Most of the people who stay here are past the point of no return in life's journey. The place, often literally, is their terminus. Some staff have been here longer than the longest surviving resident. Finality looms large.
…for every man must have somewhere to run
A couple of years ago in Toronto a man in his late 20s was assaulted and robbed. On regaining consciousness all he could remember was a name eventually accepted as his. To this day Phillip Staufen's past remains a mystery. For a time, like Blanche Dubois, he depended on the kindness of strangers. His adopted 'Elysian Fields,' however, held no prospect of a sun-bathed, eternal spring. No one came forward to claim him as a son, a nephew, a partner, an ex-pupil, or a registered orphan.
His only identifiable feature of origin was an 'educated northern English accent, perhaps Yorkshire,' according to reports in briefly interested news media. He is denied a passport as it's impossible for him to produce a birth certificate. Even though he's unquestionably there, he can't prove he exists. This situation eventually became too stressful, too confusing. And, much as he appeared, he suddenly disappeared. Toronto, similar to Edinburgh and any other fair-sized city, could absorb another rootless human.
If his condition is, indeed, a genuine state of being then what better opportunity to reinvent oneself. A clean slate. A blank page on which to begin to write. To be less savage and more noble. A future devoid of personal recriminations or the vice of chest-tightening memory. A person without a past has the chance of a guilt-free life.
Uninvited thoughts on a man who doesn't exist helped to distract me while I mopped cockroaches into an inescapable corner of a floodless kitchen on the top landing of an Edinburgh hostel. It's a 'wet' hostel and not because the floors have just been mopped. The men and women who live here know their names (sometimes they even remember mine) and, occasionally, they allow an involuntary insight into how they came to be here.
Some have wonderfully exotic names that I can't mention in deference to that seldom respected code of social work practice, 'client confidentiality.' Most of the people who stay here are past the point of no return in life's journey. This place, often literally, is their terminus. Some staff have been here longer than the longest surviving resident. Finality looms large. Apart from basic personal care that may amount to no more than to periodically check if they're breathing, there is little or no interventionist work to be done. If prevention is part of the cure then, for most, the remedy could prove fatal. Not only through the physical trauma induced by withdrawal symptoms but in terms of deep psychological distress when deprived of the alcoholic's armour.
Intermittent glimpses of sanity amongst chapters of incoherent, abstracted conversation have introduced me to a library of unbelievably true stories that these individuals made up with their lives. Louis Celine wrote: 'Most people die at the last minute; others 20 years beforehand, some even earlier. They are the wretched of the world.' All I can say is: 'Let's hear it for the wretched.' Networks of interlocking agencies, and jobs, are totally dependent on funding for the wretched.
Some of the funding pays for my nightshift work. I'm on a list of 'relief staff' and it is a relief to be offered a shift or two in these straight and narrow times. When invited for an interview I wondered if the organisation was struggling for applicants. Although, on stepping through the door, other reasons occurred. The place reeked of every bodily function imaginable and other unfamiliar stuff. Like the aftermath of a grenade in a septic tank. It dredged up a memory of discovering a ripe corpse in an airless room in high summer when flies looked thankful for a bit of air. Nightshelter flies bounce drunkenly around the corridors (even in winter) offering spiders a square-go.
'Whit's your name again?' asked a beetroot-faced woman leaning on a kitchen worktop awash with indefinable semi-solids. I reminded her. 'Oh aye, that's right – what time is it?' 'Quarter to one.' She had a can of super lager in one hand and an onion in the other. A variation on the tequila and slice of lime ritual. Most of the roaches absented themselves during this distraction.
'Quarter to one – is that night-time?' she enquired. Outside in the Grassmarket citizens and tourists were falling out of pubs on their way to clubs. Two scantily-clad females screamed at each other in the middle of the street. Young men locked antlers over a vacant taxi that sped off when reinforcements arrived from a nearby chipshop. It looked safer outdoors. 'Have ah had mah medication?' she fumbled in the pockets of a once-red anorak and, perplexed, held up another onion. She offered it to me. 'You can call me Alana by the way.'
When 'Alana' decided to go, I continued to work my way down to the office (and coffee) via two other kitchens and a couple of communal TV rooms. I found two well-used disposable diapers (adult-size) underneath a cushion. From the corridor came sounds of aggressive laughter. Three men turned to watch as I placed a range of industrial cleaning products into a bucket. They wore vests that, if boiled, would make a substantial pot of broth. One was naked from the waist down. 'What's this,' I asked. 'A board meeting?'
'No,' said the smallest and cheekiest. 'It's a semmit conference.' He'd obviously used that line before. 'What's your name?,' he continued, pointing his NHS walking stick. I told him. 'Oh aye – you're a Dundonian, eh? Have ye ever been tae In-verr-goww-reee?' he asked, squinting right up to my face. He passed a large plastic bottle of cider to the man with no trousers who sucked on it as if it were baby formula. 'Aaah,' he sighed, then burped loud and wet. The third man hardly ever speaks and when he'd finished his turn on the cider bottle wiped his mouth. 'Rare,' he said, passing it back to the walking-stick man.
