Silver Lining

by Gary Lagerloef

First I made a call to the morgue to learn that my brother hadn't turned up dead, then drove over to Salvation Army and showed his photo to a few people, staff and transients. No luck.

One of the staff suggested a nearby park where transients hang out during the day. A dozen or so guys were there, some sleeping on the lawn. The night had been cold, but the sun was warming things up. A group of guys was walking by so I went over and showed them the photo. One recognized Tom and was pretty sure he'd seen him earlier, maybe at Saint Vincent's. His name was Calvin. Calvin knew of a tent city along the railroad tracks where there were folks who might have seen Tom. He offered to show me. The place was pretty squalid, with trash everywhere and a strong smell of urine. There were only a few people around; we chatted with them and showed the photo. No recognition, but the people were genuinely nice. Some were a bit stoned, but they were really open and forthcoming. Conversations tended to veer off, but the sun was warm and we were amiable. Calvin took me to one other park, then asked if I could spare a couple of bucks. I had no small bills, so I handed him a twenty. When we got out of the car, he took off on foot without even a good-bye, presumably to the nearest bar. I still felt grateful to him and wished him well. I also decided I need to keep a -supply of small bills or I'll run out of cash real fast.

Three guys sitting on the grass were working their way through a six-pack. From them, I got the impression that Freemont Street was the place to go so there I went. The next couple of hours I spent wandering around the square, accosting skid-row looking types, showing the photo and -getting no leads.

Someone suggested the Senior Center. On the way there I stopped to talk to a guy in his mid-thirties. He thought Tom looked familiar, maybe he'd seen him in some bars recently. We chatted for a few minutes - he wanted to be sure I was Tom's brother. He said, "Sometimes people don't want to be found." I appreciated that possibility, but tried to convey to him how hard it is for the family to be cut off and not know. He said it was painful to call home because the conversations were so tearful for his family members, especially for his sister. I was near tears myself as I expressed my simple desire to find Tom and let him know that I cared enough to want to know his condition, for better or worse.

I believe this stranger and I found real compassion for each other. Furthermore, he told me about a bar called the Ambassador where a lot of street guys hang out. He thought he'd seen Tom there from time to time. I offered him cigarette money and moved on. I wonder what will become of him and what impact our conversation will have?

The next stranger I stopped didn't know Tom, but he offered to take a copy of the photo and show it around. I checked out the Senior Center next, and the blood plasma bank with no leads, then walked back to my hotel. At 5:30 I drove back out to Saint V's to see who was lining up for the night. I encountered a young guy named Ron who recognized Tom right away. He'd seen him on the bus. He described Tom as wearing a red jacket and gray slacks, and listening to his radio with headphones. This sounded really authentic! He said Tom often rides the number 301 bus all night if he has no place to sleep, "silver lining" a pint of vodka. This was sounding even more authentic. He suggested checking out the main bus terminal early in the a.m., and perhaps Saint Vincent's, too.

I had decided earlier in the day that if I hadn't found Tom by evening I would go to an Alanon meeting, so I went. A woman named Eva led the discussion; she chose the topic of grief. For her, it was the grief of letting go of old familiar ways as she coped with change. I took the opportunity to speak near the end of the meeting, telling how grief was a word that really captured the focus of my feeling about Tom, how I had looked up to him so much when I was younger, how tough it had been to witness his life going down the tube all these years, and how I mourned for him. I was touched and surprised at the outpouring of -compassion and concern from these folks. After the meeting, it's traditional to retire to a nearby Denny's for coffee and a bite to eat. I was invited to join. It was a pleasant time, all jammed in around a few tables talking and joking.

The Alanon group broke up after midnight. I drove back to my hotel and wandered over to the Ambassador. The bartender was a middle-aged woman named Mary who recognized Tom's photo, saying he comes in often to -purchase a pint, then leaves. She'd been off for a couple of days, but was sure he comes in nearly every day. So I asked her, if she sees Tom, to let him know I'm at the Western, and she kindly agreed. She was concerned enough to remark that she thinks he's been drinking a bit too much lately. I had a glass of wine and waited around the bar for awhile, then went to bed.

Saturday I woke up at seven, having forgotten to set my alarm. I was annoyed because I had wanted to get over to St. V's at six when they serve coffee and donuts to see if Tom would show. Instead I hurried over to the bus depot and hung out there for a couple of hours scanning the number 301. I bought breakfast at McDonald's, gave my hash browns to a man who asked me for a quarter, which I also gave him. As I walked back through the terminal, a voice called, "Find your brother yet?" It was a middle-aged guy I had spoken to the day before (at St. V's, I think.) His name was Willie, and we chatted for about a half an hour. He'd been through several months of detox in LA earlier in the year. It was also his birthday; he showed me his ID to prove it. He said he'd been to the unemployment office and found a lead to a job as "dough-master" for a pizza place, and another with the metro bus service with interviews on Monday.

Willie and I headed over to "Echoes of Faith" church where food was to be served. The meal wasn't ready, but some craft booths were set up so I bought a Christmas tree ornament for $2. Willie and I stood in the warm air while he told me about growing up in Chicago. His father was prominent in the Teamsters Union, but also drank. He taught Willie to drink as a kid. It was becoming time for me to head to another Alanon meeting. Willie decided to go to the apartment of a friend who had insisted he come over on his birthday. He almost decided not to go, then changed his mind, a stroke of luck for me because instead of going direct to the Alanon meeting, I offered to drop him off at his friend's place. This turned out to be a couple of blocks from my hotel, so I decided to stop by and check for messages. In my room the phone showed no flash on the message light, but as I was leaving I heard a soft buzz. I turned and saw the message light flash. I called the front desk and the message was from Tom - he would wait in the Keno Bar until noon. I walked over and there he was.

