What to do about Fred?
We have to do something about Fred.
I'm not sure how you, we, anyone can change things, but I know this is arguably the most caring community in the universe, so I am just going to lay it out there.
Ten years ago, I introduced my neighbor in this column space.
Fred, I said, obviously suffered from mental illness. His behavior was frequently erratic and sometimes scary. When he moved into a group home for disabled men across the street, neighbors watched Fred from their porches as he ambled down the sidewalk, mumbling and cursing.
We kept our kids close to home and told them to never, ever go in Fred's yard.
Eventually, though, Fred started responding to his new surroundings and maybe different meds. He stopped his interior conversations and began talking to those around him.
He complimented me on my yard and said sweet things to my little girls.
He borrowed books to read and, sometimes, a few dollars from those he trusted. Always paying it back, even if it took months. He drank his coffee in his yard, read his books and listened to a headset radio my husband had given him.
Occasionally Fred would make an observation or crack a joke that was blindingly brilliant, giving us insight to the mind intact under that oppressive layer of mental illness.
"Somehow," I wrote in 2001, "Fred became a neighbor instead of a nut."
Two years later Fred moved from Milton-Freewater to Walla Walla and we mourned. Who would watch out for our neighbor, keeping an eye on his behaviors -- a barometer of how effective his medications were? Who would loan him books and wrap up little gifts, maybe slip him a couple of bucks for a hot hamburger?
I'm not sure when Fred came back across the state line again. He moved to yet another group home somewhere on the East side of my town and began haunting the businesses along the highway.
It's not unusual to see Fred at Safeway, drinking coffee at the one outdoor table there.
I greet him, but it's not clear if he remembers me. While he doesn't ask for it, he's always grateful when I have a little change to slide across the tabletop. "God bless you," he says.
Fred's had many bad days in the past few years. He crosses the highway with no awareness of traffic. His hair is a mess and sometimes his clothes are soiled, and not from sitting on the ground. He seems to wear the same garments and coat year round.
It makes for a mess of emotions, I can tell you. I'm sad, I'm mad and I'm cynical.
And now I'm scared.
Several weeks back, I was driving home from work and there was Fred, asleep on the cold sidewalk, about SIX INCHES from the highway and where drivers can take a corner to head into town proper.
One person going over the curb would be all it took.
I pulled into a parking lot and called the police -- there was no place to safely stop and take matters into my own hands.
Yes, I was told, they knew about Fred sleeping by the highway. He wasn't, however, breaking a law.
Can't an officer go wake him up, I asked.
Negative. Over and out.
Fred made it through that day and more. By the grace of God, he continues to drink his coffee and stare at nothing. I'll be honest, I have no real idea of his mental state or if he can even enjoy the books he once voraciously devoured.
But I see a man who appreciates language and music, who cares about politics and has been worried about hungry children.
I see Fred, who grinned big when we gave him the smallest of gifts.
I know others have felt the same way and responded in the past - merchants, postal carriers, police officers. I'm sure some still do.
It would be tempting to complain to some over-scheduled case manager and call that good enough. I've done that in the past, but I don't see a difference in Fred's life from those conversations.
And I never see Fred with a caregiver of any kind, although he must be sleeping somewhere other than a sidewalk.
So how about those of us with no official job title when it comes to Fred? Can we take care of this neighbor?
I'm not sure how, exactly. We can't get him to a shower or haul his clothes off to a washer. We can't cut his hair or scrub under his nails.
But ... we can buy a healthy snack or hot cup of coffee in Safeway once in a while and offer it to Fred. We can keep fast food certificates in our wallet to hand over on some days.
We can give away a paperback or magazine at times.
And surely someone has an old radio headset they've long given up for an iPod -- Fred loves radio. Please make sure the batteries are fresh.
Can we give him a smile and a "hello" like we mean it?
If we add it all up, we might fill in some holes in this man's life.
There are a lot of Freds in this world. There are. We can't do everything for everyone.
But this is my -- our -- Fred, our own refugee from the pit of mental illness. I need your help in telling him he's part of a community. He won't respond to being called Fred, of course, I never use his real name. You can just call him "Friend."
You'll know my neighbor when you see him. He's the nut hanging out here and there, with the soul of a real person looking out from those exhausted eyes.