Nonfiction by J. Malcolm Garcia
(Author's note: Names have been changed to protect privacy.)
About a year after Bill stabbed Johnny in the neck, Randy began
drinking again. I won’t blame Randy’s drinking on Bill, but he did change
Randy’s life and mine.
If Bill hadn’t stabbed Johnny, I wouldn’t have left the Ozanam Center
and Randy would not have been promoted to shelter director. The rest of
it, Randy’s ex getting sick, well, no one saw that coming any more than we
anticipated Bill cutting Johnny.
All of this happened more than 30 years ago, but here I am still living a
life undestroyed by the things that destroyed so many others, thankful I was
spared their problems but burdened all the same with loss and regret.
I met Randy two years after I moved to San Francisco and got a job
at the center. The center served homeless men and women, nearly all of
whom were alcoholics. It offered a drop-in space for them to spend time
during the day, an overnight shelter, and a 24-hour alcohol detox. Among
the staff and volunteers, I was the only one who had never been homeless
and who was not a recovering alcoholic.
Randy and I were intake counselors. He had recently graduated from
an alcoholism treatment program in Redwood City. He was 56 but his years
of drinking had not aged him. He had no lines to his face, no gray in his
blond hair. He smoked two packs of cigarettes a day. He had been married
and divorced three times and was seeing his first wife, Susan, an insurance
agent in Gilroy, again. They got together at her house on his days off.
Sometimes the three of us would catch a movie together.
On a Wednesday around five in the morning in November 1986, an
intake counselor downstairs admitted Bill and Johnny.
Their fat dog-eared files testified to the dozens of times Bill and Johnny
had been through detox. Bill stood about six feet tall. He always wore blue
jeans, a light brown leather jacket, and cowboy boots. His thinning black
hair tumbled over his forehead and a handlebar mustache framed his mouth.
He had a jailhouse walk, a kind of tight-assed, arched-back strut. He
walked with quick stiff strides, and he had an unpredictable temper. He
never looked at you when he spoke but past you, his glance curving around
the side of your face.
Johnny was the Mutt to Bill’s Jeff: a short, pudgy, and harmless
follower. He wore two wool shirts and a couple of pairs of pants at a time
no matter the weather, and a pair of sneakers. He smelled of campfires and
A counselor staffing the second floor detox asked Bill and Johnny if
they had anything they wanted locked up. Bill gave him some change and a
radio held together with duct tape. The counselor wrote Bill’s name on a
piece of paper, stuck it to the radio, put it inside a closet, and locked the
doors. He then assigned them beds. A few people in the dormitory knew
Bill and Johnny and greeted them in hoarse voices that creaked out of their
throats like the strained barking of old dogs.
An hour later Bill asked to check out. The liquor stores on Sixth Street
had begun to open. Bill asked for his radio. The counselor gave it to him
and Bill left, Johnny following behind him.
They walked four blocks to Sixth Street, San Francisco’s skid row,
and pooled their money. The damp, soiled air laced with car exhaust and the
odor of human funk held an acrid taste that clung to Fred’s Liquor Store as
they entered it. As Johnny told me later, they bought two fifths of
Thunderbird wine, wandered over to the Bryant Street overpass, and drank.
Johnny closed his eyes. He thought of those National Geographic specials
he had watched in the Salvation Army shelter a couple of weeks before, of
rushing rivers going into canyons, curving around rocks, all foaming and
splashing and he opened his eyes and realized he had pissed himself. He told
Bill and Bill laughed. Johnny’s mood shifted and just like that he was furious.
He stood up, grabbed Bill’s radio, and made like he was about to throw it in
his face. Bill scrambled to his feet and balled his big hands into fists. He
moved on Johnny fast. For a moment Johnny couldn’t move. Then, still
clutching the radio and with Bill almost on top of him, Johnny screamed and
bolted back toward the center.
