To the editor:
A few weeks ago, a friend I knew for many years died. He was a character, and looked a little like a lost member of ZZ Top. Like Johnny Cash, he always dressed in black. He did odd jobs around the neighborhood and never drank. He was a good listener but had his own opinions. He always knew best, and sometimes this rubbed people the wrong way, and they stopped trying to help him. But he had a lot of friends.
For years he did not want to take handouts, but wanted to work. He knew bricklaying and did great work, even though he might spend more time discussing how it should be done than doing it. He once suggested digging a trench across my basement after noticing it was flooded, but thankfully before I let him rip up the concrete, I had my sump pump checked and learned that it needed to be replaced, not the line beneath the concrete floor.
One of the last times I paid him money to sweep the steps to the same basement, he took the money and said he could come back in a couple days to do the work. In retrospect, he was probably hungry.
As you might guess, my friend was homeless. He wasn’t entirely homeless, as one of his closest friends let him build a shed in her backyard with plywood another friend gave him. A neighbor next door let him use an outlet for a heater and the TV another friend gave him.
He did work with a wheelbarrow one friend gave him and used tools another friend took him to Home Depot to buy. For years, he used the laundry room in my basement, sometimes to sleep in on cold nights. The tenants in my apartment were the ones who asked if it was OK if he slept downstairs.
Unfortunately, our friend John White died, reportedly of heart failure and cellulitis that prevented him from taking some of the medications he needed. At his memorial service, which we held at the Wine Gallery on Patrick Street, we learned how yet another friend from Sugar House had gotten him to quit smoking, and that they had discovered he was Amish from near Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
A local law office helped him get an identification. Police detectives are still searching for relatives. Local social services were not as helpful as the Alexandria Police Department. The week before he died, he was hallucinating and it was clear he probably had an undiagnosed mental illness, and it was police officers who tried to convince him to get help.
One of the employees at Misha’s told me how he had improved over the years, from being angry and holding a tinfoil covered piece of cardboard over his face so he could not be filmed by cell phones, to becoming a kinder person. I would like to think that was because of the community of support around him.
One of the officers who tried to help him came to the memorial service. We all thought we had not done enough for him but collectively we had helped him in many ways to survive, and if we had joined forces and known about each other we might have been able to do more. We should all think of others around us who need our help.
That is partly why I am telling this story. John White was born at home, home schooled, probably never finished school, left an abusive home life and had no family. He was a good person who cared for animals, nature and other people. He also could be prejudiced, especially against other homeless people, and he would not go to a shelter.
I think he showed that despite everything that divides us, and those who purposely try to divide us, there is always more that unites us, like our humanity. Something to think about this holiday season.
-Boyd Walker, Alexandria