In 1972 I helped to found, and subsequently became the director of, a street-front drop-in-center across from a High School in the San Francisco Bay Area. I began speaking at Service Clubs (Lions, Kiwanis, Moose Lodge, VFW etc.), and churches around the area to solicit funds to help meet monthly operational expenses.
I had the freedom to define and design programs I felt to be necessary to the needs of teen-agers. The work had a general spiritual focus, but there were many programs more specifically related to things such as substance abuse and homelessness. I ultimately had a staff of up to ten people, some paid, some volunteer. We opened a large 5 bedroom, two-story house around the corner as a transitional home for young men seeking to escape the streets. Men in need of life skills, job skills and stability. It was known simply as The House. I staffed and supervised the endeavor. Re-integration into society, for many, required going back to the basics of living. You’ve got to get up in the morning. You’ve got to make your bed. You’ve got to eat. In order to eat you’ve got to go shopping. You’ve got to cook. You’ve got to clean. You’ve got to learn how to communicate with other people. You’ve got to learn to be sensitive to the needs of others. You’ve got to learn to look out for, and stand up for yourself.
Most of those coming into The House were living from day to day. From hand to mouth. Most were barely living at all. We covered their living expenses while nursing them back to health. Then as they began coming back to life we’d assist them in making a plan, finding work, or getting back in school while working part time. Some didn’t survive the challenge, or the opportunity. Some could just not adjust to group living. For some, they carried too much guilt and shame, they felt too worthless to be recipients of the kindness of others. Some just needed to make it on their own. Some left for those reasons, and for reasons I will never know. And I can only speculate about how life turned out for them. For those who stayed, a good percentage found positive direction and a new start. Many reclaimed self-esteem, and many found it for the first time.
The House proved to be pivotal in a lot of lives. I have very fond memories of individual self discovery and transformation. I think it’s fair to say it saved some disenfranchised young men from an eventual and predictably tragic conclusion.
But unfortunately, that was not the case with a young man named Eric. Eric was about 20 years old, and a really likeable guy. Very genuine. Very kind. I spent a lot of time with him, listening to him speak of his dreams, his estranged family, the challenges he was facing in his life. He was really not too terribly different from a lot of young men at that age. But I had an immediate fondness for him. He was soft spoken, considerate, very loving, and very lost. His family was in ruins. He was alienated, alone, broken and scared. Eric was someone I could identify with personally, not necessarily in circumstance, but in feelings. Obviously I’d found something productive to do with my life, but my deeper feelings of alienation and aloneness lingered, like his. His were, at the time, not just subjugated adversaries, like mine, but all encompassing antagonists performing daily on the fragile stage that was his life. Eric was searching desperately for solutions. We had many marathon discussions about being alone in the world, inside, deep inside. How to deal with it. How to handle it. How to turn it to an advantage. We explored possibilities for the future, drawing on Eric’s natural talents to point him in some meaningful direction. He was a very bright young man, and a very talented artist. School was a possibility for him if he could get stabilized, but he was having a very difficult time adjusting to an environment that required increasing responsibility and accountability.
Eric got into an argument with his roommate and just couldn’t deal with it. He called me and left a message that he found a dive hotel room for the night. Said he needed to be alone, and that he’d try and hook up with me again sometime in the morning.
Knowing of Eric’s habit of relying on drugs to dull his pain, I tried to find him, but couldn’t. In fact, I never saw him again. The hotel manager found his body, lifeless, and alone, needle still in his arm. More pain killer massaging his heart than he was ever equipped to handle.
It hit me like a sledge hammer to my chest.
It’s been about thirty five years, and I’m still sad for Eric. For many years I carried his death on my shoulders, feeling that I had failed him. His death felt, in many ways, like my own. Like he took me with him when he went. As I've grown older, and more conscious of the human condition, the fragile nature of life and death, the feelings, circumstances and dynamics that are often beyond our control, I’ve been able to let go of any complicity in his passing. I did my best for him. I did what I could. I do know, in retrospect, that there was as good a chance that his life might have blossomed, as there was that he would have lost it at such an early age.
I rest today on that sensibility.
I have to.
I think we’ve all known Eric.