From a room further up the hallway glided a guy in a wheelchair; an angry, rheumy-faced man who holds the world responsible for his situation. 'Is that you legless again?' shouted the trouserless man, 'Geez yir breeks – ah've pished mine.' Wheelchair-man burned rubber returning to his room, shouting abuse over his shoulder. Our dysfunctional triptych mimicked sounds of high performance racing cars cornering at speed. Some encounters can be a real hoot.
Others tend to leave a bad taste in the mind. Unwanted conversations with people I couldn't take to if I took a course. Like the bogus tough-guy interrupting my coffee break. 'Have you got a black tie – er – thingmy – what's your name again?' I'm considering having it tattooed on my forehead. All my ties are at home, I told him. Unzipping a can, he planked himself down in a plastic chair. I reminded him the office is a dry area. He tried an intimidating look. 'Ah've got a funeral thi morra – Panda's – d'you know Panda?' No, I answered, and asked if he was an old school chum.
'Mah best mate Panda – only 45 or somethin' he wiz – pure liberty.' I watched him stumble over hazy memories then I got up to switch on an electric fan. Invisible wafts of dank odour colonised the room like heat haze across a savannah. 'Twenty-two cans ah've drunk the day.' Unlikely but possible for an active beggar with a pitch near a busy cashpoint machine. He exploits the pulling power of a sloe-eyed mutt resembling a cross between a dromedary and a greyhound. Most of the money from passers-by is to 'help get food for your dog, son.' The vain hope of hypothecated charity.
Before Christmas I helped him count out an afternoon's takings; almost £60 – only marginally less than a nightshift wage. 'So – huv ye got a black tie tae lend me?' I told him I don't lend out my clothes. He tried another look. Alana came in and the tie thing was forgotten in a 10-minute interlude that, unaccountably, developed into a shouting match. The dog got paranoid and barked as though it had five lungs.
'Shut up you,' he bawled at Alana. I think I'm supposed to laugh.
Alana can change from acting the coquettish ingenue to active volcano in the swish of a razor. She endured years of physical violence before killing her husband, so I'm watchful of her reaction. I noticed a couple of dead flies stuck to the fringe of her rusty, Nazi-helmet hairstyle. Dried flecks of vomit speckled the front of her anorak. Dryden warned us to 'Beware the fury of a patient man.' Tonight I think the distaff side are worth keeping an eye on. I'm disappointed she didn't do the dog in at the very least.
Time to break the tension, I decided. 'You've a couple of flies in your hair, doll,' I smiled at her. 'Ah'll pick them out for you.' She submitted, moaning about all the flypapers strung around the building. Standing-room only on most of them. 'I thought somebody had forgotten to take down the Christmas decorations,' I joked. No response. Toughguy raised his head to watch the social grooming. 'It's Panda's funeral thi morra,' he said directly to her. 'To be perfectly candid with you, old chap, I couldn't care less,' she replied. Or words to that effect. Mercifully, the dog barked and the carnival moved on.
Two nights later: 9pm, start of another shift
An ordinate level of noise warned me something had happened. Six or seven residents crowded near the office. Alana looked frightened and unpredictable. Toughguy seemed to be holding course in the office, gesticulating wildly, spilling contents of a can over the carpet and his dog.
'What's going on?' I asked. The two females on duty looked cornered and real grateful to see me or, at least, a man. Someone had been assaulted but didn't want to go to hospital because the police would get involved. 'Where is he?,' I asked. It's a woman, I was told, in a room along the hall. Toughguy elected to take me to her. Somehow, I knew he was involved. I followed him into a blitzed area. Curled on the floor was a small, whimpering shape. I moved round to assess the damage. Her face was pulp. 'I'll be aw'right,' she blubbed, trying and failing to get up. I told her I was phoning an ambulance. She was in and out of consciousness. 'That's Panda's burd,' said toughguy. How ironic, I thought, to end up looking like her partner's nickname – an unrecognisable face and a fractured skull, discovered in A&E.
There are moves afoot to relocate the 'more able' residents in smaller units incorporating independent flats. The buzz word is 'inclusion'. Politicians continuously tout a benign concept of 'community' and professionals, mindful of funding, take up the impossible challenge of integration. The word 'community' assumes more than it can prove. 'Would you like tae have any as neighbours?,' asked Pete. The answer: an emphatic 'no'.
Even though my training for this work started in infancy, it comes as a surprise to find myself back in the midst of madness. It's a choice from a restricted range. Some people have to work with the off-centre casualties of contemporary existence and it helps if you're a touch off-centre yourself. Textbook learning does not apply. Instinct, rubber gloves and a determination not to 'get involved' cover all (personal) policy and practice requirements.
However, the image of one particular resident haunts me. Standing stock still, arms by his sides, at the far end of the long featureless corridor. Immobilised by something he didn't fully comprehend. 'There's a wee lassie sittin' at the end o' mah bed,' he said. 'She's there – but no' really there – know whit ah mean?' At times, two men position themselves either side of his telly and watch him. Are they ghosts from his past? 'Ah don't recognise them.' A rejection of uncomfortable history perhaps. The oral tradition of alcoholism is skewed by guilt and denial. Sometime in the future Phillip Staufen may surface in a fetid nightshelter. Hopefully he'll retain enough savvy to forget his name and be rewarded with an official persona.
This article was first published in SR in 2002