URINE PLAZA AND THE LOTTERY DEATH SENTENCE
by Todd Hartley
Living in a small town in the mountains, as I do, I suppose I was less aware of the homelessness problem in America than I should have been. I mean, there are street corners around here where you expect to see panhandlers every day, but that’s about it. They tell me homelessness is a problem in our little valley, but it’s really not in your face that much.
Let me put it this way: Living here has rendered me ill-prepared for what I saw in San Francisco when I got off the Muni at the Civic Center stop at 6 p.m. a couple of weeks ago and walked upstairs to U.N. Plaza.
Holy tap-dancin’ platypus, Batman!
I am absolutely not kidding when I say it was me and about 800 homeless people. I looked up “U.N. Plaza” on the Internet later and read reviews like: “There’s always a flock of druggies, crazies and homeless people here,” “I can only say BEWARE!!” and “Usually I avoid Urine Plaza.”
OK, then. So I beat feet out of there and caught a bus toward Geary Street, where I was meeting friends. A stop later, a young guy — skinny and about 5-foot-4 — came aboard with a big backpack, looking liked he hadn’t showered in a while. He took a seat in the back, near me, and after a minute’s silence he started to mutter to himself loudly enough that I was sure he intended me to hear it.
“Gonna get my knife and chop up a whole lot of people into a whole lot of pieces,” he said. I’m paraphrasing, but you get the idea.
It left me wondering if he was really that crazy or if, at his size, he’d had to invent some kind of scary, crazy persona to survive on the streets. I guessed it was the latter. He has to do what he has to do, I suppose, but live that way for long enough and he just might start believing the things he mutters aloud.
He looked, to me, like a kid with a drug problem who just needed someone to take an interest in his life and give him a chance to get back on his feet. But then I always assume that a homeless person, if given a boost, will seek to better his or her station. Evidently, though, that’s not always what happens.
Oddly enough, here in Aspen we find ourselves presented with a perfect test case of exactly that scenario right now. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but a homeless guy in Aspen just won $500,000 in the lottery. It’s kind of turning into a big national thing as I write this.
The morning the story ran in the local paper, I sat down for breakfast with a buddy of mine and he commented on it.
“Did you see this?” he said. “It’s almost kind of sad, though. He’ll be dead in a year.”
I asked what he meant, and he told me that he knows the homeless guy, who grew up in Aspen and has been living on the streets for about a decade, and the guy’s an incorrigible alcoholic and will use his lottery winnings to drink himself to death.
I thought about that for a second, and then I looked at the guy’s picture on the front page. He looked like he had half a brain in his head despite his circumstances — enough, certainly, to realize that the money could save his life.
And then I realized it doesn’t matter because his story, which is rife with irony and undertones of class privilege, is worth enough that someone was probably getting their hooks into that homeless guy to milk him for all the book, TV and movie rights they could even as I was thinking it.
“No chance,” I said. “Someone will take an interest in keeping him alive at least that long.”
We bet a breakfast on it, and then my friend said, “You may be right, but as soon as the money dries up, he could be in big trouble. He needs someone to manage his life. You should do it. You should tell his story.”
“I can’t manage my own life,” I said. “I couldn’t do it.”
“I could,” said my friend, who owns and manages a company.
“Do it, then,” I said. “Save his life. Earn your angel wings this holiday season.”
He thought about that for a while and spoke: “But then I’d owe you breakfast.”
Todd Hartley had a burrito. His friend had some gloopy-looking stuff from the hot bar.