TITLE: The Adventures of Slick, the Homeless Superhero (1)
By Kathryn Wickward
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It is my habit to arrive about half an hour early to work. This gives me a little time to grab a cup of coffee and read the paper, to ease the transition into my workday. I’m not really fussy, but I know the couches are none too clean, so I sit at a table and read until I’m expected in my office, which is about eight in the morning.
I am rarely alone. The shelters discharge their guests at six o’clock. Alphie is here first; he makes the coffee. He says it was the most peaceful task he had in ‘Nam: making coffee. His other tasks invariably involved exploding things. I asked him once if he were born again, as in Christian. He told me that in ‘Nam, every time he woke up alive he was born again.
The coffee’s a few grades above swill. I’m so accustomed to the flavor, I could almost say I like it that way. It develops a little strength if it’s left to cook on the plate awhile. Keeps me alert over the next eight hours.
Sometimes the guys want to socialize; sometimes they’ll wait to talk until I get in the office. My appointment book is a sign-up sheet outside the door. While we have a few regulars at the day center, guys like Alfie, it’s mostly a transient group. The center is funded by an ecumenical group of churches – mostly evangelical - and I am its lone paid social worker. My job involves everything from locating housing to babysitting guys through the DT’s and other, more painful forms of withdrawal.
I have seen the face of God here, in little unexpected graces and kindness between strangers. I have seen Satan as well. He’s no snake, no monster. He’s that black powder they cram into things that blow off men’s limbs, the white powder they cram into little pills or up their noses.
The day I met Slick, I was reading an article with this headline:
“Man with Kidneys Attached to Intestines Baffles Physicians”
Now I knew I wasn’t reading a supermarket tabloid, but I checked anyway. This was indeed the local paper and it evidently happened at the hospital just a few blocks from us. The article described a guy about 30 years old, who arrived in the emergency room, unconscious, without any evidence of trauma (you know, gunshot wounds, broken bones, etc.), on the shoulders of another man. The Good Samaritan, described as a homeless man in his mid-40’s, told the triage nurse, “I think I made a few mistakes,” without providing any more information. An abdominal scan of the man revealed that not only were his intestines attached to his kidneys, he had a number of other anatomical “errors” never before seen in medical history. The man, who had not regained consciousness, was to undergo a series of corrective surgeries over the next few days. The homeless man, whom officials believed was not related to the patient, could not be located for further questioning.
As I read this, I became aware that someone had joined me at the table. The smell assaulted me first: a fine concoction of urine, feces and stale beer. I fought the instinct to cover my face as I looked up from the paper. I make a point to avoid showing disgust when I meet a new client. Bad smells, like bad coffee, are just a part of the job.
“Interesting story?” the guy asked. He pronounced it “inneresting,” in a slow drawl. He was hunched over in the chair across from me. An amused smile crossed his face.
Not a silly smile. He was neither slap-happy drunk nor simpering. His brown hair was greasy and fanned out from a spot on the back where he had probably rested his head sleeping on the ground. He wore a long filthy brown coat over torn jeans and a T-shirt that may once have been yellow. Over the T-shirt he wore a V-neck sweater that had unraveled at the sleeves. It was 75 degrees outside. He looked like a dozen other homeless men except that his face evidenced something that belied the slur in his voice, his unkempt appearance and his defeated posture. I was already intrigued.
“Yeah,” I said, “but I don’t think it belongs in this paper.”
“Every word of it is true,” he replied.
“Really? C’mon, a guy born that messed up would be dead by now. Or he’d have been fixed up a lot earlier.”
“He wasn’t born that way.”
I stared at him a moment. I had no idea what to make of his statement. His smile vanished and he took to looking at the table top.
“Listen,” I said. “I’m Jack. I’m the social worker here, and I’ll be in that office in 10 minutes.” I pointed to my door. “If you want help with anything, or just want to talk, you’re welcome to come in. My first appointment isn’t until 10:30. In the meantime…” (here I fished some tokens out of my pocket), “help yourself to the shower. The water’s probably lukewarm. If you want, there are clean clothes in the box you can wear while you wash what you’ve got on. Got a towel?”
He rummaged around in a black plastic garbage bag. The towel he brought out was as filthy as the rest of him, but he did manage to produce his own bar of soap. I sighed and got up from my chair to help him locate a clean towel. I then showed him to the shower and quickly explained how it worked, and how much time he had. I left him there while I searched the box for clothes about his size. When I returned, he had already started his shower, but he hadn’t removed his clothes. I could see the hems of his pants and coat under the curtain. I imagined him soaping up his sleeves.
“You know, we have a laundry machine,” I said dryly.
“Yeah?” he said, running the bar of soap through his hair. Or, so I hoped.
“You’ll get a lot cleaner if you take those clothes off. I’ve got you some clean stuff to change into.” I set the clothes on a bench.
“Right,’ he said, “and I know these places, man. No privacy. Can’t lock the door. Some guy gets an idea and wants to join me, like. Not a chance.”
“We’ve got ways to prevent that, sir. I could watch for you.”
“You gonna watch me? You another one that type?”
I sighed, again. “I’ll be in my office.”
