Part One: Alan’s Challenge
From the Streets of Claremont, a Homeless Man Says: Tell My Story
Alan Graves has lived on the edge of homelessness since 2011. When he lost his restaurant job in early summer, he found himself “outside” for the first time in his life, sleeping first in abandoned buildings and then in camps he cut from the woods near Washington Street in Claremont so he could maintain a job search that has so far been unsuccessful. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Alan Graves visits with Sandy Wilson at her home in Claremont. Wilson lets Alan get his mail there, and over the summer, Alan helped her clean out the apartment in her house where he stayed with an acquaintance for a time. “He’s helped me a lot,” said Wilson. “It just doesn’t seem to be right that all this bad stuff keeps happening to him,” she said. “But it’s no fault of his. He didn’t do any of this.” (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
On a blustery cold day in late November, Alan Graves’ camp stove runs to generate heat in his tent. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Alan Graves argues with John Kinton over Kinton’s unwillingness to do camp chores up to Alan’s standards in Claremont, N.H. On Sept. 20, 2013, Alan invited Kinton, who also is homeless and had recently lost his Social Security benefits, to stay in his camp until Kinton could get back on his feet. But after two weeks of listening to Kinton’s stream-of-consciousness talking, Alan lost patience and arguments became frequent. He asked Kinton to move out. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Alan Graves charges his phone outside a Claremont gas station in early November. The phone is one of his essential possessions and consumes a large part of his unemployment income to keep it charged with minutes. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Alan Graves shows off his fresh haircut to kB Miller, a program specialist at New Hampshire Employment Security in Claremont. He has built a comfortable rapport with Miller and her co-workers during his twice weekly visits to the office to file his unemployment claim and check for new job postings. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
After cashing his unemployment check in Claremont, N.H., on Sept. 26, 2013, Alan Graves walks past a display of tuxedos on his way back to camp with a bag of toiletries from a dollar store. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Alan Graves holds his last eight cents — all he has to his name until his next unemployment check arrives later in the week. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
On a tip from an acquaintance who works at Market Basket in Claremont, Alan Graves, center, went to the store to apply and be interviewed for a holiday season position. He had applied at the same store several weeks earlier and never heard back. Alan has found stiff competition for entry-level jobs. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Alan Graves moved his Claremont, N.H., camp five times between July and November 2013, sometimes to maintain his privacy and other times at the request of the police. Some camps were within a tenth of a mile the previous spot. But sometimes he carried all his belongings a half mile or more to relocate. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Alan Graves settles down to read the Bible in his tent on Sept. 20, 2013, after Claremont, N.H., police visited his camp to settle an argument between Alan and another homeless man. Alan said he finds it difficult to make it to church on Sundays, but he finds comfort in his Bible. That night, police told him he would have to look for a new place to live in the morning. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
While waiting outside the First Congregational Church in Claremont for a free meal in November, Alan Graves, left, gives an acquaintance the extra sweatshirt he was wearing and then invited him to use a spare tent he had left at an old campsite. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
After going to the emergency room, Alan Graves discusses his lung condition with Dr. Oliver Herfort in a follow-up visit. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Alan Graves coughs over a storm drain on Washington Street in Claremont. In the previous two weeks, his health deteriorated to the point that he was coughing up blood and not leaving his camp except for necessities. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Doing his best to keep a semblance of ordinary life, Alan Graves hangs his laundry to dry after stringing up a clothesline at a new camp in Claremont, N.H., on Sept. 30, 2013. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
As the weather turns cold in November, Alan Graves begins to feel ill and fatigued. He spends evenings by a fire under a canopy of tarps trying to keep the space with smoke with help from Jon Russell, 18, left, a homeless youth he is trying to help.
(Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
In Valley Regional Hospital's Emergency Department in Claremont, Alan Graves asks nurse Tami Schindler if he could change into his clothes after being seen for coughing fits that produced blood and mucus. Insisting he would not stay overnight, Graves avoids hospitals ever since he had prolonged treatment following a construction accident. He also fears for his life because he equates his symptoms with those his second wife suffered while dying of cancer. (Valley News – James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Alan Graves waits tensely to receive a CT scan of his lungs. Spots on an x-ray indicated scenarios from a contagious infection to cancer, one of his worst fears due to the suffering he watched his second wife endure in treatment for cancer and hospice.
(Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Alan Graves sits by the Bobby Woodman Trail in Claremont, N.H., a jumping off point for several camps along the Sugar River on the west side of town. From left, Bret Ellis, 15, Brad Springer, 15, and Michael O'Brien, 18, pass by on the trail after swimming on Aug.8, 2013. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
David Cannistraci of Sugar River Barber cuts Alan Graves' hair in Claremont, N.H., on Sept. 26, 2013. "Today, do I look homeless?" he asked. "That's been bugging me. I know that there's times that I did." (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
Go to www.vnews.com/alanschallenge for all of the stories and photographs in this series.
Claremont — “You take one week and think of how you would survive or what you would have to do if all you had was the clothes on your back. Nowhere to go, no money in your pocket. And no clue where to eat. What would you do? How could you do it?”
Alan Graves challenged me this way several times last summer.
“Not being able to go home to your wife at night and take a shower. … Worried about where you’re going to wash up.”
I met Alan at the end of June, a couple of months before his 51st birthday, while on a photo assignment for the Valley News. Black clouds had just settled over Claremont’s Opera House Square. When the rain came, Alan was the only figure not sprinting down the sidewalk with an umbrella. He had taken cover on the steps outside New Hampshire Legal Aid.
I had missed my chance to photograph the people trying to escape the downpour, so I approached Alan to ask why he wasn’t bothered being caught in it.
“I’m sitting here because I just lost my job,” he told me, his New Hampshire accent slurred, a Family Dollar bag filled with canned goods at his feet. He was waiting out the rain, intending to deliver the food to a homeless family he said was living in a tent.
I guessed that he, too, was homeless.
He asked me why I got of my car in the rain. I told him bad weather makes good pictures.
He told me that if I wanted to do a story that really mattered, I should come with him to meet the people who are struggling in Claremont. People living in rain-soaked camps along the river and in the woods. People trying to support children, failing to find work.
His eyes welled up as he choked out his challenge.
I had an assignment to get to. Alan saw I was pressed for time and offered his phone number. His cell phone is one of his few essential possessions.
I shook his nicotine-stained hand and promised I would be in touch, doubting that, by the time I shook off my other responsibilities, his offer to guide me through his way of life would stand.
Climbing into my car, I caught sight of a small umbrella that I rarely had the sense to use.
Alan — after months of sharing some of his most vulnerable moments, calling him “Graves” feels wrong — took it from my hand and, unable to speak above a whisper, thanked me.
I called Alan in July and he was as good as his word. We arranged to meet on Washington Street in Claremont. He began to share his story.
He grew up in Leominster, Mass., and learned carpentry in trade school. He joined the Army after graduation, serving as a tank mechanic. (Later, Alan’s mother, Carole Johnson, of Nashua, N.H., told me he was in the National Guard for 14 years and served a year in Germany.)
He was married to Becky, his high school sweetheart, at 17. They had three children before divorcing in 2000.
In 2005, he was married to Linda, the woman he called “the love of my life.”
They had a home in Milford, N.H. He worked building bedroom furniture, installing cabinets and in construction.
His mother recalled the bathroom he renovated for her and is proud of his craftsmanship. “He’s a good carpenter,” she said.
But an accident on a construction site left him with both collarbones broken, affected his gait and, he said, his speech.
Then, in 2009, Linda died after a struggle with cancer. For three months, Alan said, he had taken care of her at their home with the help of a hospice nurse.
“She didn’t want to die in a hospital,” he said. “And when she passed away, I couldn’t stay in the house there anymore. So I got rid of the house and I moved up here. She always wanted to come up to this area.”
