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Part Two: Out of the Woods, At Last

Claremont Man’s Life Takes Turns for the Better

  • Relieved and restless after getting hired as a gas station cashier, Alan Graves steps outside the store to reflect on Jan. 24, 2014. <br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Relieved and restless after getting hired as a gas station cashier, Alan Graves steps outside the store to reflect on Jan. 24, 2014.
    (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • After six months without work, Alan Graves, of Claremont, N.H., was hired by Gordon Bradstreet of Hidden Field Fir Farm to help at his Christmas Tree stand in Claremont in December 2013. Graves traded the majority of his work time to buy a Christmas tree for his friend Vanessa Parkinson, second from left, her son Austin Oakes, 6, middle, and her boyfriend Jeremie Washburn, right, while they were going through hard financial times. on Dec. 8, 2013.<br/> (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    After six months without work, Alan Graves, of Claremont, N.H., was hired by Gordon Bradstreet of Hidden Field Fir Farm to help at his Christmas Tree stand in Claremont in December 2013. Graves traded the majority of his work time to buy a Christmas tree for his friend Vanessa Parkinson, second from left, her son Austin Oakes, 6, middle, and her boyfriend Jeremie Washburn, right, while they were going through hard financial times. on Dec. 8, 2013.
    (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • In December 2013, Alan Graves began helping take out the trash and clean up at the Shell gas station on Washington Street, where he spent time to get out of the cold and had come to know the staff. <br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    In December 2013, Alan Graves began helping take out the trash and clean up at the Shell gas station on Washington Street, where he spent time to get out of the cold and had come to know the staff.
    (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Vanessa Parkinson welcomes Alan Graves to her apartment and notices his haircut and beard trim in Claremont, N.H., on Jan. 24, 2014. At the prospect of getting hired at the gas station he frequented, he went to the barber to clean up his appearance before filling out his formal paperwork.<br/> (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Vanessa Parkinson welcomes Alan Graves to her apartment and notices his haircut and beard trim in Claremont, N.H., on Jan. 24, 2014. At the prospect of getting hired at the gas station he frequented, he went to the barber to clean up his appearance before filling out his formal paperwork.
    (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Alan Graves laughs with his co-workers, from left, manager Heidi Lorquet,  Tracey Serbian, Sadie Pellerin and Marissa Bentley during a smoke break at a Claremont, N.H., gas station on Jan. 27, 2014. "We're a big old family here," said Lorquet, and added about Alan, "I'm glad he's got good humor with all he's been through." (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Alan Graves laughs with his co-workers, from left, manager Heidi Lorquet, Tracey Serbian, Sadie Pellerin and Marissa Bentley during a smoke break at a Claremont, N.H., gas station on Jan. 27, 2014. "We're a big old family here," said Lorquet, and added about Alan, "I'm glad he's got good humor with all he's been through." (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Alan Graves moves his belongings in a shopping cart to his new apartment on Pleasant Street in Claremont, N.H., on Feb. 4, 2014. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Alan Graves moves his belongings in a shopping cart to his new apartment on Pleasant Street in Claremont, N.H., on Feb. 4, 2014. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Alan Graves gives Jeremie Washburn a taste of steak while hosting Washburn, Austin Oakes, right, and Oakes' mother Vanessa Parkinson at his apartment in Claremont, N.H., on March 5, 2014. <br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Alan Graves gives Jeremie Washburn a taste of steak while hosting Washburn, Austin Oakes, right, and Oakes' mother Vanessa Parkinson at his apartment in Claremont, N.H., on March 5, 2014.
    (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Alan Graves takes in the surroundings of his camp before going to spend the night in his newly rented apartment eight months after becoming homeless in Claremont, N.H., on Feb. 4, 2014. <br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Alan Graves takes in the surroundings of his camp before going to spend the night in his newly rented apartment eight months after becoming homeless in Claremont, N.H., on Feb. 4, 2014.
    (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Alan Graves rises early in his tent and fills a more portable bottle with soda in preparation for his first day of work at Shell in Claremont, N.H., on Jan. 27, 2014. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Alan Graves rises early in his tent and fills a more portable bottle with soda in preparation for his first day of work at Shell in Claremont, N.H., on Jan. 27, 2014. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Alan Graves heads out from his camp in the woods behind a Washington Street store with supplies to give to other homeless individuals and families in Claremont, N.H., on Jan. 16, 2014. <br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Alan Graves heads out from his camp in the woods behind a Washington Street store with supplies to give to other homeless individuals and families in Claremont, N.H., on Jan. 16, 2014.
    (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Alan Graves shows off a quarter he found while taking out the trash to manager Heidi Lorquet on his first day of work at Shell in Claremont, N.H., on Jan. 27, 2014. It would be two weeks until he received his first paycheck, and his unemployment insurance was drying up while he still lived in a tent. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Alan Graves shows off a quarter he found while taking out the trash to manager Heidi Lorquet on his first day of work at Shell in Claremont, N.H., on Jan. 27, 2014. It would be two weeks until he received his first paycheck, and his unemployment insurance was drying up while he still lived in a tent. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Alan Graves has a near miss with a driver accelerating onto Washington Street in Claremont, N.H., on a layer of slick snow on Dec. 16, 2013. Alan's only transportation is walking or getting rides from friends. <br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Alan Graves has a near miss with a driver accelerating onto Washington Street in Claremont, N.H., on a layer of slick snow on Dec. 16, 2013. Alan's only transportation is walking or getting rides from friends.
