Dan the Surfer


Note to Readers: I have been working with mentally ill clients over the past five years, all of whom have been mixed up in the criminal justice system. I have been writing down thoughts of what life is like for these men and woman. All the writings are fictional but based on the real experiences of the people I interact with, thus protecting their privacy and my professional relationship with them. These are, a composite of people who interact daily with the criminal justice system in this country, all are survivors who have withstood brutal experiences but because of their situations have little ability to tell their stories. My goal is to shed light into many of the people we interact with, whether its on the sidewalk, in the Metro section of our newspapers, the television, or maybe they are our family members. I was partly inspired by David Shipler, whose book, “The Working Poor” should be required reading for every American.

 

Dan the Surfer:

With long blonde hair, the hangs down past muscular shoulders built from lifting heavy circular iron rings while breathing time away, Dan shuffles through an apartment that has seen its better days. Built in the nineteen seventies, the building houses 24 apartments, stacked on top of one another as if they were modeled after a grocers shelf, these units are sparse, smelly and, at times unfit for the cockroaches and bed bugs that inhabit them. All come with one bedroom, a sliver of a kitchen and a bath room that adheres to the taste of a Motel Six, small, cramped and musty. Many of the apartments house families with children, it would appear to be an unaccountable number as when one walks around the exterior of the units there is a bountiful supply of children, most with tan and brown skin, hurrying and hiding here and there, their loud excited screams punctuating the sad filth that surrounds them. It is not uncommon to see five children poking their head through the iron bars that line the mini-balconies when leaving the safe confines of a car.

This is Dan’s first apartment in over seven years, prior to getting into this subsided housing he lived sporadically on the land in Columbus, Jacksonville Florida and San Diego, he ended up in Columbus, five years ago, to be nearer to his son who resides in a city roughly 100 miles away, he has not seen his boy in over eight years. The walls are filled with his artwork, haphazardly taped, hither and dithered to walls once painted white but now a dull gray. In the corner is a coffee canister filled with the ashes of rolled cigarettes and placed next to a jar of paint brushes and charcoal that he uses to help ease the intensity of the “angels” that speak to him. The carpet is worn, frayed in spots and littered with spots, a clever game one could play would be, “guess the stain.” Some look like coffee, food or blood and in this complex it would be easy to assume that all of these stains are indeed the ingredients to variety of colors on the weathered carpet.

Dan steps from the kitchen, a soiled mess of damp counters, egg incrusted pots and smelly standing water in the sink. There is a calendar tapped haphazard to the wall next to the sink, with appointment cards placed on the respective days where Dan is supposed to be present. Somewhere. On the side of the yellowed refrigerator whose paint actually appears to be peeling he has placed a nude center-fold of Ms. June 1998, whose breasts appear constructed out some Hollywood special effects team, she has gleaming soap bubbles dripping off her shoulders and chest, and a thought comes to mind that asks if she would actually realize that this moment in time for her, as she sucked in her stomach, aching to be sexy under the hot glow of photographer lights, thinking of how posing for Playboy was a dream she harbored long before she had implants. Would she still want to post nude if she knew that her photograph would be stuck on the side of a failing refrigerator by a man who could eat fried eggs, brush away insects and roll his cigarettes while dreaming of those bubbles floating off her tan torso. Her teeth are perfect.

Tilting his head, he shakes his hair loose like a carny version of a young David Cassidy, “hey man, whatcha think?” as he waves his hand through the air. This is one of the very few times he has met me without being drunk or behind bars, he has had nary a drop of alcohol in nearly two months and the effects are startling. His blue eyes, cleave through the lines that frame them, they are undimmed yet offer a glimpse into the suffering he has witnessed and the inner softness of his essence is present as well as the steely hardness of a life on the streets, in jail and in mental institutions form a competing visual battle over this ragged face. His forearms are huge, as if he were a lumberjack instead of city dweller who has survived on beaches and asphalt; there is a faded turquoise tattoo on the back of his forearm, of a twisted woman holding her breasts as a single tear drops down her face. An odd juxtaposition of the silicon enhanced beauty in his kitchen. “It’s nice, I see you have been drawing a lot” I metion, motioning to the large circular drawings that are hanging on the wall, next to five different pencil and charcoal drawings of people he has torn from various magazines. One of whom is Ben Vereen. “Ben Vereen?” I think, “Hmmmm.”