Two hours after Bill and Johnny left detox, I was standing at the front
door of the Center signing people in on a clipboard. I noticed Randy clock
in to work. Then Johnny barged through the front door screaming with a
radio clasped to his chest. I stepped back just as Bill ran in behind him and
threw him to the floor. He jerked Johnny onto his back and held him by the
throat. Johnny made squealing noises and rolled his head back and forth and
Bill swung his right arm back and I saw the pointed tip of a knife blade
sticking out from his hand.
“Give me my radio!” Bill shouted, and plunged the blade into the right
side of Johnny’s neck.
“I need backup!” I yelled.
A homeless guy with a shaved head ran toward me from the drop-in
and tackled Bill to the floor. I heard the approaching blare of sirens and
knew one of the intake workers had called the police. Two squad cars
pulled up outside. A cop stepped out of the lead cruiser and another cop
followed him inside. The first cop looked at Bill and the guy holding him.
He turned toward Johnny and saw the blood from his neck pooling on the
floor. The second cop applied gauze to the wound. The first cop called for
an ambulance. Then he turned back to Bill. He saw the knife on the floor,
the thin blade sticking out from a handle wrapped in rubber bands.
“What happened?” he said.
“He stole my radio and I stabbed him, that’s it,” Bill said, so matter-of-
factly that he sounded almost reasonable.
The cop asked me and the guy holding Bill what we saw. As we
answered his questions, an ambulance parked behind the squad cars and two
medics walked in. The cop motioned with his chin toward Johnny. The
medics wrapped his neck with gauze, put him on a gurney and wheeled him
“OK,” the cop said to us.
He put away his notebook and picked up Bill’s knife and dropped it in
a plastic bag. He handcuffed Bill and took him outside. His partner followed
him. They didn’t bother with the radio. The guy who had tackled Bill asked
me if he could have it.
“Sure,” I said.
After the police and ambulance left, Randy and I walked to Civic
Center Plaza and bought coffee. I told him it bothered me that I hadn’t
tackled Bill like that guy did, that all I had done was yell for help.
Randy laughed. I must have seemed very young to him. A 26-year-old
who still judged himself by the rules of a playground. Randy was a middle-
aged man who could consider with clear eyes the many years of his life
wasted by booze and how far he had come a year into his recovery. He had
a job, an ex-wife willing to give him a second chance, and enough money
after rent for clothes, food, and a bus ticket to Santa Clara. He had nothing
more to prove.
Johnny stayed in the hospital two days. Bill had just missed an artery.
When he was discharged, Johnny asked for a taxi voucher and caught a cab
to the Ozanam Center. He spent his days playing pinochle with guys waiting
to get into detox. At night he helped set up the shelter with dozens of
exercise mats that served as beds. Illustrations of buxom women decorated
the mats and sometimes Johnny would trace one of the figures with a finger
and I wondered if he was thinking of an ex-girlfriend or an ex-wife or anyone
He left the center only to eat. He wasn’t drinking.
Two weeks after his discharge from the hospital, Johnny and I were
subpoenaed to testify at Bill’s trial, the summons served to us in the drop-in
center. Johnny testified first. I waited in the hall outside the courtroom and
looked through the crack in the door. Johnny sat on the right side of the
judge, hunched forward, pale and worried looking. I couldn’t hear him but
I saw the back of Bill’s head and the orange collar of his prison jumpsuit.
Then I took the stand. I described to a district attorney how Bill
wrestled Johnny to the floor and stabbed him. The public defender
representing Bill did not question me. The judge dismissed me and I stepped
down and walked around the desk where Bill sat. He drew a finger across
his throat and scratched at a mole as if he meant nothing by it.
He was sentenced to nine months in San Bruno County Jail.
I didn’t spend much time worrying about Bill. I had other things on my
mind. The center’s shelter director, John Staley, had open-heart surgery and
took a two-month leave of absence. The executive director of the St.
Vincent de Paul Society asked me to fill in for him. The Center, named after
a 16th century French social worker, was a program of the Society.
