by Sam Brighton
For weeks the slush had been drying off the sidewalks, leaving trails of salty white mist, and still I hadn’t seen Tiny—not since Christmas when he tried to kiss me and said he’d teach me to cut white people hair. During warmer months, Tiny hustled past the social services building most mornings around nine. “There he goes,” somebody would say. We would stop tapping on our keyboards, lean a chair beyond the cubicle wall, and stretch the coiled phone cord to watch him go. Tiny was somewhere in his nineties and barely taller than the corner mailbox. He zipped by, en route to his barbershop, his gait just as steady as any of ours. Most people on my caseload were shut inside their houses forevermore and inched around their kitchens one step at a time. Tiny was my only employed client, although I wasn’t sure how officially employed—I didn’t ask, I didn’t want to know. He always wore a fedora, a necktie cinched tight into his collar, a long cardigan draped off his hunched bony shoulders. Tiny was always impeccably groomed and appropriately dressed for the weather, engaged daily in cardiovascular activity. I nearly finished my functional assessment just watching him haul ass.
Sometimes Tiny veered across the street toward our doors and tapped on the glass, waving at the receptionist until she put down her book and walked over to push open the door, even though she had already buzzed him in. “Misses,” he would shout, “I’d like to see my caseworker please,” holding his fedora in his hands, his smile wide and toothy, the bite of ancient cologne permeating the air. Our agency was a wide teal-carpeted room with tall white walls. The desks were squished together inside cubicles, but the arrangement did nothing to muffle the racket of two people politely yelling at each other about the overdue energy bill that couldn’t be paid. Protective services squeezed into one corner, the public guardians into another, and case management huddled throughout the rest of the building. Together we all watched over the older citizens of Pittsburgh.
Whenever Tiny dropped in for an unscheduled visit, which irritated me to no end, making me late for meetings at some senior housing high-rise across town, we stood in the lobby shouting back and forth. “Bring me the letter so I can take a look,” I would quietly holler. “Let’s call and ask.” Everyone knew Tiny, and everyone knew he was mine. “Oh, your little fella came in this morning,” someone would say in the break room.
Most people who lived in Pittsburgh were born there, and when I told people I had moved there from across the country, uniformly they raised an eyebrow raise and said, “Why would you move here?” The culture, the history, the adorable row houses, I might have said, although really, to leave my alcoholism behind in the desert furnished a tangible sense of moving on.
Once I learned Pittsburgh’s resources and systems, I worked the shit out of that case management job. Biannually my manager marked me a point short of a perfect score during employee reviews—because she never gave out perfect scores, she said. My home visits were completed early, my documentation thorough. My billing far surpassed the monthly goal. I let interns follow me around. My job was my amends to the universe, it was how I lived with myself. I owed the public a thousand times for each and every drunken foul and fuck-up.
Right after I quit drinking, a combination of newfound commitment to self-care, state-imposed restrictions, and insurance policies suspicious of alcoholics endowed me with a vacation from social services. “I need a break from humans,” I would say when collating papers with the other temps in the air-conditioning while the cacti endured the sunlight outside the windows. Spreadsheets and adding machines were plenty to manage then.
Sobriety introduced all kinds of sharp and shiny feelings, though, and there was only so much data entry I could tolerate while refraining from eye-rolling and open insubordination. Clocking in even a minute late three times within twelve months was grounds for dismissal, and two firings in a row would look terrible on a resumé. Meanwhile, children across the city were chronically starved or forced by Mom’s boyfriend into horrible sex acts, and endured things more horrendous than most could imagine. I just couldn’t find the greater meaning in entering addresses into a spreadsheet for money solicitation purposes. After stringing together fourteen consecutive months without drinking, I sold my furniture and left Arizona. Case managing older adults in Pittsburgh rather than abused children in Phoenix better suited my sensibilities anyway. Plus, an astonishing amount of work could be accomplished when well-rested. But I missed the fifty sober queers I had left behind in Arizona. In all the history of my life, I finally found somewhere to belong. Then I left them all.
Tiny lived in a wooden box on the edge of a hill. His house matched the others stacked together across the rolling hills and pewter valleys. Pittsburgh skies were overcast most days, and the neighborhoods reflected a resident slick wet gray. White paint flaked off Tiny’s siding, and the front stoop leaned hard, lopsided, under the front door, where a screen flapped in the wind. Fluorescent green moss streaked the shingles and gutters dangled overhead. Someone had tagged the side of his house with nonsensical letters. Strand board had been nailed over a window. Deer vanished into crowded trees across the street as car tires grumbled over the road, plaid with bricks and potholes that rocked cars like boats. That hill was a bitch to climb whenever it snowed. It seemed, as Tiny said, that the city plowed the black neighborhoods last. When our agency dispatched us to deliver survival kits of high-sodium foods and batteries and blankets to our most at-risk folks, the roads near our office had been cleared long before Tiny’s hills.