He arrived 10 minutes later, dripping. He’d changed his pants. At least he didn’t smell quite so offensive. He laid the towel on the chair opposite me – with exaggerated care, I thought - and sat down on it.
I pulled out the intake paperwork: a shelter list, the housing authority application, a mental health assessment form. No detail of this man’s life will go undocumented. As a social worker, I’m trained to ask personal questions - even to be a little intrusive. If there’s an agency I can refer this guy to that will take care of all his needs, so much the better. I keep the particulars of new client interviews confidential, even signing an agreement to that effect. When I had everything neatly laid out on my desk, I picked up a pen and started by asking his name.
He was asleep. His head had dropped so that his chin rested on his chest, which heaved with the effort of breathing through an airway thus constricted. Ah, rough night.
I repeated the question, a little louder. He startled awake.
“Come again?” He rubbed his gaunt face with his hand. It had the effect of temporarily rearranging his features.
I repeated the question a third time.
He took out his wallet and located an I.D. card. He held it a couple of inches from his face, squinting.
“Robert Davis,” he muttered, reading from it.
“You don’t remember your name?”
“Not usually,” he replied gruffly. “Most folks just call me Slick, anyway.”
The interview didn’t progress very well, at first. “What was your last address?” He read it off his card. “Where are you from?” He shrugged. “Everywhere,” was his reply. “What kind of work do you do?” Again, he shrugged, “I’m kind of a Jack of all trades,” he said, “Jack.” He snorted at his own word play.
Slowly, I began to extract a history from him. He was born in San Diego and last lived with his father, who kicked him out shortly after he got out of high school. He did a brief stint with the military as a medic. Then the voices started. He started drinking, but instead of calming the hallucinations, the alcohol intensified them. With the twisted logic of the alcoholic, he decided it was better to hear the voices while drunk. He quit the military and worked his way up the coast, doing odd jobs, always managing to avoid being hospitalized, melting into the background. He believed in God, but assumed God had left him to his fate.
“Some of us just ain’t chosen, like you,” he said without self-pity. I pitied him, anyway, but didn’t have words to argue. There’s a time for that.
“So, what happened with your dad?” I asked.
Slick rested his head in one hand, his other arm supporting his elbow, his fingers splayed across his face. He was silent for so long I thought he’d fallen asleep again. Then he dropped his hand into his lap, leaned closer to my desk and lowered his voice until it was barely audible.
“You know, I really just need a place to sleep tonight.”
“Well, I do have this list of shelters.” I handed it to him.
He held it in his lap. “I gotta check these out on my own?”
“I really can’t speak for someone I don’t know. Eventually, you’re on your own anyway. But if I know you, I can find something that works best for you.”
He considered this. “This is confidential, right?”
“Unless you killed someone, or are planning to.”
“Naw, nothing like that. But my powers, they got to my dad.”
“Yeah, my powers.”
He pulled up his sleeve and rested his left hand on my desk. “I can destroy the internal configuration of any object, or any living thing, just by closing my hand around it.“ He closed his hand into a fist and then pulled it off my desk, allowing his sleeve to drop back down his arm. With that hand he pulled up his right sleeve, laying his other hand flat on my desk. “And then I can rebuild it.” He returned his arms to his side. “I messed some things up for my dad while I was figurin’ it out.”
Schizophrenia, I thought. It fits. Hits in the late teens and twenties. Its hallmark symptoms are auditory hallucinations, poor hygiene, lack of motivation, delusions, and bizarre behavior. Half the guys on the street had some form of mental illness in addition to their addictions. We call them the “dually diagnosed.” Fortunately, there are programs at the community mental health centers in the area. The guy could get a case manager, some medication, anything he needed. He wouldn’t have to go to the hospital. I looked up the number for City Psychiatric Services and wrote it on a card. He took the card from me, squinted at it, and stashed it in his pocket. He shook his head.
“You don’t believe me, do you?”
There’s a standard reply, a way to say, “No, I don’t because you are crazy and I am not” - only much less offensive. It goes like this: “I understand this is the reality you are experiencing, and I believe that you feel that way, but I am likely to experience this differently than you are. I’m sure it gives you a lot of pain, and we can help you cope with that. There are many medications a doctor can prescribe that will…”
He was shaking his head the whole time. He’d heard it before.
“Do I look sober yet?” he asked
He believed I thought him drunk. In fact, he looked a little better. Tired, maybe. Filthy. But as sober as most alcoholics ever really get until they quit altogether.
“I can’t do this when I’m drunk, but I think I am sober, ‘cause I feel rotten. You need to move away from your desk there.”
Cautiously, I backed away.
His hand was on my desk, and then it wasn’t. My desk had collapsed to the floor, a pile of sawdust, bits of metal, files that no longer had drawers to contain them, paper clips and pens, my wife’s picture perched on the top. Now I was astounded. My first wild thought was, darn it, there is no agency that serves schizophrenics with super powers in my referral list. My next instinct was to pray.
“Dear God,” I whispered, and it was truly a prayer. “Please don’t let him get angry with me.”
