Larry dries out

by Brian Clarey

The call comes from Cotton while I drain my third or fourth morning coffee. “Hey man,” she says. Forlorn. It’s how she gets sometimes.

“Hey man, you remember my friend Larry?” I do. Like Cotton, Larry’s spent more than a decade on the street.

Unlike Cotton, Larry’s fondness for cheap wine crossed into addiction territory a long time ago. The residents of the Freeman Mill Homeless Camp hung upon him the mantle of “problem child” when I wrote about them in the fall. No fair-weather friend, she, Cotton tries to spin the nickname.

“That could apply to most of us out here,” she tells me. Like most predicaments in which my homeless friends find themselves embroiled, this one is thin on details and, on its surface, seems easily resolved to someone with even the most rudimentary resources like a car and a phone. Larry’s coming off a four-day detox stint in Wesley Long Hospital, and it’s possible he’s been dismissed a bit too early. He’s been lying down in the parking lot behind Greensboro Urban Ministry all morning, Cotton says.

“I think he’s gonna die out here,” she tells me. What he needs — in the short term, anyway — is some medical attention. His long-term needs make for a much more extensive list.

I’ve gotten calls like this before. And there’s really only one thing you can do.

I make it out to Urban Ministry after a shameful period of time has elapsed and find Cotton sitting on the curb, her wheelchair parked behind her. Larry’s sitting there next to her, one thoroughly messed-up American, and another friend, David, looks on.

“You have anything to drink today?” I ask Larry, because that’s what you do at times like this. Larry shakes his head.

“You’re lying to this man,” David says. “Why you doing that? He’s here to help you.”

I don’t take it personally. Alcoholics lie. And I already knew the answer to the question anyway. There’s really only one thing that readily quells the booze shakes, and that’s another drink.

“He needs to get to the hospital, man,” Cotton tells me. So I load the guy into my car and make the drive down Friendly Avenue.

Larry doesn’t talk much, not about himself, anyway. I get from him that he’s originally a Virginian, that he’s still got some family up there he hasn’t seen in a damn long time, that he’s been in Greensboro since 1989, on the street at least 10 years and that his drink of choice is Wild Irish Rose fortified wine.

His hands tell the rest of the story, wrinkled and gnarled things with blood blisters on the webbing at his thumbs. Prison tattoos are inked on cracking skin — a cross on his right hand, a spider and a star on his left, a mottled Zig-Zag man a little further up — and his fingernails are utterly, irrevocably destroyed. They look like crusty, yellow scabs.

We park, and as we walk to the ER I notice his habit of walking a few steps behind me. I adjust my stride so that we walk shoulder to shoulder. I don’t know why I do this, but it seems important. At the admitting desk, I explain the situation while Larry puts his vitals on a small card with a golf pencil: Larry Smith, 58 — no phone, no address, no regular doctor and his symptoms are self-evident. I get him a bag of Cheetos from the vending machine and we take our seats.

There’s an episode of “Everybody Loves Raymond” running on the TV — Raymond’s ditched the family vacation to play golf, and there’s some controversy over chocolate sauce. For Larry, I’m thinking, this show takes place in an alternate universe. There is very little here to which he can relate.

He watches and chews in silence. “I watched Larry go downhill really bad this last year,” Cotton tells me. “He’s been my neighbor for like a year or more. For some reason — don’t ask me — we just have this love in our hearts. If I have to sit here and watch this guy die out here… I don’t know. It’s killing me watching him die like this.”

The alcoholism is both critical element of and overwhelming obstacle to Larry’s life on the street. Realistically speaking, he’s not going to be quitting drinking anytime soon — guy just needs a place to dry out for a few days before getting back to the business of circling the drain.

“He doesn’t give a damn sometimes,” Cotton tells me, “but look at the reasons why. What does this man have to live for besides a miserable death?” Back at the emergency room, a pretty blonde nurse takes Larry’s vitals: blood pressure 163 over 86, 12 days without a drink — or so he says, his stomach pain an eight out of a possible 10.

She takes him down the hall, and I watch as he shuffles around a corner. No doubt they’ll route him up to an IV, get him rehydrated and maybe hook him up with a little of the ol’ Atavan drip. Larry’s gonna have a long afternoon and night. And I have done what I can, I guess. There is one less thimbleful of water in the ocean, one less man shivering his way to sleep tonight. And tomorrow is another day.