After moving to Claremont, he said he lived in a hotel for four or five months. He worked as a painter and then as a clerk at The Home Depot. When Lowe’s opened nearby, Alan lost his Home Depot job in a round of layoffs.
Taking work where he could get it, Alan even packaged fresh herbs at Herb Thyme Farms, a job that lasted until 2012, when the company moved its plant to New Jersey.
By this time, Alan said, he had been living on the edge of homelessness for a while. He had been talking with other homeless men, trying to help them in small ways and learning the intricacies of the social service system.
“It’s the first time I’ve been homeless,” he said. “I’ve been married, always had a roof over my head. That’s why I didn’t know what to do this time.”
I wondered whether he had friends or relatives who could take him in long enough for him to get back on his feet.
“There’s a lot of people I know that don’t know I’m outside,” he said.
One friend has given him supplies and allowed him to shower at the apartment she shares with her boyfriend. He argued, however, that most people he might ask to take him in are already in subsidized housing. He doesn’t want to put them at risk of losing their housing benefits by taking in an unauthorized guest.
“There’s a point of not letting people know too much. When you get to be 50, 51 years old, you don’t let a whole lot of people know what’s going on.”
For about seven months during this uncertain period, Alan benefited from a Claremont program that had him working three days a week on city maintenance crews, washing trucks and doing landscaping. The rest of his time was spent looking for a job.
In return, the city helped him pay his rent, up to $765 a month for a single person in a one-bedroom apartment, according to Suzanne Carr, Claremont’s public welfare director. About 200 individuals and families received this kind of assistance in 2012, Carr said. Several others got help paying their mortgage. Carr’s department also sponsors people from Claremont who need the services of the city’s homeless shelter, which is run by Southwestern Community Services, paying the $25-a-day fee for a bed, case management, classes and programs.
“I’d certainly much rather keep somebody in their apartment and keep them stable than having them be in a shelter … where they’re sharing space with other people, maybe putting their kids in there,” Carr said.
“I was doing everything I could do to keep my apartment,” Alan said.
But as of April, before the city would authorize a rent payment, the apartments had to be inspected and landlords had to sign off on their participation in the program — a new requirement designed to protect the tenants by ensuring that the apartments are safe.
Alan said his landlord refused to do that.
“I wouldn’t be out here at this point if … my landlord signed a paper for the city and let ’em come look at the apartment,” he said. “I’d be inside.”
Alan said he felt the city let him down and he was now determined to dictate his own living arrangements.
The shelter was out of the question. Alan said he’d have no privacy there, and he doubted his safety.
He slept for a time in an abandoned mill building near the Sugar River.
Then he took to the woods.
“(The) only difference between the shelter and where I am right now is the fact that when it gets to be 30 or 20 degrees, you can lay down on a crappy mattress and sleep. Only difference,” he said. “Because there’s nothing anyone’s doing at the shelter that I’m not doing, OK? And I can get warm going down and getting a coffee when I have the change or whatever. And I don’t have to worry about losing anything or people stealing from me.”
Just far enough from public view to achieve some privacy, yet close enough so he doesn’t have to walk far for necessities, Alan had made a new home.
Tarps tied to trees were held up by long sticks or saplings cut off above head height. Soda bottles over the ends of the sticks kept them from puncturing the plastic. A fire pit rimmed with stones sat ready for colder weather. Tents were arranged around the edges of the tarp shelter — one for food and water storage, one well-padded with a mattress for sleeping.
Early on he practiced stealth. Then he became more confident, moving in and out of camp without checking over his shoulder or worrying about being seen.
A nearby gas station provided a place where he could use the bathroom and fill up on water.
“See the white bucket over there? I got socks soaking in that right now, OK? The other one’s for me to do my dishes in.” He pointed to some empty two-liter soda bottles. “You know what those are? Me to lug water up here so I can wash.”
Alan took pride in his camp. Built to suit his needs, there was a place for everything and everything was in its place. Each time I returned, there was an improvement — a clothesline, a new tent to store clothing, a stack of wood growing in preparation for winter.
