Ross had been a case manager at the Paul Mirabile Center at Saint Vincent's for 11 years before computers coolly edged him out, as did the robopathic administrators who lovingly imitated the computers. The PMC is the first phase of Saint Vincent's program for the homeless. It is, in effect, a warehouse for dysfunctional bodies, the mentally ill (but not too mentally ill or they can't get in), the addicted, and the generally psychosocially screwed. The rows of bunk beds and the smell of the bedclothes of the incontinent mixed with that of long-defunct footwear and socks, feet, stale beer, and new beer (the PMC is only nominally a sober environment), and other ineffable smells approximate the fragrance of dead rats kept for too long in a jar.
Ross wrote: "I found this man at the corner of 16th and G Street on New Year's Eve. He's very very ill. He has a colostomy bag, some injuries, he's been released from somewhere and he has nothing. The man is dying."
"By the way, I knew, John, that no one would come down right away and pick him up. You gonna call the police? Ooh, we can't take him to jail." Ross shivers in mock revulsion. "They don't want him. The hospitals don't want him. Saint Vincent de Paul won't want him inside because he's too dysfunctional. There's no mental hospitals anymore except CMH [County Mental Health]. They might keep him overnight, but...nobody wants Emmett. NOBODY. I can't just put him in the car and admit him to a hospital. That would be like some movie. So I wrote on the note: 'I'm going to take him down to you at 8:30 in the morning. You need to take care of him! He said he had been there and been turned away. You need to take him, or there is an extreme chance of legal exposure. He could die.' And I underlined die. 'I'm sure Saint Vincent's does not want to be responsible within this dynamic.' I signed it and put my number on there.
"I got Emmett a shirt out of the trunk, found some old cardboard on the street that looked like they had motorcycle parts in them recently, and I covered him with those, so he just looked like the pile of garbage anyone would expect to see, but it would keep the wind and rain and cold maybe tolerable. Maybe.
"I told Emmett, 'Remember, I'm a Motown boy, baby. Ain't nobody gonna be comin' here stealin' no cardboard. They ain't gonna get a chance to see that Marriott comforter you got now.'
"'Ooh, das smart,' he said. I talked to him a little while, and he wanted to know what I was doing out here in the middle of the night on New Year's Eve, when I should be home with my family. I told him he was my family. 'We're brothers by different mothers. Okay, Emmett?'
"'Thanks for the love, brother,' he said. 'Thanks for the love.' " Ross's voice breaks and he stops talking. Ross likes to talk the way lonely men sometimes do. This was the first silence he had allowed during the interview (later there would be another long one), because, for the moment, he just didn't have anything else. "I stopped the car one more time as I was pulling away and honked the horn. He waved. A block away, I pounded the steering wheel and said to myself, 'That's it! That's what I'm gonna do!' I'd been feeling so sorry for myself, so depressed that I wasn't in that building anymore [the PMC at Saint Vincent's, where Ross had been a case manager], but I realized that if I were, I'd be at their New Year's party with their little refreshments and a funny hat and the whoopdeedoos, while I was meant to be on the street with Emmett. And how many more Emmetts are out there?
"So from the worst night of my depression after leaving Saint Vincent's -- and it was really severe, I think -- I went to 'Thank you, Lord. Now I know what I've got to do.' "
Ross returned to 16th and G the next morning and Emmett was gone. He was not at the clinic either. He later heard that someone had seen Emmett at the clinic, but it was thirdhand information, and Ross was not exactly the flavor of the month among the staff at Vinnie's, and he never could confirm it. He never saw Emmett again.
Ross had been making his rounds nightly for several weeks before the sad epiphany regarding his mainstay delivery item occurred to him in the form of a small woman on the street, shaking with the cold, dehydrated and diabetic. "I was giving out a couple of blankets and sheets one night, and shirts and socks and whatever else I could beg. I'd given everybody most of what I had, but there was this one lady, I think in her 60s, but she could be 40. Two or three years on the street, you're going to look 60 no matter what. I'm sure this woman was a dual diagnosis [substance abuse and mental illness]. I gave her the last blanket, and I had a pair of socks that I put on her hands. You would have thought I had given her a new outfit from Nordstrom's. Standing there, she said, 'Do you have any water?' and I said, 'No, honey, I don't bring any water with me. But I've got some water of my own, there's not much gone from it. Let me give you that.' She said, 'No, no, no. I can't take your water. You need that water.' Here she is, under a bridge -- at route 5 and Imperial Avenue -- and she's cold, she's shivering, and it turned out she had diabetes badly. She had no socks, and her first thought was that she did not want to take my water out of my nice warm car and deprive me. 'It's no problem,' I said. I didn't know what to say. It was one of those occasions that fill me with such sorrow and such joy at the same time.