Tiny had paid off his house in the seventies, before I was even born, but he owed a decade’s worth of property taxes and so was ineligible for county-funded home repair. The county offered no concession, not even after someone broke into Tiny’s house and carried his copper pipes away into the night while he snored peacefully in bed.
“Can’t we tell the county it’s an emergency?” I said, sitting in my manager’s office. “The man has no indoor plumbing in a house that’s otherwise good enough.”
“First see if he’s sitting on any assets, cash stuffed into a mattress, you know the drill.”
“How could someone steal his pipes?” I said, “He’s a little old man.”
She sighed. “Sounds like someone was really desperate,” my manager said, “I’m sure nobody wants to steal copper plumbing to get whatever it is they need.”
I wanted her to be mad with me, and here she was humanizing Tiny’s pipe thief. Heat spilled over me in her office, something like shame—it felt familiar. I remembered despair, dark and cloudy and toxic, smoldering inside my guts, gritty in my fingernails and exhaled through my breath, how I had once evolved into something inhuman. Maybe in my alcoholism I didn’t find myself stealing an old man’s copper pipes, maybe because I was lucky enough to find a way out first.
I reported this epiphany to my AA group during my turn to speak, that maybe I’m not terribly different from the pipe thief, that maybe what I feel is survivor’s guilt. The meeting that night was populated mostly by the young women from the halfway house down the street. When I looked up at their faces after speaking, most of the participants stared at the floor chewing gum or picked at scabs on their arm. I was glad I said it anyway.
For Christmas we selected ten of our loneliest seniors from our caseloads and wrote wish lists, no durable medical equipment allowed. Do-gooders in the community picked cardboard ornaments off a Christmas tree containing vague demographics with gift suggestions and then bought presents. Our agency let us wear jeans on gift-delivery days, Santa hats and Steelers gear encouraged, and we crowded into each other’s cars to distribute gifts. I didn’t say much, but we laughed because my coworkers were funny. We sprinkled salty sand up slick porches and handed over wrapped packages containing hideous floral potholders or Steelers beach towels. A sort of tinkling danced in my stomach, and maybe that feeling was called delight.
For Tiny, I asked for wool socks and warm gloves. He rode the bus during snowy months, but I worried about him, wading down his hill through the snow. I watched for him whenever I drove around town, marching his ass across the city—as Tiny said—to cut hair because Social Security paid out jack shit.
Tiny’s gifts weren’t delivered on time—whoever delivered them didn’t read my note to just find him down at his barbershop. I delivered his gift myself mid-January.
“Whooee!” he said, wrapping his new scarf around his neck, “I thank you very much Misses, what a beauty.”
“You’re welcome,” I said. “Someone from the community bought you the gifts. I’m just delivering them.”
We stood in his barbershop, and the neon orange coils of his space heaters baked our legs. Tiny’s barbershop was four pale yellow walls on the top floor of an old brick building with creaky steps sure to buckle under my weight. Bass thumping from passing cars rattled his windows and the square mirror leaning against the wall. A black barber chair with gold foam puffing out on the corners squatted before the mirror.
It had taken me a while to find his barbershop—his shop unlisted in the phone book, not even a sign on the building. I got the address from his physician, “my main man,” as Tiny called him.
Tiny’s barbershop was in an old African American neighborhood, and by old I mean the free blacks lived there in the 1800s, during the era of slavery. When Tiny was a kid in the twenties, the area syncopated and grooved with jazz culture. Come the fifties, social forces displaced hundreds of businesses and thousands of residents, leaving poverty and drug crimes and structural decay in its wake. Trash littered yards, and weeds grew from the cracks of sidewalks. Buildings with busted out windows perished in rows. Along Tiny’s block, older women sat on the bus bench, and men leaned against buildings and parked cars. I felt self-conscious and white, like an invader of space and community. White social workers haven’t necessarily been the good guys throughout history. Sometimes the old men barked at the kids to clear a path on the sidewalk and let me, the white lady, through, and I was never sure how to respond—this white lady could step into the road to pass just as easily but wanted to acknowledge and accept their chivalry.
Tiny, with his scarf draped around his neck, stepped toward me and swooped his face toward mine, lips puckered. As I ducked away, I nearly tipped over backward.
“Whoa whoa stop,” I said. “Please step back.”
“Ah baby, why not?” he said, “I thought maybe you and me could, you know, hang out.” He straightened his frizzy mustard-colored cardigan and winked.
