Fred Hess was a handyman. He helped out at the 28-unit motel that my wife and her family owned and operated when she was a kid. He became part of the village that helped raise her.
The motel was located on an unsavory stretch of Sandy Blvd in Northeast Portland. My wife’s parents were busy most days, cleaning rooms and working the front desk. When she played Little League softball, it was Fred who took her to the games.
He watched every pitch.
I asked my wife what they talked about on the walk home. She told me, “I would vent. He would listen. Then offer one or two suggestions. And affirm what I had done well.
“As close to perfect as you could get.”
It was Fred who watched and listened to Trail Blazers games with wife when she was just 12. Together, they pulled for Jerome Kersey and Terry Porter. And it was Fred who asked my wife about school, took her camping, and sang country-music songs that made her giggle.
I’m grateful for Fred.
I told him so at his 60th birthday party years ago. By then, he was working as a copy-machine repairman. He serviced fax machines and replaced toner cartridges. He was neat, meticulous and never late to work.
Shortly after that party, though, Fred’s life unraveled.
He quit drinking and smoking weed. We now believe that Fred was self-medicating some form of mental illness with alcohol and marijuana. After he got sober, Fred started hearing voices. He began hoarding, acting odd and went on rambling diatribes.
A month after his sobriety, we visited the duplex Fred rented. My wife and I walked through the front door, past piles of garbage into a kitchen stacked with dishes and rotting food. Fred didn’t seem to notice the mess. Instead, he talked about sports, then shifted subjects and veered off into nonsensical chatter.
Fred lost his job. Then, his landlord evicted him. His extended family pleaded with him to get psychiatric care. Anyone who has dealt with an afflicted family member knows mental illness can be especially cruel. Fred insisted nothing was wrong. Then, he disappeared.
A year later, Fred called our house in the middle of the night. He was crying on the other end of the phone.
“I’m so cold. I’m living on the streets. I need a blanket.”
We went looking for Fred, but couldn’t find him.
Weeks later, the manager of a motel in Troutdale called to say Fred was about to be kicked out if someone didn’t pay his weekly room charge. My wife and I drove to the motel. We paid the $185 fee and Fred promised he’d make an appointment with a mental-health center.
He never did.
I started looking at homeless people differently after that. I stopped looking past them. I studied their faces and looked for Fred in doorways and alleys. What I found instead were a bunch of other people who slipped between the cracks of society.
We didn’t hear from Fred for a long while after that. My wife lost sleep. She feared he might be dead. Then, one day a woman who went by the name “Barbie Bible” called. She’d met Fred on the streets. He told her about the motel, and the young girl he mentored as a “step daughter” who grew up to be an Emmy-winning television news anchor.
That woman called my wife and told her that Fred was living in the parking lot of the Albertson’s grocery store on NE 181st and Glisan. Was it really Fred? For proof, she texted my wife a picture of a man with a sullen face, eyes sunken, no teeth, his cheeks red and wind-whipped.
My wife studied it and burst into tears.
He was almost 100 pounds lighter, but it was Fred.
I got in the car and drove toward that grocery store wondering what I’d encounter. Would Fred be ready to get help? Would he be angry? Delusional? Hostile? How far would you go to help the man who held your wife’s hand when she crossed the street as a child? I wasn’t sure what to expect.
I found Fred sitting in a laundromat down the way from that Albertson’s. He wore two dirty pairs of jeans, three shirts, and a beanie cap. He smelled of urine. His hands were swollen and infected. When he saw me, Fred rose to his feet, hugged me, and sobbed into my shoulder.
Then, he spoke.
“Can we go get a cheeseburger and onion rings?”
Over that burger, Fred told us about being harassed, kicked and punched on the streets. He confessed that he urinated on himself to keep warm at night. Someone even stole his Bible and took his blanket.
Fred also told us that he had two pensions and received social security. The checks were delivered every two weeks to a PO Box. But he lost his driver’s license and the mailbox key on the streets. The checks stacked up.
Mental illness is insidious, isn’t it?
That evening, we checked Fred into Cedar Hills Hospital, a psychiatric facility. I’d like to say it was a simple journey. That he got diagnosed, medicated, recovered, and quickly became himself again. But life often just isn’t that tidy.
Fred got help, but there were multiple setbacks. My wife helped Fred deal with our cumbersome and heavily impacted health-care system. She talked with doctors. Fred was off the streets and safe, but still not quite his old self.
Fred regained access to that PO Box and his retirement funds. He had just enough to pay rent and the expense of an assisted-living center. We watched the Super Bowl that February at his place, celebrating his journey back.
Down deep, though, we all knew it was temporary.
I woke on Tuesday thinking about Fred.
Not because my wife was losing sleep. But because I still see homeless people all over the place. I’ll bet you do, too. I wonder what their lives were like before they fell into a spiral. I wonder what went wrong. I wonder about their families and friends, who must feel as helpless as we once did.
Fred watched every pitch of my wife’s softball games. He became family. He’s 75 now. He moved to New Mexico years ago and lives at an assisted-living center near his brother. My wife still keeps in touch via Zoom calls. And I’m still grateful for him.
I suppose I woke thinking about Fred, but really, this column is about all the people who invest in kids. It’s about coaches, neighbors and parents. It’s about teachers and social workers. We got a chance to repay Fred. To give a little back.
It will never feel like enough.
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Dang it, John...
Another windy eyed, Kleenex story..
You and Anna are a blessing...
This column really hits home. My father in law suffered from some of the same issue. When he was on his meds, he was an amazing, loving person. But when he stopped taking them for some reason, he would turn into a belligerent person who got kicked out of his apartment. One time, we heard he got kicked out of his place, and was on the streets, so we flew back overnight to Minneapolis, spent the entire day and night looking for him until we found him and got him help. While doing that, I came face to face with the homeless on the streets of St. Paul. It changed my mindset. I don't have the answer to homelessness but seeing how many people have untreated mental health conditions, changed my mindset. These people need help. There are a lot of caring people out there trying to help. There is a story behind each tent on the sidewalk or rundown RV parked on the side of the road. I just hope the billion or so dollars Portland is spending on the homeless is going to help these folks get back on their feet instead of being pocketed by those trying to take advantage. We can fix this as a society.