    (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Dr. Richard Enelow explains to Alan Graves that the abnormality in his lung has shrunk since his first scan, ruling out a lung cancer diagnosis, during and appointment at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center on Dec. 18, 2014. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Dr. Richard Enelow explains to Alan Graves that the abnormality in his lung has shrunk since his first scan, ruling out a lung cancer diagnosis, during and appointment at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center on Dec. 18, 2014. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Alan Graves was invited by his landlord to use a table left by another tenant in the Goddard Block in Claremont, N.H., on Feb. 4, 2014. Dave Guica, right, an acquaintance Alan invited to see his new place, held the door. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Alan Graves was invited by his landlord to use a table left by another tenant in the Goddard Block in Claremont, N.H., on Feb. 4, 2014. Dave Guica, right, an acquaintance Alan invited to see his new place, held the door. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • In an effort to keep the air in his apartment more fresh, Alan Graves smokes in the bathroom in Claremont, N.H., on March 5, 2014. Alan has tried to cut back on smoking since being diagnosed with COPD earlier this winter. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    In an effort to keep the air in his apartment more fresh, Alan Graves smokes in the bathroom in Claremont, N.H., on March 5, 2014. Alan has tried to cut back on smoking since being diagnosed with COPD earlier this winter. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Relieved and restless after getting hired as a gas station cashier, Alan Graves steps outside the store to reflect on Jan. 24, 2014. <br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • After six months without work, Alan Graves, of Claremont, N.H., was hired by Gordon Bradstreet of Hidden Field Fir Farm to help at his Christmas Tree stand in Claremont in December 2013. Graves traded the majority of his work time to buy a Christmas tree for his friend Vanessa Parkinson, second from left, her son Austin Oakes, 6, middle, and her boyfriend Jeremie Washburn, right, while they were going through hard financial times. on Dec. 8, 2013.<br/> (Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • In December 2013, Alan Graves began helping take out the trash and clean up at the Shell gas station on Washington Street, where he spent time to get out of the cold and had come to know the staff. <br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Vanessa Parkinson welcomes Alan Graves to her apartment and notices his haircut and beard trim in Claremont, N.H., on Jan. 24, 2014. At the prospect of getting hired at the gas station he frequented, he went to the barber to clean up his appearance before filling out his formal paperwork.<br/> (Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Alan Graves laughs with his co-workers, from left, manager Heidi Lorquet,  Tracey Serbian, Sadie Pellerin and Marissa Bentley during a smoke break at a Claremont, N.H., gas station on Jan. 27, 2014. "We're a big old family here," said Lorquet, and added about Alan, "I'm glad he's got good humor with all he's been through." (Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Alan Graves moves his belongings in a shopping cart to his new apartment on Pleasant Street in Claremont, N.H., on Feb. 4, 2014. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Alan Graves gives Jeremie Washburn a taste of steak while hosting Washburn, Austin Oakes, right, and Oakes' mother Vanessa Parkinson at his apartment in Claremont, N.H., on March 5, 2014. <br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Alan Graves takes in the surroundings of his camp before going to spend the night in his newly rented apartment eight months after becoming homeless in Claremont, N.H., on Feb. 4, 2014. <br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Alan Graves rises early in his tent and fills a more portable bottle with soda in preparation for his first day of work at Shell in Claremont, N.H., on Jan. 27, 2014. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Alan Graves heads out from his camp in the woods behind a Washington Street store with supplies to give to other homeless individuals and families in Claremont, N.H., on Jan. 16, 2014. <br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Alan Graves shows off a quarter he found while taking out the trash to manager Heidi Lorquet on his first day of work at Shell in Claremont, N.H., on Jan. 27, 2014. It would be two weeks until he received his first paycheck, and his unemployment insurance was drying up while he still lived in a tent. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Alan Graves has a near miss with a driver accelerating onto Washington Street in Claremont, N.H., on a layer of slick snow on Dec. 16, 2013. Alan's only transportation is walking or getting rides from friends. <br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Dr. Richard Enelow explains to Alan Graves that the abnormality in his lung has shrunk since his first scan, ruling out a lung cancer diagnosis, during and appointment at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center on Dec. 18, 2014. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Alan Graves was invited by his landlord to use a table left by another tenant in the Goddard Block in Claremont, N.H., on Feb. 4, 2014. Dave Guica, right, an acquaintance Alan invited to see his new place, held the door. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • In an effort to keep the air in his apartment more fresh, Alan Graves smokes in the bathroom in Claremont, N.H., on March 5, 2014. Alan has tried to cut back on smoking since being diagnosed with COPD earlier this winter. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