Alan could be charming and endearing. He was always interested in me. After I mentioned that my wife had a cold, he never missed a chance to inquire after her. He encouraged me not to linger at his camp when I could be home having dinner with her. I usually told him that I probably wouldn’t get home until after 10 p.m. because I was going straight to photograph a football game or soccer match. Then he would ask me to predict the outcome. At our next meeting, he’d request a report on the score.
Ultimately, he preferred to shift the attention from himself to others, in particular the people he first asked me to do the story about, the other homeless people he wanted to see get help.
“I’m getting by but there’s more people out there that are in a worse situation than I am.”
While watching him gather firewood one day I asked how he can spend so much time in camp when he might be looking for work.
“Well I know I’m going to be out here until I get a job, you know? And it’s going to take me a while to save up enough money to get an apartment. … That ain’t going to happen in a month, with a security deposit plus the first month’s rent,” he said.
“I’d rather have it and be ready than be screwed when I need it.”
In a way, he was right. If he spent all his time scouring the classifieds and walking from help wanted sign to help wanted sign, he still might not find work, and then he’d be left out in the cold when the snow started to fall.
Alan looks for work every day. He knows he can’t afford to be choosy. He said he recently went all the way to Newport for a 20-hour-a-week job in a grocery store, only to find more than 200 people had already applied for the job.
“The odds of somebody 51 years old getting that job over 200 people is going to be slim to none, you know?” he said.
The only thing his daily search guarantees is his weekly unemployment insurance check. (Alan had not had work for more than a few days at a time since I met him in June. He eventually was able to receive food-stamp benefits and his unemployment went from $60 to about $175 a week before dropping back to $60 in November.)
“If it’s not a holiday, every Monday morning, anywhere between 8 and 10, I go to (the New Hampshire Employment Security office). That’s the first thing I do. And when I’m on the way I usually stop at every place again to see if they’re hiring.”
One still Monday morning I showed up in his camp hoping to accompany him on his job search, but there was no sign of him. I shuffled through the tall grass making noise to let him know I was there. I said a tentative, “Hello? Alan, are you home?”
There was no reply.
Maybe I was too early. Maybe he was putting me on and had no intention of doing his rounds that morning. I stepped back into the clearing and listened to the morning. A few chickadees called clearly in the trees, occasionally interrupted by the sound of Washington Street traffic.
Then, Alan surprised me by walking into camp. He had been up since 5, he said, and was washing up at the gas station. He filled a small Diet Coke bottle from a two-liter bottle of generic soda and we started the walk to the employment security office.
A mile down the road, just across from the vacant Lowe’s building, Alan was greeted by Ann Szeto, an employment services representative. The office computers were down, she told him. With no patience to wait, Alan turned and headed right back out the door. He walked the mile back up Washington Street, past the B.J. Brickers Restaurant, where he worked for a time until it closed indefinitely, and into camp, where he went about tying up a clothesline and hanging up his clean socks.
Later that afternoon I met him at employment security a second time. Alan was greeted by Szeto and kB Miller, a program specialist.
“Anything I can get you?” Miller asked as Alan settled in at a computer.
“Yeah, a glass of water and a job,” he said with a wink.
After filing his claim, he road a borrowed bicycle to the nearby Kleen Laundromat, where Alan wanted to check the status of an application. The only position open was for a driver with a commercial license out of the Lebanon location, a challenging bus commute away, even if he had the proper certifications.
Danielle Carpenter, a clerk at Market Basket who occasionally rings Alan up when he has the money to shop there, stepped away from her laundry to tell him interviews were in progress at the store.
Alan biked the half mile to Market Basket, where manager Jason Desjardins said he had already interviewed 15 people for jobs beginning during the busy holiday season and lasting at least through the Super Bowl.
Alan stood in line with several 20-year-olds. He filled out an application, gave a short interview, then stepped out onto the sidewalk to smoke a cigarette. He hoped to have a call back from the store within two weeks, but it never came.
“These days, when we’re seeing long-term (homelessness), sometimes it’s because of long-term unemployment,” Carr, the public welfare director, said. “And the longer you’re not working, the harder it is to get to get hired.”
