Conversations with Tommy – Part One

Names have been changed to protect the innocent…well, not really “the innocent”…umm…maybe, “the parties involved in the story”?…now that’s just to wordy…okay, “the homeless guy.”  Names have been changed to protect the homeless guy.  That works.

It was about five minutes before Valley’s Sunday worship service was going to start.  I wasn’t looking for trouble.  I was simply running to my office to grab my coffee; but there, sitting in the church foyer, was Tommy. 

Although it was pouring rain outside, Tommy looked surprisingly dry.  He was wearing a pair of faded khakis.  His head was adorn with a red and white plaid shirt worn like a bandana and workmen’s goggles.  He was just under six-foot tall and incredibly thin; although from a distance he looked bulky because he was wearing three coats.  His white bread was a foot long and came to a sharp point.  Both his eyes were strangely cloudy, the left one pointed in a different direction than the right, and they protruded a little to far.  To complete the ensemble, he wore large, black, female Ugg boots.  Needless to say, Tommy would look strange in any setting, but sitting amongst the suit and tie crowd of Valley Baptist made him look like an extra terrestrial.

Tommy was speaking with two of the deacons.  At Valley the deacons help with benevolence cases.  They were trying really hard to help Tommy, but having no sucess.  I could see the strained looks on their faces from down the hall.   One deacon was seated with Tommy.  He looked at Tommy with intense desperation, as if staring deeper into Tommy’s eyes would force logic to flow from Tommy’s mouth.  The second deacon stood next to Tommy.  He was looking out into space.  His eyes were clinched; with the thumb and pinky of his right hand he was rubbing his temples; and he shook his head “no” in frustration.  He looked like a man fighting off a massive migraine.

Naturally I couldn’t help but walk over.  I had to see what was going on.

The seated deacon saw me walking over and explained to me what was going on.  Tommy had come in the church looking for “help.”  The deacons, beautifully, had sprung into action; but everything they offered, Tommy refused.  The deacon then motioned for he and I to switch places, so I sat down next to Tommy. 

Here is how the conversation broke down (as I can best remember)…

“Hey man.  My name is Jeff.  What’s going on?”  I reached out to shake his hand, but the gesture was not reciprocated.

“I need help, but no body wants to help me.”  Tommy sounded a little like a sad Fat Albert…more as if Bill Cosby was only half heartedly trying to do the Fat Albert voice.  He didn’t look at me with either eye.   They both creepily gazed off at different objects in the ether.

“Well, how can we help you?”

“I need $80.”

“What do you need $80 for?”

“For my hotel room.”  Each sentence was delivered with an Eeyore-esk sad downturn in pitch.

“I don’t have $80, but if you are looking for a place to sleep I can maybe find somewhere for you.”

“I ain’t going no where.  All those shelters steal my stuff.”

“Which ones have you been to?  Maybe I know one you haven’t tried.  I have some friends down at Helping Up Mission.  I know they aren’t going to steal your stuff.”

Tommy turned his chair to face me and his eyes eerily centered on me.  “No.  No.  No.  You ain’t listen to me.  They steal my stuff.  I’ve been to all those places and they take my I.D.”  Tommy motioned to a huge lump in his sock.  “I don’t need a shelter.  I need $80 for my hotel room so I can sleep and use the bathroom.” 

“No man.  Really.  I can put you in a place where your stuff will be safe and you can get some rest, but not just for one night.  You can stay long…”

“No.  No.  No.  You ain’t hearing me.  They will steeeeeeeeeeeeeeal my stuff!”  His eyes grew huge and round as he held out the word “steal.”  I had no idea what he was trying to tell me by emphasizing the word.

“Um…I will talk to them as you get admitted.  I know the guy at HUM that works the door.  We will make sure that…”

“No.  No.  No.  You ain’t listening.  I need $80.  That is all.  $80.  No one will help me.  I’ve been to three places today and no one will give me $80.  I went the hospital – no $80.  I went to that woman – no $80.  No one will give me $80.  No one wants to help me.”  He sounded desperate and was getting agitated, but still laying the Eeyore on thick.  I glance at my cell phone and saw that I was supposed to be in the middle of the worship service’s Welcome and Announcements.