Go to www.vnews.com/alanschallenge for all of the stories and photographs in this series.

Claremont — Alan Graves was unemployed and living in a tent in the woods behind the stores on Washington Street in December when he got the chance to play Santa Claus.

He hadn’t held a paying job since June 2013, but when he heard that a friend who had helped him out lost her own job and might not have the money for a Christmas tree, he took action.

He walked from his camp to Washington Street, where Gordon Bradstreet of Hidden Field Fir Farm in Plainfield had set up a tree stand for the holiday season. Alan asked if there might be a tree of lesser quality that he could get a deal on for a friend.

“I assured him that as I went through my shipment of Christmas trees I might find something that was a little ‘Charlie Brownish,’ or maybe a little bit damaged on one side that I could certainly let him have,” Bradstreet said.

“As I thought about it for a little bit I said, instead of him paying out of his pocket for the Christmas tree, why didn’t he just come down here on a busy afternoon and give me a couple hours labor and the Christmas tree would happen, and that’s the way it went down.”

Alan dove into the work, hustling to replace trees as they were sold, keeping them free of ice and snow.

On Dec. 8, after a couple of days of work, Alan invited his friend, Vanessa Parkinson, her son, Austin Oakes, 6, and her boyfriend, Jeremie Washburn, to come to Bradstreet’s shop and pick out a tree.

Alan was happy to have been able to help Parkinson, who used to work with him at Herb Thyme Farms in Claremont before the herb-packing company moved to New Jersey and who, when she discovered that he was living outside, had allowed him to wash up at her apartment.

We watched the family walk away, the young boy beaming, his mother and her boyfriend nearly hidden by the boughs of the tall fir tree. “I just had my Christmas,” Alan told me. “What else can you ask for, to give a 6-year-old a Christmas tree that they might not have had?”

In addition to a holiday glow, Alan also was left with roughly $20 to keep for himself, and an offer from Bradstreet to continue working at the tree stand as Christmas neared and more customers came in.

Major Obstacles Remain

I met Alan last June, shortly before his 51st birthday, while on a photo assignment for the Valley News. Over the course of that summer, Alan had challenged me many times to tell the story of the people who are struggling in Claremont, living in the woods along the river, trying to find work and to support families. In the Dec. 1, 2013, Sunday Valley News, I tried to tell Alan’s story, hoping the details of his own struggle with homelessness would help illustrate the challenges so many others face as the effects of the Great Recession linger. (See www.vnews.com/alanschallenge.)