In the corner is a sleeping bag and a pillow constructed of several jackets, old newspapers and towels, next to this is a small thrift store digital clock that still has the masking tape price sticker on the top. “50 C” is written on it. The clock along with a half empty plastic bottle of diet Pepsi sits on top of a red milk-crate. There is a single chair in the room that is slightly cracked in the seat but otherwise fine. Seeing me eye it he explains, “yeah, check it out, I was walking across that field over there,” pointing towards the window where a field now sits where one of the first shopping malls in the Midwest once stood, “and I got this premonition that I needed to go back about fifty feet. So, my angels then told me to turn around, so I did, and I found that chair, a coffee table that’s in my bedroom, and this.” He saunters over to the closet by the bathroom, pulls out a coffee-table sized book of Matisse. “Matisse, in a field?” goes through my mind. “Look at this, this book, was carefully wrapped in a plastic garbage bag and taped off, it was stuffed in green army bag or something, I had to throw that out cause it has some worms and shit around it, plus, you know it stank.” Lighting a cigarette he mumbles, “I always liked Matisse, although I prefer his drawings to his paintings, they are pretty playful, you know. Did you know that Gertrude Stein introduced him to Picasso? I knew that already, I learned in when I was a kid when I was obsessed.” He doesn’t explain obsessed with what.

Blowing smoke out of the side of his mouth, “this place is crazier than the west side, than the camp I was staying at” nodding towards the door. “shit my first night here, some chick bangs on my door and asks if I want a blow job for five bucks, I was like whatta yah think, of course I do, shit I just got out of fucking jail but I tell her I don’t have five bucks, then, check this shit out, she walks into my apartment and puts her hand on my fucking cock and says, ok, just get me high and that will be enough. I nearly shit my pants.” Blocking out the image, I ask, “So, what did you do?” “Shit, what could I do, I told her I don’t get high and offered her some Diet Pepsi” he laughed, “and you know what she said?….she said, “fuck you god-damn cracker! And left. Then I heard her pounding on the door upstairs.”

Dan can’t drink or use any drugs; if he does he will go back to jail. He is looking at nearly two years for a variety of what I refer to as knuckle-headed offenses, drunk and disorderly, menacing, burglary (for stealing a twelve-pack of Heineken), public intoxication and resisting arrest. Most of the charges happened on one bad day, but he has an extensive record all but one of them knuckleheaded charges, the one that landed him in prison was a domestic violence, assaulting a police officer and destruction of public property. His life at this point in hyper-vigilant as the law requires him not to part-take in the one release and companion he has leaned on most of his life, one thing that has brought him a community and a way of survival but has also condemned him in the eyes of society as he has continued to use this tool he has bludgeoned and bruised many of the laws laid down.

Dan was introduced to alcohol at an early age, five to be precise, sucking out the remnants of his father’s Hudepohl and Pearl beers, when his Pops was in a good mood. Liking the top of the aluminum cans, Dan quickly grew fond of sitting on his father’s lap, sipping the beer out of the thin rim and watching old westerns. Soon enough though, his father’s mood would invariably turn and the ghastly behavior that Dan would later turn to was taught by his drunken father whose rages could be titanic. Splitting Dan’s head one evening when Dan had laid out a long-line of Matchbox cars across the living room, with the wobbly gait only ten hours of isolated drinking can bring, his father stepped on them, and in one quick motion threw his blond haired boy across the room where his head cracked against the riveted steel fireplace screen. When Dan’s mother rushed from the kitchen her husband snatched the forged iron pyroclaw and walloped her on the back, telling her “let that boy think about where he puts his crap!” Dan, dropped out of school in the ninth grade, already a proficient surfer in and around the surfing hot spots of Cocoa Beach, he quickly fell into the punk rock and goth scene, finding part-time work at painting signs for local pizza shops and beach front stores that coddled to the tourist. By the age of fourteen, he was huffing gas, smoking marijuana and using LSD almost daily. He quickly gave up huffing when a friend burned half his face off after lighting a cigarette under the numb daze of the fumes.