With little notice, I became responsible for a dozen shelter staff who
often didn’t show up for work or showed up drunk. John had tolerated their
behavior. A recovering alcoholic, he understood what I did not—that no
matter how big a group of screw-ups his staff might be, they weren’t on the
street because they had jobs. That counted for something. Not everyone,
John knew, attains the purest sobriety.
I, however, saw an opportunity. When a staff member came in late or
didn’t show up or stunk of alcohol, I fired him. No warning. You’re out.
By the end of my first week on the job, the shelter had an entirely new staff.
The executive director took notice, fired John, and asked me to take the
The executive director posted a job notice for social worker. I told
Randy to apply. Not long after my promotion, he was sitting at my old desk
helping some of the fired shelter staff apply for unemployment.
From my new office above the drop-in, I’d see Johnny playing pinochle
at a table near a stack of exercise mats in a corner. Guys hit him up for
change and cigarettes but he didn’t go with them to the liquor stores. He
rarely left the center. He felt better than he had in a long time, he told me,
but he no longer felt like himself. Something was absent. He didn’t know
what it was but he knew if he had a drink, he’d find it.
Bill completed his sentence in July 1988. When he was released he
caught a bus to San Francisco and walked to Sixth Street. That night, an
Ozanam Center counselor admitted him to detox.
The next morning, the executive director asked me to walk a new St.
Vincent de Paul board member through the center. I introduced him to the
intake counselors and some volunteers, including Johnny, who were serving
coffee. When I took the board member upstairs to the detox, I saw Bill
sitting at one of the tables. He had put on weight. The waxy whiteness of
his skin shone beneath the ceiling light. He noticed me and stood up. I
didn’t move. He pointed a finger at me. My heart beat fast in my throat.
“Bang,” he said.
After I walked the board member to his car, I hurried over to the coffee
bar and pulled Johnny aside.
“Bill’s out,” I told him.
“You seen him?”
“He’s in detox.”
I think at that moment Johnny experienced fear and relief. He had been
living in the center 24-7, avoiding the temptations of the world outside for
months. He must have known that one day, his refuge would be breached.
Maybe that had been his plan all along. Waiting for the breach. The trigger,
AA members call it. A reason to drink again.
Then again, he may have thought nothing like that. What I do know is
he walked out from behind the coffee bar and I never saw him again.
Seeing Bill made me consider my own options. Weeks earlier, the
executive director of Hospitality House, an agency the served homeless
adults and teenagers in the Tenderloin, asked me to apply for the position of
director of the Tenderloin Self-Help Center, a program he had developed to
help the homeless mentally ill. I had declined the offer because I had only
recently become the Ozanam shelter director.
The people who came to the center rarely ventured north of Market
Street into the Tenderloin, a gritty downtown neighborhood wedged between
tourist-friendly Union Square and City Hall. Dope fiends called the TL
home. Alcoholics stayed south of Market close to Sixth Street.
I knew I wouldn’t see Bill in the TL. I called the executive director of
Hospitality House and told him I’d take the job. He didn’t ask why I had
changed my mind. I gave my notice and encouraged Randy to apply for
shelter director. He considered the responsibility and the stress that would
come with it and where that stress might lead. But he applied and was hired.
“I’m ready for this,” he told me.
The stress that unraveled Randy did not come from work. Six months
after he became shelter director, Susan came down with what she thought
was stomach flu. She couldn’t keep food down. She experienced painful
spasms. Her doctor performed an upper endoscopy and made a diagnosis:
I imagine Randy and Susan on the couch in the living room of her house
that weekend, Randy absorbing the news. Evening. The curtains closed,
Susan crying. Two lamps on the end table, the dim glow of their yellow light
casting shadows. Nothing on the television. The distant drone of an airplane.
Cars passing by on the street. The odd creaks and groans of the house and
the low hum of cicadas penetrating the screened windows.
I try to picture Randy’s state of mind. He had drunk himself out of job
after job. As shelter director he earned just $22,000 a year. When he
turned 65, he knew he would receive next to nothing from Social Security.