I explained the ethics of appropriate professional relationships—I didn’t even mention our sixty-year age difference, nor that I’m a lesbian. The first time Tiny and I met, we stood in his driveway and Tiny kept calling me “Young Man”—I assume he didn’t catch my name, which at the time was “Heather.” The supervisor training me watched me talk to him, and I was unsure whether to correct him or just roll with it.
“I apologize if me giving you the scarf was confusing,” I said. “It’s a gift from an anonymous family.”
I offered to set him up with a senior companion if he needed company—which wasn’t a dating service, but rather a group of seniors who were paid a small sum to hang out with folks. The companion service appealed to me—not the friend-for-hire part, but beating hearts filling empty chairs, empty space left behind by some loved someone.
“Oh no, I don’t need that crap,” he said. “Last thing I need is some old person complaining about they sugars.”
“Let me know if you change your mind.”
“Hey, you too, baby,” he said as he flung the end of the scarf over his shoulder. “Come back soon. I’ll teach you how to cut white people hair.”
By April the snow had melted, and the muck had receded. Birds chirped, little green buds unfolded on trees. Still I hadn’t seen Tiny since the attempted kiss. Knowing he was hard-of-hearing, I pounded on his front door longer and louder each week. His curtains were pinched shut. He hadn’t been at his shop, either, whenever I dropped in. His emergency contacts—three of his customers— hadn’t returned my calls. Tiny’s main man, his physician, hadn’t heard from him in years, but Tiny didn’t need pills and hadn’t been sick since the eighties.
In May, the city left a notice on Tiny’s front door, imploring him to do something about the thicket of weeds. When my car hobbled up the brick hill the next morning, the notice was still tacked to his door. My stomach felt punched. Maybe this was worry, or it was dread. The notice flapped in the wind along with the screen all week.
The risk in asking the cops to kick open his door for a welfare check was that, regardless of whether your client turned out to be alive or dead, the busted-up door was now your problem.
“Try calling the morgues,” my manager said. “See if he’s there before you break down his door.”
“That sounds awful.” I wanted to bury my face and cry at her desk, but I thought about kittens so that I wouldn’t. I hadn’t been sleeping well, and I usually weep whenever I’m tired.
Tiny was a pain in my ass, showing up whenever he pleased, loud-talking in the lobby, asking me to call the water company. Maybe this urge to cry was called sadness, and maybe it’s human to feel sad when people might be dead.
I’d never called a morgue before. I had been monitoring the obituaries online, typing in his name. Usually every month or two, someone on my caseload turned up dead. Sometimes we found the obituary or a family member called us to cancel the cleaning girl. I stored sympathy cards for bereft families in my desk, and wrote little notes about the departed.
None of the morgues had seen anybody by that name. One suggested I try the county medical examiner.
“Ah yes,” said the detective after I gave Tiny’s real name and birthday. “We have his body, haven’t been able to track down next of kin. You all have any names?”
My chest felt heavy and empty. Grief. Maybe heartbreak. He was found in the street, said the detective, cause of death something about his heart, maybe, I’m fairly certain, but I couldn’t listen, couldn’t grab onto his words to store them and review later. I gave the name of the ex-wife, the numbers for the three customers listed as emergency contacts. I didn’t know of assets that might pay for cremation. He had cashed in his life insurance policies to replace his pipes.
A man lived on the earth for ninety-some years, leaving behind the case managers who once stopped what they were doing to watch him zip down the sidewalk. Maybe the old men and the kids clogging the sidewalks honored him in some way without notifying the newspapers. I called Tiny’s main man, the physician, to relay the news. The receptionist thanked me. She would close his file.
Slipping off the earth without funereal fanfare seemed tragic for a whole human life. There was nowhere to send flowers, no bereft to receive my sympathy card with some bullshit sunset on the cover. I waited to close his file until my manager invited me to do so. (Tiny was inflating my caseload number.) I finished the paperwork, canceled his case management service in the computer system. His file would be reviewed by the quality assurance team. Then his papers pulled from the folder and shredded. A white label would be peeled off and then slapped over his name. A new name would be written on the white label with a marker. What was left of Tiny was a human body with a stopped heart, waiting to be claimed. A barber chair with a mirror and scissors. A box on a hill with plastic pipes, an overgrown yard, and back taxes. A white lady, sixty years younger with a habit of wandering toward the window around nine, feeling the sting of clean-burning sadness, sadness unsullied by alcohol, for the loss of him.
Sam Brighton is currently working on a collection of personal essays. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Exposition Review and Memoryhouse. She regularly contributes health and wellness essays filled with exclamation points and enthusiasm to a regional newsletter for people living with multiple sclerosis. She lives in Portland, Oregon, where she works as a nurse. Sam is a Cleaver Emerging Artist.
Image credit: Rawle C. Jackman on Flickr
Note: this essay was amended by the author on May 16, 2018.