Slick knelt on the floor beside the pile. Laying his hand on it, he closed his eyes. Like a video run in reverse, my desk rebuilt itself out of the pile of dust. Ten seconds passed, then it stood as it had before.
He grinned, revealing a mouthful of tobacco stained teeth. I thought I’d seen everything in my 25 years in the business.
“Don’t worry,” he drawled. “I think God heard ya. Like I said, I can only do it when I’m sober, and I try real hard not to be sober. D’ya want to know what happened to me last night?”
“Sure,” I said, a bit weakly.
Last night, he told me, he was broke and walking the streets. He’d bummed a smoke from a guy at a convenience store, and had nearly finished it. While he was walking, he was thinking about getting some money. He’d had a sandwich someone gave him in the food line, but he really wanted a drink. He weighed this against his desire to go check on his stuff where he’d stashed it, and to claim his sleeping spot for the night. Drink/sleep, drink/sleep, someone’s gonna steal my stuff. Drink? Sleep? Someone’s gonna steal my stuff.
His stuff won out. He headed through the shopping district, to its hiding place. On his way, he brushed past a young man wearing a backpack and expensive shoes. Seconds later, the word rang through his consciousness like a bullet through the skull.
There is a cruel predictability to auditory hallucinations. They reflect the schizophrenic man’s deepest fears and most intense loathing. If he is afraid of heights, for example, he will hear voices that say, “Jump!” If he holds to a strict kosher diet, every server in every restaurant he walks into will insist he eat pork. Epithets uncommonly heard in polite society seem to stream out of the mouths of strangers, directed especially at him. Thus, the shadow-self that you and I bury deep within, under social convention and appropriate behavior, lies just under the thin skin of the hallucinating man. Even the godliest.
Slick pulled an about-face.
“What did you call me?” he growled.
The man kept on walking, but Slick distinctly heard the word repeated, and repeated again. He was certain the man, from a position of obvious privilege, meant to grind him into the dirt, to rob him of any shred of dignity. Such was the power of the word, and the shadow under the surface.
In four long strides he caught up with the man and clapped a hand on his shoulder, forcing him around.
“Wha…?” the man started, but he could not finish. Anger coursed through Slick and awakened the power within. It flowed through Slick’s arm, out through his fingers, and into the man’s shoulder. Seconds later, the stranger collapsed. Slick’s hand fell to his side.
“Oops,” Slick muttered to himself.
The shadow fled.
The man looked normal on the outside, perhaps a bit deflated. Deflated, Slick knew, because inside the man was a mass of unstructured cellular material. In short, he’d reduced his insides into Jell-o. He knelt beside the body and looked around. They were alone, but that wouldn’t be for long. He took a deep breath and tried to remember the anatomy instruction he’d received as a medic. He gripped the man’s shoulder with his other hand, gently, so as not to destroy any external tissue. Closing his eyes, he started to visualize a brain. It took its place in the man’s head, the spine and nervous system extending from it. He then quickly imagined the heart lungs and blood vessels in their proper places, feeding the man’s brain and extremities. He stretched the trachea to his mouth and sinuses, and the man started to breathe again. He replaced the man’s skeleton and attached the muscles to it. Finally, he started on the digestive system.
But by that time, people had appeared at the end of the street. Mindful of how it looked, a homeless man bent over the unconscious body of another, he hurriedly finished the job. Color returned to the man’s face. Slick hoisted him over his shoulder and headed in the direction of the hospital. He attracted a few strange looks.
“Hey, buddy, should I call 911?” asked a particularly well-dressed bystander.
“Naw, he just got real sick. He’s a friend of mine. I’ll take him to the hospital.”
He didn’t think the man believed him, but Slick’s brusque demeanor somehow convinced Mr. Bystander that it was more important that he be on time for his date. “Guys like that are always running late,” Slick commented. “I guess you don’t get in to the symphony or the opera or whatever if you don’t show up on time. Bet he spent a lot of money on that ticket.”
Slick’s patient was a bit yellow by the time they got to the emergency room. The liver was likely not connected properly, nor the kidneys. He stood around as the triage nurse interviewed a mother holding a squirming child on her lap, shifting his feet uncomfortably. The guy was getting heavy. When she glanced briefly away from her patient, the nurse did a double take, her eyes widening in surprise as she noticed Slick and his burden. She picked up the telephone and spoke into it. Almost immediately two men in green came out with a gurney. Slick helped lay the man out.
The triage nurse eyed him suspiciously. “Could you wait out here a moment, sir, and answer some questions for us?” Slick sensed she wouldn’t be the one to ask the questions. She’d find a cop to do that job. He nodded his assent, but as soon as they disappeared behind the double doors, Slick returned to the streets.
If he’d have told me his story before I’d seen his abilities demonstrated, I’d have been impressed. It would have been a fairly skillful weaving of current events and delusional fantasy. Instead, I racked my stressed-out brain to figure out some way to help him. I wasn’t sure he wanted help. “So, uh, do you have any other special, ah, gifts?” I asked.
“Strength, speed, X-ray vision?”
“No, no, and no.”
He barked a short laugh. “Invisibility? Of course I’m invisible. I’m homeless, ain’t I?”
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