Saturday, December 02, 2006

Assertiveness Training

Baltimore is a place of extremes. In the summer it is hot and humid. In the winter it is cold and damp. One cold winter’s day Tom, who was about 6’6” and built to carry it stumbled into the soup kitchen drunk out of his mind with a large puncture wound in his face just below the cheek bone. Our best bet was that he had fallen on something protruding out of the ground. We called an ambulance but he refused to go. He wanted a drink. Our demands on him to go to the hospital drove him out into the cold in search of drink.

It was weeks before we saw him again. When we did things were much worse. His cheek was huge and oozing. He was so drunk and he smelled. Years later I would know that as the smell of gangrene. A woman who I considered to be very strong who worked at the soup kitchen, Dee Dee was there. So was Richard who was taller than me. As he stumbled toward the three of us he raised his hand to his cheek and pressed against it and a huge gob of puss oozed out and fell on the floor. Dee Dee ran out of the room, I assume to puke. I was too shocked to be sick. It was decided that Richard and I would take Tom to the hospital and Dee Dee would run the kitchen. It was a long twelve block walk. It wasn’t the distance. It was the patient.

We had to talk him into staying with us the entire way. It was a struggle. In a fair fight Tom could kick both our asses stone cold sober or drunk as a skunk, which was exactly what he was. Somehow we managed to get him to the emergency room. The staff was not as pleased as you might think to see us but they took him relatively quickly into the area we were not allowed to be in.

About five minutes later Tom came cruising out the door, through the waiting room and out into the street. There was no stopping him and the staff said there was nothing they could do.

It was months before I saw Tom again. His cheek bone had been removed.

Later I somehow ended up being the “Overnight Coordinator” of the Salvation Army Temporary Overnight Emergency Shelter in Worcester, Massachusetts. To say the least, that is a mouthful. My job was fairly simple. I was to strip and wax the floor twice a week. I had to make sure that anyone who came in after lights out was not allowed upstairs (they had to sleep in a chair.) I had to pitch anyone out into the nearest snow bank if he entered the building with alcohol in his possession. I had to get people up in the morning and make sure they took a shower before going to bed.

It was a little more complicated than that but that was the general idea.

The problem is this simple plan relies on human beings to have no problems. People who habitually get up in the morning and look for the nearest drink do not fit this simple concept in any way.

The police, if they found someone drunk who had committed no crime would often just drop the poor guy off at our door, ring the bell and leave. One night they did just that. This guy comes in who looked like he had been beaten up. He had no jacket. According to the rules I had to make him sit in a chair to sleep. Easy. I put him in a chair and he went to sleep. The problem was he would not stay in the chair. I turned around and he had fallen on the floor. Like any good employee who follows the rules I picked him up and put him in the chair. Again he went down. Again I put him in the chair.

The third time he hit the floor so hard I heard it. We are talking tile on concrete. I realized that trying to get him into the chair again would only lead to him injuring himself. I also reasoned that if he was on the floor he had no place to fall. I got a blanket and covered him to keep him warm.

I was shortly thereafter informed that I would have to pull a double shift because my relief would not be coming in. Ok, I was not digging ditches here. All I had to do was keep order, make sure nobody drank inside the building and make lunch.

Except for the guy who was unable to sleep in the chair.

I had to wake the guy on the floor up. That was not a problem. The problem was he said he had a leather coat on when he came in. The thing was I sincerely doubt he could remember coming in. He accused me of taking it which didn’t wash. If I had to I could have gotten the police to back me up but I convinced him. But he was pissed. He had no money and wanted to use the phone. Did I mention the rules in this place? I could have gotten fired for letting him but I let him. Then he wanted to make another and he did but I told him to make it short and he didn’t. I was in the middle of making lunch when I realized he had been on too long. I went into the office and made him hang up the phone. He went ballistic and started accusing me of stealing his coat. I was twenty, still skinny as shit and not a fighter.

I told him to get the hell out with such conviction (believe me, I was convinced it was either him or me) that he apologized and asked if he could stay if he just sat down and remained quiet. Seemed fair enough to me so he sat down and I continued making lunch.

All of this took place in a room of about thirty hung over men or men who were trying to stay sober.

A few days before this one of the guys had come into some money and bought himself and his best friend new coats. They were nice looking coats and they were warm. The man who was the recipient of the gift was there and quietly went to his locker and took out his old coat and gave it to the guy who I had just confronted. A little while later his ride showed up and he left.

About two weeks later one of our regulars walks in and hands me the very same coat, says somebody drove up and asked him to give it to me.

There was an older man who stayed there all the time. When I first met him he was sober. Then he started to drink. One night he came in so drunk I did not think it was him. He had a bottle of rubbing alcohol in his pocket. Had I obeyed the rules he would have been pitched out in the snow, placed on the banned list and probably would have frozen to death somewhere lonely. What I did instead was put him to bed after his shower. I saved the bottle.

In the morning I sat down with him and showed it to him. “This is what you were drinking last night.”

“No! I have been bad before but never that bad!” But he knew it was true and stopped drinking for a while.

Then one morning he came in drunk as a skunk barely able to stand. He had a puncture wound under his left cheek. I did not have a car but I got a ride to the hospital. All he wanted was a drink. Same old story.

Not this time.

I sat on him as they stitched him up. He was admitted. Not only was he admitted but they placed him in a nursing home.

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