Alan thought back to a September morning when he had the promise of a job interview and, to look his best, he splurged on a haircut.
“The day I got my hair cut it was like, jeez, I’m not homeless anymore. … It was incredible, it was incredible. I spent all day feeling my hair.”
He remembered when he was first married and went to the laundromat to do the laundry, something he doesn’t get to do much now. “It was a big deal,” he said.
“It’s all those little things that all of a sudden, when you lose them, you get by. And then when you have it for that moment, it brings back those days and you kind of feel like a human again. That you’re no different.”
“But if they see me charging my phone on the side of Birney’s (Mini Mart), OK then, all of a sudden I’m a, I’m a good for nothing bum.”
Alan told me that no matter how bad his own situation got he did not want to lose compassion for people, to lose the ability to put his own troubles aside and offer his cheerful disposition to others who might need to see confidence in the face of uncertainty.
Early in September, I spotted him in a downtown parking lot talking with another man who looked to share Alan’s space on the margins of society. He introduced me to John Kinton, a Claremont resident who was spending time in and out of shelters.
Seeing my camera, Kinton introduced himself as fellow artist who was running for a seat on the City Council. In an animated stream of consciousness, he told me of the attack that left him near death, praised the doctors who saved his life and had me feel the metal plate in his skull. Stories spilled out of him.
Before leaving, Alan took me aside.
“If he doesn’t get some place to stay and have somebody help him with his medication, you know, he’s not going to be able to make it at the shelter.”
Alan worried that Kinton’s constant talking would cause conflict with other residents. “He’s just going to piss people off.”
Alan’s solution was to take Kinton to his camp.
I saw them again two weeks later. It was a hot day in mid-September, but Alan was thinking ahead to cold weather and cutting firewood to length with a bow saw. An argument was in progress. Kinton wasn’t pulling his weight gathering wood and keeping the camp tidy, Alan said.
Kinton cracked open a bottle of his favorite beer. Alan took a secretive sip from 24-ounce can.
Some of Alan’s acquaintances in the community of homeless men in Claremont have said he is controlling, and it was clear today he was exasperated with Kinton’s inability to follow his instructions and rules.
“I don’t want to lose compassion for people, but let me tell you, this right here” — meaning sharing his camp — “is hard.”
The argument cooled and they both agreed that Kinton would have to find a new place to stay. When I left that afternoon, tension still hung over the camp.
Later that night, I received a text message. It was from Alan: “Not going well. If you do not get text from me can you call PD? Alan.”
I wanted to ignore this. Did I get this message by mistake?
I waited several minutes and then replied that he had better be serious and that if I called the police I would have to tell them where the camp was. They would likely tell him he was trespassing and make him move.
I got no answer. I called his phone. No answer. I waited. Then I called the Claremont Police Department and told them the situation. They knew both men. I said they shared a camp and their relationship had become tense. They had both been drinking.
Thirty minutes later I picked my way through the darkness toward the camp, now illuminated by flashlights held by Claremont Police officers John Friedman and Amy Jerome.
Alan and Kinton had continued their argument into the night. Feeling unsafe, he sent me the text. Alan claimed Kinton knocked him down, so Alan left the camp. He didn’t take his phone.
Friedman and Jerome heard both sides of the story. They urged Kinton to move out in the morning and suggested that the pair stay clear of each other.
Alan would have to move as well.
“Every time I’ve dealt with (Alan) it’s been alcohol-related,” said Friedman.
Jerome described Alan as “usually pretty decent.”
Confident that the men had calmed down, the police left. I stayed behind. Kinton sat at the edge of his tent and told me he was pleased to be moving. He had had enough of Alan bossing him around.
Alan settled back in his folding lawn chair and thanked me for my loyalty. The consequence of having to move was a blow, but he was relieved to be free of his commitment to Kinton.
When I left, Alan had crawled into his tent and, in what he said was a nightly ritual, read his Bible by flashlight.
