First Person: The Disintegrating Man | Essay | Chicago Reader

First Person: The Disintegrating Man 

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I met Richard at the Saint James hotel back when I was between apartments and jobs and, as Richard Burton described it, "not broke, only temporarily out of funds." I decided to take a chance and move into the Saint James near downtown, where I could rent a room with a bath for $250 a month, and live there until I found an apartment or a job. The patrons included many people of modest means or no means, and some who were recovering from severe emotional problems had been placed there by social agencies. One man in particular caught my attention.

He wore a gray suit every day regardless of the temperature, and he read the newspaper in the lobby every morning. Since I was one of the better-dressed people there and one of the few women, whenever I entered the lobby this gentleman would pull the paper aside, nod, smile, snap the paper open, and stare straight into another section. He continued doing this for a week whenever I entered. During the day I would wander around the city, mixing sight-seeing with job hunting, and when I'd return, his usual seat in the lobby would be empty except for the folded remains of his morning paper, scattered like withered feathers.

Finally I decided to get acquainted and sat down beside him. "Would you like to share my paper?" he asked smiling. He held the paper neatly folded in his hands, as if he were presenting it on a velvet pillow. Accepting, I thanked him, and we spent the morning reading and courteously exchanging the different sections. It was all very homey. After finishing the final section Richard turned to me and asked, "May I treat you to a drink?" I smiled and said yes.

At the time both of us seemed out of place, me always in my dresses and heels and Richard in his gray suit in that run-down hotel. Next to the hotel was a pawnshop, and across the street was the Salvation Army. Beside that was a Baptist church converted from an old theater with "Jesus Saves" on the marquee.

Both unemployed, we soon became inseparable friends and spent most of our free time together, meeting in the lobby and reading his newspapers--always the local morning paper, and when available the Wall Street Journal and the Christian Science Monitor. "More objective reporting," Richard would say. Then we'd go to the bank to get spending money for the day, walk to the post office to check our mail, drink coffee or beer, and search for an apartment or job for me. Late afternoons we'd pick up sandwiches at a corner deli, stroll to the beach, and eat while watching the surf. We would talk and toss food in the water for the sea gulls, who loved us.

One day when we were buying sandwiches, I noticed some money was missing from my wallet. "I'm missing some money," I said. "I didn't take it," Richard replied, and ducked into the aisle of the liquor store that held the crackers. That was my first sign that something wasn't quite right with Richard. I thought maybe I'd forgotten to take the money with me. Then I thought I might have spent it. I decided not to worry about it.

Many of the people in that hotel had college degrees, and a couple had even taught in universities at one time or another. Most had families and once had been successful professionals with nice homes and lives, but gradually they'd traded all the pressures and responsibilities for alcohol or drugs. Richard had graduated with honors from Stanford with a master's degree in business administration. After graduation he'd worked for several oil companies and a few banks as a financial analyst. "I had a million dollars at one time," he told me, tugging on his suit, "but this is all that's left of it."

"You've fallen a long way from Stanford to living in this place," I told him.

"I'll get back up again," he confidently remarked.

Most street men in suits were possessive of them, as if the tattered remains of their sleeves and vests held the last fragments of an earlier life. Although Richard seemed worn and tired, he kept affirming that he would find a job one day and that that was why he kept up with the news every morning. Looking for an apartment for me, we also searched for jobs for him. However, I never actually thought Richard was seriously seeking employment. While I scanned the classifieds for jobs and apartments, he pored over the sports page or the comics. Sometimes he'd roar with indignation at the latest decisions by international politicians, and he'd clench the paper and shake a fist in the air. Then he would yawn, turn the page, and look for the comics again.

Richard loved to smoke after reading. He would light up one cigarette, place it in an ashtray, then light up one after another and place each in a different ashtray. Depending on the number of ashtrays in the room, Richard might have seven cigarettes burning at the same time. He would find one he had already lit, hold it in the air, twist it between his fingers as if inspecting for minuscule bacteria only he could see, then he'd take one long drag until the end burned bright red and went out. He once dropped a cigarette on the floor of my room and stared at it, fascinated that the wood floor could catch fire so quickly. "Richard," I yelled, "your cigarette is setting the floor on fire!"

He stood there, entranced by the growing flame. I had to put it out and clean up the ashes. Later he knelt by the scorched spot and slid his hand across it.

The days went on. Each morning we would meet in the lobby, and each evening he would tell me as he kissed my hand, "I like you more each day--you're one of the nicest women I've ever met." He always added, "I mean that." I enjoyed his company but did not think of him romantically. His appearance seemed to be disintegrating, since he never cleaned his suit, and I noticed more spots and stains appearing every day. He was like an old dog you might find on the street, lovable and friendly but set in his ways and butt-ugly. Richard was 53 but looked 65. I used to kid him that he could probably start collecting social security now, and nobody would dispute his right. This did not please him.

When I told him I was thinking about writing a book, he said his daughter worked in the New York Public Library. That was the first time he'd mentioned his family. I had assumed that he was alone, and the thought of his having a daughter surprised me. What would she have thought of her father living in a downtown hotel, wearing the same suit every day and chain-smoking cigarettes as his only pleasure? I wondered how anyone could let a family member sink to this level.

One evening Richard told me he was running low on funds and asked if he could borrow some money from me. He said he had a check coming in a week and would repay me then, and he would like to take me to Mexico. When the money didn't arrive the following week he told me he had a VA check coming at the beginning of each month, and he could pay me with that.

At the beginning of the month I asked him about his VA check, and he said, "My VA what?" Then he said he had some money coming in from a small-claims suit he'd filed against a company he had done some work for.