“What woman?” I asked.

Tommy then reached down below his chair and pulled out a Rite-Aid bag stuff to the brim with lots of random items.  From it he produced a letter from a social worker dated three days earlier.  It was hand written on official Baltimore City Social Services letterhead.  It simply said, “This is Tommy James.  If he asks you for help do not give him money.  Call me between 9am and 5pm Monday through Friday at ###-###-####.  My name is Social Worker Lady.”  I took it and went and made a copy of it.  When I came back Tommy looked frustrated.

“Are you going to give me $80 or not?” he demanded.

“Okay, let’s slow down a little,”  I said.  “Here is what we can do.  We will try to help you.  Go and use our bathroom then come and sit through the worship service.  Afterward we will talk about what we can do for you to help you find some restoration.”

Tommy said nothing.  He simply stood up.  I took this as an indication that my deal was acceptable to him.  I showed him where the bathroom was, but he said he didn’t have to go.  He sat through the entire service like a statue.  Not one muscle moved. 

Once the service ended I pulled the staff and some deacons together in the back of the room and asked if they had any cash on them for Tommy.  We collected $40.  When I gave it to Tommy he looked disappointed.  Since it was pouring outside I offered to give him a ride and he accepted.  He wanted me to take him to a sketchy hotel on Pulaski Highway.  I’ve taken guys to it before.  He was visibly surprised when he told me the name and I told him I knew the place.  The conversation continued in my van on the way to his hotel.

“So how long have you been on the street?” I asked as we drove.

“I’ve been living in the hotel for five years.  It’s been about 20 years total.”  Tommy replied.

“Then why are you telling people you need $80 when you know the price is only $20?”

Tommy laughed really hard.

“Do you have any family around?”

“Yeah.  I grew up on the East side.  I got family all over.  I don’t bother them and they don’t bother me.”

“Any kids?”

He pointed to the sky like Patrick Henry making a formal declaration and yelled, “I don’t bother them!  They don’t bother!”

“Alright man.  I was just asking.  You got any friends you can live with while you get on your feet?”

“I’m the last one,” he said in the Eeyore tone.

“What does that mean?”

“I had a bunch of high school friends that I used to live on the street with, but they’re all dead now.”

“Do you mean people you went to high school with or high school age people?”

“People I went to high school with.  I’m a sixty year old man.  You think I’m some kind of sick freak or something.”  I glanced at the work glasses on his head and the Ugg boots on his feet and pondered my response.

At this point we were drawing near the hotel.  Tommy noticeably perked up.  “Could you drop me by the store to get a soda?” he asked sweetly.

“Isn’t that a soda in your bag?” I said pointing down at his Rite Aid bag.

“It’s a few hours old.  I need new stuff.”

“It’s not opened.”

“It’s old I said.  No.  No.  No.  New.  New.  New.”

“Alright, fine,” I replied.  “Where is the store?”

“It’s up here on the right!” he said with glee.  As we came over a small hill I saw three signs: a 7-11 sign, a huge red neon sign that read “ADULT”, and a flashing sign that read “LIQUOR.”  I pulled the car over to the side of the road.

“Alright Tommy,” I said as sternly as I could.  “I will take you one of two places.  I will either drive eight more blocks to the hotel and let you out there, or I will let you out here and you can walk the eight blocks in the rain; but I’m not sitting in the car while you go buy porn.”

Tommy looked like a wounded kid.  Begrudgingly he said, “Take me to the hotel.”

We drove the rest of the way in silence.  When we pulled into the parking lot I said, “Here is the deal man.  We helped you today, but we are not going to keep giving you handouts.  We want to give you long term help.  We want to help you get out of this rut you have been in for twenty years.  I’m going to call your social worker in the morning and talk with her.  The church is willing to help you get into a program and begin building a healthy life, but we aren’t going to hand you cash like this again.  If you want help moving forward in life come up the church tomorrow.  I’ll be there.  We will start getting you back on your feet.”

“I’m good,” was all he said and he hopped out of my van.

When I didn’t see him on Monday I thought we were done, especially after I learned his history…but he reappeared Tuesday and more fun was had by all.  I will share that story tomorrow because this is already way to long.

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Conversations with Tommy – Part One

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