Since that night, Alan has moved his camp three times, most recently after taking Jon Russell, another homeless man, under his wing.
Russell lived at the shelter in Claremont but was spending portions of his days with Alan. “I’ve only known (Alan) about a week now. I can be (at the shelter) any time I want to be, but I just prefer not to be there. There’s a person there I don’t quite get along with, and plus it gets boring in there, just sitting there all day, so it’s better to be out here learning and having a little bit of fun while I’m doing it all.”
He said Alan had been teaching him how to survive homelessness. “He’s been a big influence on my life even though I’ve only known him about a week. He’s trying his best to keep me out of more trouble. He’s teaching me things I need to know. He’s been there to guide me along the way.”
When I met Russell, the weather had turned cold and he was gathering wood to keep the fire going for Alan, who sat in his chair nearby, in obvious discomfort, coughing and giving directions when the fire became too smoky.
Smoke gathered under the tarp roof, not escaping fast enough through a series of half melted, half torn holes above the fire pit, Alan’s design for ventilation.
My eyes stung and we all coughed as the haze settled low in the enclosure. Soon Alan excused himself and began retching outside the shelter.
I was getting to know Alan. Despite my desire simply to document the life of someone few people might have the opportunity to meet, it was increasingly difficult to ignore the fact that he was not making progress toward his stated goal: helping people — including himself — get off the street.
For instance, he sees Claremont’s many vacant and deteriorating buildings as an opportunity. The skills of the jobless construction workers, plumbers, carpenters like himself and others in the building trades could be put to use renovating these spaces into low-rent apartments. They would work in exchange for housing.
“You know how many people are homeless right now that have construction (skills) that would be more than willing to help the city, for nothing, fix up the place if they could live there?”
“Let the people get a start,” he said. “At least it gets them off the street and gives them some worth.”
But one day in October, when I stopped by his camp, he wasn’t there. I saw he had been neglecting his trash. Clear bags filled with empty soda bottles and beer cans, many of them 24-ounce cans, were strewn up and down the paths.
I waited, hoping he might show up, but he did not.
I returned a few days later. He limped into camp and greeted me with a drawl nearly devoid of hard consonants.
I could smell the alcohol.
“The one thing I told you from the beginning is I didn’t want to lose compassion,” he said. “And it’s been rough the last few weeks.”
The colder nights were weighing on him and he was still upset about his falling out with Kinton. His efforts to help were a mistake, he said. “You help people and they stick you in the back.”
Some of his peers in Claremont’s homeless community often don’t see his outgoing and friendly personality. Some say he has a controlling personality, a temper. Some call him a liar.
His mother knows he has had difficulty with alcohol. “That’s one of his weaknesses,” she said. “If something was really stressing him out, he’d pick up a can of beer,” she said. “It’s easier than getting meds from the doctor.”
That weakness has led to DUI and other alcohol-related charges, as documents from Sullivan Superior Court and Claremont District Court show.
In 2011 he was tried for burglary, on suspicion of stealing copper from a vacant house, and assault, but he was found not guilty. That same year he pleaded guilty to another simple assault charge and was given a suspended sentence. He also was the subject of a protective order. In 2012, a second protective order was filed against him following a domestic violence allegation.
When I confronted him with this information, he didn’t shy away. “I’m glad you’re checking this (expletive). I’m glad you’re checking,” he said.
The two incidents that resulted in protective orders were the result of domestic disagreements, one over rent and the other over his refusal to allow an unwanted guest in the apartment he had at the time. He pleaded guilty, he said, to avoid drawing out the process in a system he feels is stacked against him.
According to his mother, all of his troubles started after his 2011 arrest. Alan spent five months in the Sullivan County House of Corrections awaiting trial. He lost his job, his apartment and most of his belongings.
Alan said he was wrongly identified by a witness. He refused plea offers repeatedly until the case was tried. Several charges were dropped and the jury delivered not guilty verdicts on the remaining two charges, of burglary and assault.
“He got found not guilty,” his mother said, “but it didn’t do any good.”