By now, I knew Alan well enough to see he was happy and enjoying himself working for Bradstreet. But I couldn’t help but think of the obstacles remaining before him: finding steady, long-term work and a safe place to live, getting his drinking and smoking under control, and most important, getting to the bottom of the lung problem that had him coughing up blood .

He also had to confront the reality that sharing his story would confirm to others that he was indeed homeless. He had to face the shame he felt that kept him from asking for help even from his own family and friends. “The problem is, some of the people (who read the story) are in the situation I was in,” he said. “They don’t want everybody to know (they’re homeless) because people look at you a little different.”

After the December story appeared, many people offered him help — jobs, places to stay, money. Any donations that came his way he referred to the Claremont Soup Kitchen, Southwestern Community Services and His Helping Hands of Claremont, three organizations he felt had helped him and could distribute the gifts properly.

“I was shocked when I saw the paper,” he said. “I didn’t go and start this with you to try and get something for nothing,” he said. “That’s not why I did it.”

Only a few of the offers for a place to stay came through, and most of those were from people who already knew him. “You know, last night I was down at the Shell station and a kid that works at Dunkin’ Donuts and knows Vanessa (Parkinson) went walking by. He says, ‘Hey Alan,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, do I know you?’ He says, ‘No, but I saw you in the paper. If it gets cold and you need some place to stay at night, let me know.’ ”

Alan received several other offers of lodging. Some were for a few days, or until he had a job and could afford rent. Others were in exchange for work to be done for the would-be landlord. Alan refused to sleep inside for just a night or two, reasoning that it would be even harder to sleep out in the cold after a short respite. Offers of longer-term arrangements never amounted to anything.

Neither did the job interviews he was offered, and that’s what he really wanted — not a favor, but a job that would allow him to rent his own apartment on his own terms. It was about more than pride. Alan’s unemployment insurance of $60 a week was set to expire just before Christmas, and a federal extension of the benefit was uncertain.

And then there was the issue of the worrisome shadows that showed up on his chest X-ray.

A ‘Looming Apprehension’

After last fall’s coughing episode in his smoky camp, doctors at Valley Regional Hospital told him he had a respiratory infection and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. He also got a chest X-ray that showed a large irregularity.

He was given antibiotics to fight the lung infection, and his health had improved some. He had cut back on his drinking, for the cost of beer as much as for his health, and he planned to quit smoking.

But he still had a follow-up appointment with a specialist at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center — an appointment he knew could result in a cancer diagnosis.

He was feeling better. Transportation to Lebanon was a problem. He had rescheduled several times. The appointment was nearly forgotten.

Then, in late November or early December, while getting a flu shot at the clinic in the Claremont Soup Kitchen, he met Erik Andrews and Christine Breuer, students at the Geisel School of Medicine. They learned about Alan’s condition and that he had not yet gone for his follow-up appointment.

“We were worried,” Andrews said.

The pair made arrangements for Alan to see a financial counselor at DHMC, found a slot in the Imaging Department’s busy schedule, and contacted a lung specialist for a consultation.

Andrews, a second-year student at Geisel, recalls getting the sense that “this looks really serious” from the tone of the doctors he spoke with. And as he considered that the biggest barrier to Alan getting quality care was finding a ride from Claremont to Lebanon, he thought “How stupid.”

“How stupid would that be if you can get a $10,000 scan, but you can’t get a lift? If that was the missing link …”

A couple of weeks later, Andrews and Breuer picked Alan up on Washington Street, near his camp, at about 5 a.m. On the quiet ride north, Andrews remembers a “looming apprehension.”

By 6 a.m., Alan was in a gown and on his way to have a PET scan, a procedure that would give doctors a more detailed look at the mass found during the earlier CT scan at Valley Regional.

When he returned from the scan (“I’m radioactive so you might want to stay away,” Alan joked) Andrews and Breuer brought him to the hospital’s financial office, where he registered for Medicaid and charmed financial counselor Kasaundra Landon.

With his tests and other business complete, there was nothing left to do but wait to see the pulmonologist, Dr. Richard Enelow. If Enelow found that the mass had grown, there was a chance Alan could be scheduled for a biopsy that day to determine if it was cancer.