He took Susan’s hand. She looked at him. He inhaled and said that
without her he would need something to fall back on. It wasn’t about the
money. It was about managing his life without her. He paused a long time
before he asked her to name him her beneficiary.
I can’t imagine her reaction, dying a slow, painful death, as aware as
Randy of the wasted years only more so now that she would have no future
with him to put those years deep into the past. And here Randy sat asking
her to take care of him beyond the grave. No, I can’t imagine. But I do
understand why she told him in a rising voice to leave her house. Now. Go
now, Randy. That’s all you have to say? How dare you! Get out!
He left for San Francisco that night.
The next morning Randy called me. He sounded out of breath and
panicked. He asked me to meet him at Geary Boulevard and Leavenworth
Street. When I got there, I saw him slouched against a bus shelter near a
liquor store. Mud smeared one side of his face and his disheveled clothes.
His breath reeked of booze. I stared at him. I had no words.
“Susan makes me so mad,” he said.
Without another word he left, lurching on and off the sidewalk as he
made his way south toward Market Street.
Susan died soon after Randy began drinking again. I looked for him,
even wandered Sixth Street praying I didn’t run into Bill. I called people he
knew. Nothing. Eventually, I gave up and tried putting him out of my mind.
I felt so naive. Randy had been a recovering alcoholic and carried all the
risks those two words conveyed each and every day. Among my clients, I
had seen many alcoholics graduate from treatment programs only to start
drinking again, but I had been unable to imagine Randy giving in to his own
impulses in the same way.
I never expected to see him again and I didn’t, but two years later he
called me at work. He said he had stopped drinking and had a job in a San
Jose homeless shelter. He was also engaged to a woman from Healdsburg,
a good three-hour drive north of San Jose. He stayed with her on his days
off. He suggested the three of us have dinner.
He spoke as if no time had elapsed and nothing out of the ordinary had
happened since we last saw one another, and that made me furious. Did it
occur to you that maybe, just maybe, your friends have been worried about
you? I wanted to say. Instead, I made excuses. No, I can’t see you this
weekend. No, next weekend is out too. I didn’t trust his sobriety. I didn’t
trust him. After a while, he stopped calling. Months passed. Then his
fiancée left a message. Randy’s two-pack-a-day smoking habit had caught
up with him. He had died of throat cancer.
I no longer work with homeless people. After years of writing and
editing the Tenderloin Self-Help Center’s monthly newsletter, I quit social
services for journalism. I like the detachment of reporting, of participating in
someone’s life one step removed. I sit across from the people I interview,
holding my notepad between us. I ask questions, jot down answers, and
write a story. I rarely see them again.
I hope Johnny stayed sober. I hope Bill quit drinking. I hope I have
the courage now to confront friends when they falter rather than avoid them.
I hope but have little belief that any of us change that much. I consider Bill,
Johnny, and Randy with an awareness I could not possibly have had when I
was at the Ozanam Center, a few years out of college and working with
people almost twice my age whose problems I did not share.
Unexpected moments remind me of that time. The other night, I saw a
man in a corduroy coat stained with bird shit pacing a sidewalk. He wore
shorts and work boots that didn’t match and no shirt. A bottle stuck out of
a torn pocket. He shifted from foot to foot and kept rubbing his hands
together against the cold. He asked passersby for change but no one
He was someone Randy and I would have admitted into detox back
when I was younger and I thought all the things that would trip us up later
only affected the people we wanted to help. Now, I stood on the corner and
watched him walk away.
As a social worker, J. Malcolm Garcia worked with homeless people in
San Francisco for fourteen years before he made the jump into journalism
in 1998. The tragedy of September 11th, 2001, gave him the opportunity to
work in Afghanistan. Since then he has written on Pakistan, Sierra Leone,
Chad, Haiti, Honduras, and Argentina among other countries. He is a
recipient of the Studs Terkel Prize for writing about the working classes and
the Sigma Delta Chi Award for excellence in journalism. His book, What
Wars Leave Behind, was released by the University of Missouri Press in
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Apple Valley Review:
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Volume 9, Number 2
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