Did you see him walking Bangor’s streets and sidewalks? Miles and miles every week, purposeful, thinking.
Did you know he had a fairly brief stay at the emergency shelter? Could you imagine the burden he was carrying, the pain and the weight of numerous misdeeds in his past, of damage done to family and friends and, of course, himself?
Could you imagine the depths of who he was and the life he had led if you only knew him as a guest of the shelter? Did your eyes get stuck on the gap in his reluctant smile where the teeth were missing?
I count myself lucky that I got to become a friend of Bill. Bill was incredibly smart, well educated and articulate, able to apply arcane philosophical references to daily events and situations (and those references were all accurate). He grew up in the New York City area, got his B.A. from Columbia and entered what would become an outwardly successful career on Wall Street. He was making six figures when six figures really meant something. He married, bought a manicured home on Long Island, and started a family. But much as I was doing in another job and in another state, Bill started having too much fun and success with alcohol. Whereas I was lucky in so many ways, Bill’s anatomy contained a time bomb behind the door marked “addiction,” and eventually he started tripping and falling and flailing in those ways that are simply all too familiar to alcoholics and other addicts, treatment professionals and AA members, law enforcement and first responders, emergency rooms and morgues—and shelters. Eventually Bill got to experience the sort of freedom described by Kris Kristofferson, and had nothing left to lose. And then he knocked on the Main Street door of the Bangor Area Homeless Shelter.
Bill began to use the education and intelligence he still had. Somehow he found enough capacity for self-forgiveness to allow himself to take those tiny first steps towards recovery. He went to meetings and found a sponsor. He allowed himself to be humbled by all the processes and applications and bureaucratic interrogations that come with seeking social security and housing subsidy. Imagine him as he stood or sat, patient and mute, forcibly squelching the cynical and knowing thoughts that would rise and attempt to goad him into challenging and demeaning the worker bees. He found that humility, however, and later a sense of acceptance that manifested in the wonderful twinkle in his eyes and the very sincere and earnest interest he would take in others.
Bill ended up being employed at the Shelter. He was reliable, studious, thoughtful, friendly. He was the only employee I have ever witnessed who would find it natural to move through the Day Room, greeting and introducing himself to guests who had checked in since his last shift. There was no ego in his actions.
Bill eventually left this employment and the State of Maine to visit his children in other states, adult children who, after a number of letters from and phone conversations with their dad, welcomed him back into their lives. Can you take a moment to wonder who was happier in those moments—Bill or them? And then there were the grandchildren!
Bill passed away a few years ago. I still smile when I think of him and of the instances of his effect on others that I got to witness or hear about. Please try to imagine your own picture of Bill, especially the next time you see a guy passed out on a sidewalk or smoking outside a shelter. I am so glad, so fortunate, that I got to become a friend of Bill.