They filled the waiting room silence with conversation.

They talked about Alan’s time in the military. They talked about the upcoming Christmas holiday. Andrews talked about a speech he had to give soon at a wedding. Alan gave him advice and assured him that he would do well.

“We were making conversation beyond the elephant in the room,” Andrews said, “what his results would be.”

Eventually, Alan was called into an exam room. Enelow followed soon after. They exchanged greetings, and Enelow opened his laptop computer to display a scan of Alan’s lungs. He pointed out a light circle in the right lung. It was quiet as Enelow compared the older scan with the one taken that day. Soon, Enelow reached his conclusion: The mass had shrunk. Alan had an infection that had responded to the antibiotics. His chronic obstructive pulmonary disease was irreversible, but mild.

He did not have cancer.

Enelow asked Alan to return for a follow-up appointment to monitor the infection and discuss smoking cessation.

“It’s pretty unusual for (the mass detected on the scans) to turn out negative (for cancer),” Enelow told me. Alan, he said, was a “lucky guy.”

Andrews and Breuer were waiting anxiously for Alan to return.

“He played it so cool,” said Andrews. “On the ride back it was great; it was euphoric.”

“Words cannot express how incredible that day was,” Andrews said. “Alan’s happiness spread through all of us, and he certainly put things into perspective for me and reminded me of why I went into medicine in the first place.”

“Wicked good news today. I think it’s going to be a good Christmas,” Alan said to me as we walked back to his camp. “I figured it was going to be cancer and they’d probably want to do a biopsy. You know how my feelings were about going to the hospital. I didn’t want to go, but I promised somebody I knew that I would. So, now I’m glad I did.”

“So, it was a good day. Very good day,” he repeated.

In camp, he sat down and began packing tobacco into a small cigarette roller.

“I’m quitting smoking,” he said. “Every time I turned around I was lighting a cigarette. I’ve been cutting back. I’m smoking roughly six a day now instead of a pack, a pack and a half.”

With the threat of cancer lifted, Alan turned his attention to the more immediate concerns of finding work and staying warm.

He had to get to the Claremont office of New Hampshire Employment Security for a workshop on applying for federal extended unemployment benefits.

Before making the walk down Washington Street, he stopped at the Shell station and convenience store where he often went to use the bathroom, get a cup of coffee and shoot the breeze with the employees.

‘I Start Monday’

Alan had started spending more time at the Shell station as the weather turned colder. The staff came to know him by name and were welcoming. They had allowed him to fill his water bottles there during the summer.

In mid-December, as a favor to the store’s staff, Alan began to take out the trash. Over the next month, the favor became a routine, and when seasonal employees returned to school and a part-time employee quit, the store’s manager, Heidi Lorquet, offered Alan a job.

“Sometimes he does more work than my employees do,” she joked, “so I should at least be paying him to do it.”

“I got a job, and I start Monday,” Alan told me. It would be part-time work at a low wage, but it was still more than he remembers making during his time at BJ Brickers last year. “I can’t wait. See, I’m fidgety already,” he said. “I’m going to go outside and have a cigarette … to celebrate.”

He imagined what Sunday night at his camp in the woods would be like. “Pacing, making sure my clothes are all set and clean. Trying to keep some water from freezing so I can brush my teeth and shave. Get up early … and take a deep breath. And thank God on the way in that I got a job to go to.”

At 7:30 that Monday morning, Alan sat on the edge of his mattress pouring soda from a two-liter bottle into a smaller bottle to carry with him to work. The orange glow of a propane heater illuminated his tent.

“I got a busy schedule today,” he said. “Working. … I’m going to stop at Vanessa’s, brush my teeth, get some cereal, go over there, get a coffee. Be early. That would have sucked wouldn’t it? Being late my first day?”

It had been a sleepless night, as he anticipated, but also encouraging. “Anxious, you know? It feels good to actually have something to do.”

“I might still be outside, but I’m not a bum anymore.”

Alan arrived at the Shell station well before the start of his shift. He bought a coffee and killed time by walking up Washington Street, reminiscing.