Taking to sleeping on the beach and on friends couches, Dan never went home after the age of fifteen, his father had been sentenced to a year in prison for assault and his mother soon left Florida for the green pastures of West Virginia to have her mother help raise his little sister. His mother, who could not keep the flames of heroin addiction from overwhelming her, succumbed  to the drug when Dan was twenty-one, he has not seen his sister since the funeral of his mother. “She’s out there somewhere” he says to the air, his hands wrapped tightly around his biceps. “Man, that time was crazy, living on the beach, I moved up to Jacksonville, Flagler Beach, Palm Coast, and there were some crazy motherfuckers. This was in 1982 or so, and shit was just happening. We would drop acid nearly every day, go surfing, try to get laid, all that shit. I fell in with some skinheads in Jacksonville, although I ain’t racist, I sometimes just needed a place to stay and they liked good music. You remember the Specials? We liked them and the Dead Milkmen, Agent Orange…. All that stuff.” Dan, looks at the ruddy floor, cigarette burns that are like tiny demarcations of mistakes made, some are older than the internet, “I got busted the first time in Jacksonville, on night we broke into this surf shop I had painted a sign for. The fucker didn’t pay me saying that I took too long. He thought he could get away from it because I was a punk, you know, just a dirty homeless surfer kid, so me and my friend Freebie, we called him ‘cause he never paid for shit, not even booze. So we climbed in through the skylight, I was just gonna take enough shit to get what he owed me” adding, “I may be a thief but I’m an honest thief.” Pulling a drag off his rolled cigarette, cobbled together from a litter of disposed cigarette butts he has gathered and stuffed into a discarded sandwich bag, he explains, “I mean, all I took was a skateboard, some t-shirts that was it. Anyway, we should have left through the ceiling where we crawled in at but we went out the back door, and get this, the alley backed up into this Jack-in-the-Box and we walked right in front of these cops where were feeding their fat fucking faces. Easiest bust they ever had.” He was still a minor, seventeen but they put him in the county jail for two weeks before he saw a judge. In the jail he explains, “that some big nigger tried to get me to suck his dick, but I fucking bit his leg, you know, I was strong so then I punched him when he kneeled down. I knew I didn’t want to go to prison, shit I was seventeen had hair nearly down to my ass, if you saw from behind I looked like a fuckin girl, I knew what would happen to me if they sent me to prison, so I was gonna do whatever I could to stay out of prison.”He pleaded guilty and got two years probation but left Jacksonville, moving north to Washington DC, back to Florida, this time south of Daytona Beach and finally Miami. Working odd jobs, usually as a painter. In Miami, he got married to a woman from Ohio, he was thirty years old and had started to attend AA meetings after completing a short stint in Jackson County Hospital after blacking out and waking up on the beach with a broken arm.

Dan stayed sober for nearly two years, and he and his wife had a son, he learned a trade and went to art school, he soon found steady work in Miami, doing an assortment of work for bars, restaurants and specialty shops. Dan had wrestled with mental illness and had managed to keep his “angels” at bay. “They were talking to me, although it didn’t seem as bad when I was married, I don’t know, I just didn’t have the stress-I had my kid so, you know, the voices were ok. They have always helped.” Dan started drinking again, giving up on AA, “It didn’t give up on me, I gave up on it, I just like to drink, I guess”. Soon after this his wife packed up the baby and put her things in order and drove off one Sunday afternoon, back to Ohio, while Dan was on a bender. He had left on a Thursday and came back on Monday to an empty house, “She didn’t leave anything, just a pile of clothes in the middle of the floor, she even took my tools, the stuff I need to make the signs and make money with. Shit, who would even want that stuff, sodering and glue guns, old paint brushes.”