He was sitting on a bar stool with his back to the bar, intently focused on an unlit, half-smoked cigar. He was peeling away some loose shreds of tobacco before lighting up. My arrival interrupted that process. I put my hand on his shoulder - we gave each other a hug. One of the first things he said was that I had been on his mind lately. Then he proceeded to tell me about his financial fortunes: still very meager, but going through greater gyrations. He has learned about a couple of slot machines that have accumulating bonuses. The strategy is to search out those machines with nearly complete bonuses, four out of five lucky 7's for example, and just play those. The improved chances for pay-out may improve overall odds. The result is that he sometimes hits a machine for a few hundred bucks, but then easily runs that back down to zero.

I asked if he wanted to go for something to eat. He was more interested in a shave and a shower so we headed to my room. Tom had in his pocket a free pass to breakfast buffet (with champagne!) at one of the casinos south of town. So after he was dressed we headed out there. The buffet idea was perfect, not only cheap, but we could be leisurely and wander over to the buffet table whenever and as often as we wanted. We sat and talked for hours. He told me candidly about his life on the street. The previous two nights he slept at the airport. The slot machines there are relatively good prospects for credit hustling, and it's possible to lie down on the carpet in certain corners and get some sleep. It's far better than the park, and, unlike the shelters, he can stay out late. I caught him up on all the familiar names; he listened intently, seemed to really care. Much of the discourse, though, was reminiscing - his old stories - plus some new ones I hadn't heard. Recently he'd been jumped by a guy who wanted his money. Tom told him to fuck off, and the guy hit him hard on the forehead, knocked him down and said again, "Give me your money."

Tom staggered up, refused, and got hit the same way again. This time, on his hands and knees, he remembered a lesson from his army training. "If you're standing and the other guy isn't, you win the fight." He remembered how to knock a guy down by hitting him in the knee. So from his hands and knees, Tom punched this guy's knee sideways and took him down, then proceeded to kick the shit out of him. He continued on his way to the Sahara Casino for a breakfast brunch and washed up in the men's room to get the blood off his face. At breakfast the staff asked him to leave because he had started bleeding again at the table. "Sir, we have to ask you to leave - you're bleeding all over the table." Tom thought that was very amusing.

It's hard to recall the details of our conversation, but he was very candid about his life. I am grateful that he felt comfortable enough with me to be open with no fear of rebuke. Likewise, I felt able to be open with him.

We hung out at the free buffet until mid-afternoon, then drifted around the casino watching the end of a couple of football games. Then Tom took me to the only "yuppie" place in downtown Vegas, a microbrew restaurant next to the railroad station. We had a couple of tall, very nice microbrew beers and continued to BS about just about anything.

We finally wandered back to our room sometime after 10 or 11 p.m. and he called our brother Wayne. I, of course, only got one side of the conversation, but they quickly fell into "real" talk, not just pleasantries. Afterwards, Tom told me that he saw himself as a "maintenance drunk" while Wayne was more of a binge drinker. I sensed that remark gave Tom some sense of justification. It's apparent that he's not drinking as hard as he once was, so maybe there is some measure of self-control. In retrospect, I see the paradox in the control issue. The first step in AA is to recognize that the alcoholic has no control over alcohol. Only by accepting this and by giving up control to God does he gain control.

Tom and I watched Saturday Night Live and went to sleep. I woke up early Sunday morning, showered, and did tai chi while he snoozed. We spent the day sight-seeing - drove part way around Lake Mead, stopped at an empty beach, walking, talking, kicking stones as we strolled.

We returned to the hotel room relatively early. He had shown interest earlier in the -photos I'd brought, and when I suggested I bring them out he agreed. We looked through the many pictures of our mother and us as small kids. He really looked carefully and slowly. As we got through them all, his comment was, "What a shame," nostalgically and somewhat emotionally. Next we looked over the stuff I had with me. Included were photos of Tom racing in his Sprite and photos of his kids when they were little. We cropped these down to wallet size and he put them in his wallet.

We polished off the evening watching X-Files and sacked out early. Next day we went back to the Sahara for the breakfast buffet. I gave Tom two $50 bills for his birthday and Christmas. He was really surprised and grateful and said it would be his bankroll for his slot machine strategy. We spent the remainder of our time together wandering some of the major casinos on the Strip - the super-mall in Caesar's with an extravagant animatronics of Poseidon's squabbling offspring and the destruction of Atlantis. It was -finally time for me to split. We walked back to the car. I dropped him at another place down the Strip. I rubbed his shoulders and said goodbye. He seemed eager to get going.

Epilogue: This excerpt from my diary recounts my journey to Las Vegas to seek out my older brother in December '97. At the time, no one in the family had heard any word from him in more than a year and a half. We didn't know if he was even alive. Since then, we have kept in touch every few months. In September '98, Tom, Wayne, and I got together for a weekend on my sailboat in Puget Sound. It was the first time the three of us had been together since our youngest brother's wedding 14 years earlier. We have had two other reunions since. Tom is now 59 years old. He still lives on the street, he still consumes one or two pints of vodka a day -whenever he can, and he is still my brother.
- G.L., February 2000



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