“I met her at the Shell station (in Milford, N.H.) and now here I am,” he said of his second wife, Linda, who died in 2009 after a struggle with cancer. “Years later, (I’m) working at a Shell station. She’s probably up there laughing, or saying. ‘Well, at least he’s getting paid for it now.’ ”

“The last place I ever thought I’d work, OK, is at a Shell station.”

As we walked, he stopped at several ashtrays to look for partially smoked cigarette butts. He found a few and put them in his pocket. Later, he would break them open and use the tobacco to roll his own cigarettes.

It would still be a couple of weeks until payday, he reminded me.

Back at the gas station, Lorquet gave him a new T-shirt with the company logo, had him punch in and set him to work taking out the trash. Alan found a quarter resting just inside the lip of one can and happily pocketed it before tying up the bag. Lorquet showed him how to set up the coffee station, then he stocked the beverage case, and later began wiping down the shelves.

He worked enthusiastically, until one task gave him pause: collecting and disposing of bottles of milk that were set to expire the following day.

“This is going to kill me,” he said. “Dumping that stuff out, just throwing it away.”

He knew people who would be happy to have the milk, even if it’s just a day away from its sell-by date. It’s still good, he said, and the shelter or the soup kitchen would be able to use it.

“That’s going to be my next mission now,” he said.

By the end of February, Alan had made arrangements to take some of the milk that would otherwise go to waste to the Claremont Soup Kitchen.

These days, Alan has been trained to open and close the store, and he continues to add hours to his schedule.

“He’s just a great all-around employee,” coming to the job willing to learn and wanting to work, said Lorquet. “He’d probably work seven days a week if I’d let him.”

Co-worker Sadie Pellerin, 22, taught Alan how to use the cash register on his first day. “He fits right in with us, and he’s a hard worker,” she said. “Honestly, it was basically like he worked there anyway when he was a customer ’cause he was just there so much,” she said. “He was always asking us if we needed help with anything, trying to help us. … And my boss saw that, and she didn’t really hesitate at all to hire him.”

Pellerin also praised his attitude. “We didn’t look at him as like the homeless guy or anything because he basically didn’t want to be perceived that way. … But even when he wasn’t working and didn’t have anywhere to live, that didn’t bring him down at all, and he was still very positive. And he’s still the most positive person I know. Even though he didn’t have anything, really.”

Getting the Keys

On Jan. 24, Alan went to Southwestern Community Services to break the news about his job. He was given $10 for a haircut and a phone card and was told to come back to talk about getting some help finding a place to live.

After getting his hair cut, the barber refused to take payment.

That day he filled out some paperwork and began calling around for apartments. Between making calls from the Subway sandwich shop inside the Shell station, Alan fantasized about the coming changes.

“I’m not going to know what to do,” he joked. “I’m going to end up having to set up a tent in an apartment, just so I can undo the zipper.”

He imagined how much he would need to pay for electricity “Forty degrees, I’m going to be sweating. … People will come and visit and say, ‘What the heck, it’s cold in here.’ And I’ll be walking around in shorts and a T-shirt.”

He thought about being able to shave every day, about his regular work schedule. “Can’t explain the feeling,” he said. “I just don’t know how to explain it.”

And he thought about a friend.

“I think the worst thing I’m going to miss out of the whole thing is Rocky,” he said.

Back in the summer, Alan had begun feeding little bits of oatmeal pies to a young raccoon that came into his camp. He named it Rocky, and each time Alan had to change the camp’s location, Rocky would follow, looking for treats. Eventually, in the colder months, Rocky would come for the oatmeal pies, and then stay to sleep in the warmth of Alan’s tent.

The raccoon was one of the most reliable relationships Alan had while living in the woods. He vowed to return to the camp often to visit the animal. “At least I’ll know if he’s still alive if he’s over there eating.”

Less than two weeks later, I met Alan in Opera House Square.

“I got the keys today,” he said, shaking his key ring in the air.

Southwestern Community Services had agreed to help him pay a security deposit and the first month’s rent on an apartment in the Goddard Block on Pleasant Street. Alan took me to a small set of rooms on the second floor of the building. He had a huge smile on his face.

“Four hundred and fifteen bucks a month for one, two, three, four — four rooms — and a closet — with coat hangers. How can you beat it? With running water and a toilet.”

