to boot. Arrest them for something. Then drive them away with a warrant and make them somebody else’s problem.
Oh yeah: don’t forget to blame the victims.