I was beginning to get upset at having to pay for everything he needed. Eventually what he owed me grew to over $200, so I asked him to write his daughter, also a Stanford graduate, and ask her for a loan. That night he said he had called her and she was sending him $100. It never arrived. When I asked him about the check arriving from New York, Richard said, "What? I don't have a daughter in New York." He told me his daughter worked in Honolulu in public relations for United Airlines. "She can get me free tickets to either Hong Kong or New York. How would you like to make a trip this summer?"

He mailed a letter to her in my presence after I'd forced him to write it and address and seal the envelope, but he never got a reply.

Over the next few days Richard's appearance grew worse. When the zipper on his pants broke one day, he taped a section of the sports page over it. He stopped shaving, and his hair began looking disheveled and dirty.

Richard did continue helping me look for apartments. "We're going to find you a nice place to live," he would tell me. "And then I'll come visit you and pay you what I owe when my checks come."

I had stored a bottle of antidepressants in my medicine cabinet, and one day when I looked they were gone. "The maid must have taken them," Richard told me. I also had some sleeping pills, which I hid in my purse so he wouldn't find them. I was beginning to get scared when he told me that he saw the maids take lots of people's things from their rooms and that I shouldn't leave pills out in the open. "I'll give you $12 to make up for it later," he said.

The next day my sleeping pills disappeared. Pretty soon I noticed that every type of pill would disappear from my medicine cabinet whenever Richard dropped by to visit. I was tempted to place some laxatives in there.

Finally we located an apartment with a pool. Richard asked if he could move in with me and share the rent. I said he could, but only for one month. We spent one day selecting furniture, and then I packed all my belongings in suitcases and headed for our new place. Richard packed all his belongings in a brown paper bag.

Although Richard lied a lot, I still believed he had been well educated, and he used to read everything he could get his hands on, from trashy romance novels to my collection of Will Durant's history books, recently retrieved from storage. I don't know why I put up with his dirtiness--perhaps because I still enjoyed his company. We used to talk about a variety of subjects, from human relationships and psychology to politics and ancient history.

One day Richard actually did receive a check from the VA and cashed it. He went out and bought groceries, cigarettes, and wine, and we celebrated the new apartment. The check seemed to have cheered him up, and he began to shave again and eat more than usual. At this time I told him that when we went out he could pay his bills and I would pay mine. He agreed.

Then his money ran out again, and he started taking my cigarettes without asking. More sleeping pills disappeared, and I began hiding them in a locked trunk in the closet. I didn't know what to do with him.

One day while cleaning the bathroom floor I noticed a hole in one of the tiles and remembered that Richard would get up in the middle of the night and sit in the bathroom. After 15 minutes he would leave, but I never heard the sound of water, so I began to wonder what he might be doing in there.

I asked Richard about the hole in the bathroom floor. "Don't look at me," he said. "I didn't do it."

I thought about calling Crisis Counseling. The next day, when I came home from work, Richard ran to the door wearing a big grin. "My daughter just called!" he cried happily. "She's going to loan me $100 and it's in the mail!"

I was so happy I decided to go for a swim in the pool and asked Richard to join me, but he said he wanted to call his daughter back. When I returned from swimming, I noticed that my purse was open and my cosmetics kit was on the table along with my keys, my wallet, and an address book. I opened my wallet and found ten dollars missing.

"Richard," I asked, "did you take some money from my purse?"

"Me? Me?" Richard stood up and curled his finger at himself. "Would I jeopardize our relationship over money?"

I stared. He sounded so sure of himself and innocent that I didn't know what to say. I decided that I would keep both keys to the apartment to myself. I immediately called the phone company to see if he had made any long-distance phone calls to New York. There were none. I noticed most of the food was missing from the refrigerator. We started fighting. Richard called me a pillhead, although he took all my pills before I could even touch them. I asked him to leave.

Suddenly he became very contrite. "Where am I going to go if I don't have any money?" he asked me in a meek, timid voice. I felt like I was talking to a small child.

The following day Richard did receive a letter from his daughter in New York, but there was no check with it. His daughter asked him not to write to her ever again. Richard began throwing a temper tantrum, banging on the doors and beating the walls with his fists. Finally, I called a crisis-intervention place and asked if they had room for a man. Richard left the next day.

He called me every day for the next week, asking if he'd gotten any mail. (He never had.) "My VA check will come in soon," he'd tell me over the phone. "I just know it will." One night he called to tell me he was hungry and that he would have to sleep in the street. I hung up on him.

Then I received a letter from Richard. He enclosed ten dollars and said he would pay me back the rest of the money he owed me later. He'd gotten a consulting job in the northern part of the state, and they had just wired him some money to move there.

He never sent the rest of the money. He stopped calling, and eventually I stopped thinking about him. The last time I saw him, when he left my apartment, was over three years ago. Then one day recently I met him on a bus.

"Richard," I said. "Didn't you get that job?"

Richard turned and looked at me. His eyes were swollen and red, his shirt dirty with food stains, his cheeks grisly, and his chin covered with stubble. When I looked into his eyes, they seemed dark and vacant. Then they lit up for a moment and he smiled and shook his head. "I'm only in town for the day," he mumbled as he yanked the silver cord to signal the bus driver to pull over at the next stop.

Richard got off. As the bus pulled away, I turned to get one last look at him. He was standing on the street, peering at the garbage can by the bus stop. I watched him reach in, pull out a can of soda, jiggle it around, tilt his head back, and pour the remaining drops of brownish liquid between his lips. Then the bus turned a corner and I saw him no more.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/John Figler.

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