Alan wasted no time beginning to furnish the place. An acquaintance who lived in a nearby apartment gave him a bed, and Alan went to Baby Steps, at Trinity Church, which helps people coming out of transitional housing, to get curtains for his windows. While there, he showed volunteer Sherrea Dow a photograph of his camp. “That’s the apartment I’m moving out of,” he said.

Alan would move as many of his belongings out of his tent as he could over the next two days. A January thaw had caused a river of ice to form under his camp, freezing tents and chairs to the ground. Moving those items would have to wait until sustained warm weather.

He was thrilled with his new apartment’s modern comforts — “Officially electricity’s in my name Thursday. I called ’em and did that today” — and couldn’t wait to use the amenities.

“Their water bill’s going to go up, though, the next day or two, when I’m taking five showers a day,” he joked. “You know what the cool part is? Built-in hooks by my door. First thing I did, took my coats off, I hung ’em up.”

“I made it buddy. I made it.”

He reported his new income to aid agencies and his food stamps were reduced. He hopes eventually to be paying 100 percent of his rent by himself. His emotions were mixed, though. This was a sudden change to a life he had worked hard to maintain, a shift away from some small things in which he took comfort while living outside.

Then came Friday, Feb. 7.

“It’s a good day, and it’s a bad day,” he said. “I’m going to spend Friday here during the day, I think, because it’s the seventh.” Linda, Alan’s second wife, succumbed to cancer on Feb. 7, 2009. “It’s the day my wife passed away, and this is probably going to be the first year it’s not going to beat the hell out of me,” he said, in part because he’d finally found a better home, like he’d promised her.

“It’s been a long road,” he said. “She’s probably smiling right now, saying ‘I knew you could do it.’ And I didn’t let her down. That’s a biggie. When you make a promise you’ve got to keep it. So it’s a big deal. Told her it’d be OK.

“I got me back,” he said. “So in that case it was worth it. I don’t think I’ve had me since she passed away, till now. … I might even make homemade shells and cheese. That used to be her favorite dinner.”

In March there was another dinner in his new apartment. This one featured steak and potatoes and included Parkinson, his friend from Herb Thyme, and her family.

“It was so good,” Parkinson said. “He can cook. I didn’t think he could but he can.”

Parkinson said Alan loves his new job and his new place and is confident things have turned around for him. “As long as he’s saving up that rent money he shouldn’t have an issue,” she said. “I think he makes enough money, has enough hours, that he could definitely be OK.”

She credited Alan’s shift in focus — from helping himself to helping others, the way he helped her get a Christmas tree — for the turnaround in his life.

“I think he tried … for a very long time to focus on himself, and it just wasn’t getting anywhere for him. … Like it was just depressing him, making him upset. And as soon as he switched gears and started focusing toward everybody else, you know, and trying to help everybody else, everything just fell into place for him. … I think by helping other people he figured out how to help himself.”

Alan thought about the loyalty of those who helped him begin to pull the pieces of his life back together.

He thought of Parkinson, and how their paths crossed at a time when they both needed support. “She helped me get through, and it was a two-way street, you know?” He thought of his friend at Southwestern Community Services who told him you can’t help everybody. “And I figured you could. You can’t. They have to want it too.” He thought of the Claremont police he encountered while walking the fine line between trespassing and trying to survive out of the public eye. “I have a whole lot more respect for them after what I’ve gone through here,” he said. “They … very easily could have came in the middle of the night or 5 o’clock in the morning and told me I had an hour to move. But they didn’t, you know, so I’ve gained a lot of respect for them, too.”

And then he looked to his future.

“There’s challenges ahead, but it’s going to be different challenges,” he said.

“I don’t think I’ll ever be out of the woods.”

James M. Patterson can be reached at jpatterson@vnews.com or 603-727-3249.

Related

Part One: Alan’s Challenge

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Go to www.vnews.com/alanschallenge for all of the stories and photographs in this series. ∎ The Challenge 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. …

Series Page: Alan's Challenge

Thursday, April 17, 2014

After eight months of living in a tent behind Washington Street, a Claremont man's life has begun to turn around. Valley News staff photographer James M. Patterson met Alan Graves in June 2012 and has been following his story ever since. Read Patterson's articles and view his photos at the links below. …