“I got nothing to hide,” Alan told me. “Nothing.”
I had begun to press him on whether he was drinking heavily.
He dismissed me. He had a few beers here and there as anyone might, he said.
Sandy Wilson owns a house with two apartments on Hanover Street in Claremont. She met Alan when he was taken in for a short time by one of her tenants.
“He called me and told me that this guy is moving in with him. That he’s a veteran and … he was homeless and sleeping down by the bridge outside, underneath a building or something like that,” said Wilson.
“I let him go ahead and do that, even though his lease says no other people are going to live there.” After a time the arrangement fell apart and, at the request of her tenant, Wilson asked Alan to leave.
“So he did leave. But he didn’t have any bad feelings towards me.”
They stayed in touch. Alan began helping her clean up one of the apartments and make runs to the dump. Wilson, 63, is on disability after a stroke left her with partially obstructed vision and some difficulty speaking. Alan helped her by doing the heavy lifting.
“Yeah, he helped me a lot,” she said. In return, she allowed him to have his mail sent to one of the apartments.
Wilson knew Alan as well as anyone I had met, and I asked her if she thought he had the potential to improve his situation.
“He has the worst luck of anybody I have ever known,” she said. “Things keep happening to him.”
She pointed to the jobs he lost when businesses closed or downsized. She pointed to his difficulty speaking, which Alan blamed on the construction accident.
Then she told me about the acquaintance Alan once brought with him to help with a job.
“The guy stood there and looked me in the eye and says … I don’t steal. Well he did.”
When Alan learned of the theft, he went to the man’s camp, found the missing utility knife, and returned it to Wilson.
“So there is a degree of, um, consciousness, or not consciousness, conscience.”
Wilson called Alan “a good guy,” but wondered if his behavior and his decisions were making things tough on him.
“I find it interesting that Al has been helping all these other people when he himself needs help.”
Watching Alan retch outside the smoke-filled shelter was troubling. He doubled over coughing and choking up bloody mucus into a pile of leaves.
He told me the bloody coughing had started at least a week before and was getting worse.
I told him he had to go to the hospital. I told him I would take him.
“My fear with me spitting it up all the time is I went through it with my wife and I know where that leads. So if I do go get looked at, I’m not going to go through all kinds of (expletive), OK? I’m just going to have them do what they got do to make it easier to get by.”
He refused a ride that night, but he promised to meet in his camp the next day.
“I’m a tough old man,” he said. “I’ll be here.”
As we waited in the emergency room at Valley Regional Hospital, Alan told me he would not have come without my urging.
“I’m too stubborn,” he said.
He was given a physical exam and a throat culture, had blood taken and got a chest X-ray. The X-ray showed several dark patches.
Back at the hospital two days later he was told the tuberculosis test proved negative, but he had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, an irreversible condition that makes it hard to breathe and produces mucus. That, in combination with a respiratory infection, may have been causing the bloody cough.
A bigger problem: His chest X-ray showed a larger anomaly, potentially a tumor. He would have to see a specialist and possibly have a biopsy. He was given a prescription for antibiotics and instructions to wait for a call from Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.
Later that day, the prescription he was told would cost $4 at Wal-Mart turned out to cost $38.
What money he had was almost gone, his phone was almost out of minutes and he had only two weeks of unemployment insurance left.
“The plus side is, my wife isn’t here and doesn’t have to go through with it in case the worst-case scenario happens,” he said. “The night before she passed away, one of the last things she said was, ‘I can’t go yet. I haven’t had enough time with you.’ ”
Again, Alan’s focus turned to trying to help others, even if just through this story, even if it didn’t help improve his own situation.
He now saw his story as a way he could have an impact on his community.
“I know there’s going to be consequences for what I’m doing,” he said. “Somehow I’m going to get through it, but I’m going to make a god darned difference somehow. … I’m going to make a difference the way things are going for people.”
“I’m going to make it one way or another, OK?”
James M. Patterson can be reached at 603-727-3230 or firstname.lastname@example.org.