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Alone, unknown, unforgotten

Published September 4, 2005

I was with him for only about an hour a long time ago, but I can't forget him. The physical details have faded, but the emotional memory is indelible. I wish I could remember his name.

While a young patrolman, I answered a routine "check welfare" call at the YMCA in downtown Phoenix. He had checked into the room two days earlier, giving an address in another state. The cleaning lady said that when she came to clean the day before, she saw him on the floor, drunk. When she came back 24 hours later he was still in the same position.

If he had been on the bed, it might have looked like he was sleeping. He was lying on his right side, his face resting on the old brown linoleum. His right arm looked like it was reaching for some invisible object, and his left hand was tight against his chest. Underneath was a puddle of urine. It was easy to believe he was simply another drunk, except that there were no empty bottles, no cigarette butts, no smelly mess.

The man and his last home were alike - austere, neat and clean, but showing the signs of wear. There were no decorations, no curtains and no pictures of loved ones. Only a small bed stood against the wall behind him, and a tiny desk, chair and chest of drawers were at his feet.

He had placed a battered old wallet on the desk. Inside, along with a few dollars, was an identification card recording that he was a door-to-door salesman for some obscure enterprise. Was his name Hungarian or Polish? The address was far away, and his date of birth said he should have been enjoying a quiet retirement - at home with grandchildren, maybe even great-grandchildren. The photograph was recent and made him look weary, yet his eyes, whatever they had seen, still seemed bright, and his face expressed hope. The edges of his small mouth were only slightly upturned, as they still were, and suggested a gentle nature.

He must have spent a long time in the thrift store, selecting his clothes. The wear and tear seemed as much from laundering as use. The tweed sport coat was long out of style and its fit exaggerated his frail appearance, but it was spotless and must have cost its original owner a few bucks. His trousers were beginning to shine, and the color didn't quite match the coat, but they still showed a sharp crease. His old oxfords, polished as well as their age would allow, had recently been resoled. These were the habits of a lifetime.

Inside the room's tiny closet was a small suitcase like one my mother had owned since the '30s, a few more clothes from the thrift store on hangers and an artist's easel. A rickety shelf held a wooden case full of tubes of paint and various sized brushes.

Waiting for the detectives, trying to imagine what his life had been, professional curiosity gave way to a feeling of sadness and loss. How had he come to spend his last hours alone in a place that provided so little comfort? After having traveled so long and so far, didn't he deserve some company?

When the detective finally came, I went on to the next call. This was just one incident out of a thousand.

Memories fade, but a few emotional recollections seem to grow stronger. Sometimes in a restaurant the scene of a table for one can cause an anxiety in me that's difficult to account for until I recall a man who was alone when he died.

- Bruce W. Gunia retired last year after more than 25 years as apolice officer and now lives in Belleair.

[Last modified September 2, 2005, 10:31:04]

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