Dan soon moved back onto the streets in short time, and it was then while he suffered a serious brain injury. “I had met one of my old friends from Jacksonville on the beach, and we were crashing at this abandon house, and he knew these dudes who would do PCP and shit, real violent guys. I don’t know, I called one them a pussy or something and later that night, I was walking down near the beach and they jumped me. Kicked my head in, literally, they split it wide open, I was in a coma for a few weeks when I woke up, I couldn’t remember my name. It was fucked up.” It was then, at the age of thirty-four that Dan heard his angels constantly, chattering and whispering in his ear depending at various times of the day and night. Although, he quickly found out that beer kept them quiet for the most part, so he moved back up north when he was healthy enough and soon applied for disability.

Moving to Central Ohio was different for him, for a period he reconciled with his wife and son but again, she could not handle his drinking so he spent a few years chasing down the ghosts in his head up and down High Street and the Short North bars, at times endearing the bartenders with his gift of sublime humor and at other times getting banned from nearly every bar on a three mile stretch. “I’ve been kicked out of every bar on High Street and half of them, I made their fuckin’ signs, painted their walls, took out the garbage,” he says indignantly as if his, at times violent behavior out should be accepted by his ability to turn glass and copper tubing into a beer sign. His wife moved to Southwestern Ohio after two years and Dan again found himself homeless.

“I knew a lot about survival, I did it in Florida and for a little while I moved to San Diego and that’s a tough place to be homeless. Shit if guys think the cops here are a fuckin’ drag those bastards in San Diego will kick your ass without thinking of it. They even make it a fuckin’ crime to be homeless there, I was like, what the fuck?” Dan, is now sitting across from me at downtown coffee shop, walls decorated by stiff paintings of dull figures and price tags that not even the artists mother would pay. Smoke is billowing from his mug, “this is good coffee, wow, it really is” he murmurs, “you know I made some the stuff in this shop, when I was sober, to decorate it. Since your with me I don’t think they’ll throw me out. Besides, I’m acting cool.” He gazes out the window, at a bike messenger chaining his bike up. “I lived against this chain link fence in San Diego for about eight months, it was behind this row of bushes  just up from one of the beaches, nobody could see it, you would have to climb into these bushes and then around them and nobody did that, they never trimmed the fuckers. I just had my bag and some clothes, I always felt safe there except for the cops, they would get to know you were homeless and harass you but the other weird thing there, in San Diego, was there were a ton of kids who were homeless, a lot more than here and some of them could be pricks. You had to know who to trust. A lot of drugs but that was never my thing, I just like booze.” Dan got a felony charge in San Diego for stealing a bottle of wine, apparently the laws are stricter in California, and moved back to Ohio before his court date. “There was no way, I was gonna do time in California for stealing a four dollar bottle of wine, no way. So, I came back.”

By this time, Dan was collecting Social Security, roughly $840 a month, not great but better than the standard $674 most disabled homeless people collect. There are two types of Social Security a person can collect, Social Security Disability Insurance which is based off the income a person has made and regular Supplemental Social Security which is the minimum anybody can collect, this amount varies by state depending on cost of living and in Ohio it is set at $674. Most homeless people, because they do not have a good work history collect this bare minimum which is not enough to pay rent, heating and food. Food stamps are usually cut to only $40 a month for someone who collects the minimum. Some of the homeless men move into the downtown YMCA, which charges $330 with all utilities included for a room and community bathroom, and there are other small studio apartments and one bed rooms available for under $400 but almost all are in drug infested and high crime areas where the mentally ill are more prone to be taken advantage of. Because of Dan’s mental illness and propensity for getting arrested2 he goes for long periods without his Medicaid. He automatically qualifies because of his disability but he fails to re-sign up when it expires and/or it gets turned off when he goes to jail for over a month.

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One Response to “Dan the Surfer”

  1. vanessakf Says:

    I’m about 1/4 way through Shipler’s book, and I’m thinking I might be too pissed off to keep going. It’s a good read, but he’s preaching to the converted. I’m back in Springfield this week, and I was noticing all the check-cashing, payroll advance joints lining Main Street on the way into town now. Ugh.

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