Marlin and the Duck
It was about 8:00 A.M. on a
In my peripheral vision, a moving dot of white caused me to do a double take. I could swear I saw something that looked like a duck. As my gaze went for a more serious second look around the side of the building, I indeed did see a white duck, a black Chow dog and the lower half of a sleeping bag, the visibility of the top half being cut off by the building. Could there be a homeless person sleeping there and did this happen on a nightly basis? The bottom half of the sleeping bag in my range of vision appeared to be moving some and I caught a glimpse of a man sitting up, apparently getting ready to start his day. I scurried inside the building before he saw me, as I had a sense he would be embarrassed to know I had seen him. My office window overlooked the front of the building, and I quickly made that my destination for a better view. This afforded me seeing him walk to the front of the building and head off toward town, carrying the duck under one arm and holding the end of a leash in his other hand, with his dog at the other end. I wondered where he was going, especially with a duck. Even ducks aren’t always welcome where dogs are. The man had shoulder length hair and a beard, and appeared to be perhaps in his late 30’s. I would notice later that he was also completely toothless.
Working by appointment, I didn’t always get to work as early as 8:00 A.M., but the next time an appointment brought me in that early, I saw him washing his face by the hose connected to the faucet around the side of the building. When he saw me, he hastened to hustle off, seemingly embarrassed. This went on over a period of two weeks and I wondered if he was friendly and if he could be spoken to fairly intelligently. I had always wanted to talk to a homeless person to find out perhaps a little about a background that would cause someone to lead this kind of life and be satisfied with it enough to stay in that situation.
I finally decided to approach him one morning as he was walking expediently down the sidewalk with his back to the building in an apparent attempt to get out of there before the building started its activity for the day. I called out to him that I really liked his duck. I wasn’t sure how he would react, but he stopped and turned to me beaming like a proud parent. This was the effect I was hoping for. He explained that his girlfriend had given it to him as a tiny duckling and he had raised it. The dog belonged to his girlfriend also, but she was homeless and slept nightly in her car. I was to find out later that sometimes she passed out for days in the car on the dope she bought with her monthly welfare check.
Marlin introduced himself, his duck, Baby and his dog named Toes. His dog, a mixture of Chow and German Shepherd, was solid black and unlike a typical Chow, was extremely friendly and loving to everybody he encountered. Marlin asked me if I had some spare change for a cup of coffee, which had been the other reason I had hesitated initiating a conversation, as I didn’t want to have such a thing become a pattern.
I wondered where Marlin hung out during each day and suspected it was the big park two blocks away. I later learned it was and he cleverly chose the side that was located across from a busy McDonalds. The pets were the lure for his handouts, though I noticed over time, that he did make them is first priority as far as how he spent his money.
During a local T.V. news short done on him, he said that he couldn’t get a job because of his animals, nor could he sleep in a homeless shelter for that reason. It was also the perfect excuse for no job aspirations. However, I was soon to learn from other homeless people, that none of them wanted to sleep at the shelter or have anything to do with it, as the people there were said to be wild; willing to kill someone for a pair of shoes.
Marlin kept his sleeping bag rolled up and stashed in the hedge that divided the yards of my office building from the dentist’s office next door. It wasn’t very discreet a stash, but he returned every evening, unrolled it for his nightly snooze, and was gone the next morning around 8 A.M. before the day’s activity started. Like most everyone else, he went “to work,” but his job was working the people at the park and McDonald’s.
When the winter comes to
When spring rolled around again, I learned that some kind, sympathetic soul had purchased for him, an old rattletrap van, mainly as a shelter from the weather, and this had been the ‘dry place.’ But by the time spring came, he had been advised by local police, to remove it from the street where it was parked. So he moved it to the street in front of my office building, which was on a little side street a short block behind the main thoroughfare about 2 miles from the center of town. There was a parking lot alongside my building which was on a corner, and at the edge of that parking lot, was a row of tall lilac bushes that served as a division between our parking lot and a two story building also on the other side of those hedges but facing the other street. This building had been vacated and was due for renovation soon. The homeless people seemed to be using that back yard as an encampment, walking through our parking lot for access.
I spoke to the other two offices in my building and suggested that we let Marlin park his van at the far edge of the parking lot by the hedge, since he had been told he had to get it off the street. Since it was private property, the police wouldn’t bother him about parking his van there. Much of the homeless population in town had taken up residence anyway, in the back yard of this now abandoned building. Even though they seemed shy and non-aggressive and stayed fairly invisible, I was worried that they may become a threat to people in my office building, especially after dark, and I didn’t want my clients to encounter any panhandlers in my parking lot. The office next door to me upstairs, was that of a Christian group called ‘Young Life;’ hosting high schoolers coming together there about twice a week to worship. We were also concerned for their safety as well as the fear they may feel if these homeless people approached them. Marlin presented himself as a friendly, gentle and harmless spirit. We thought perhaps if we gave him some responsibility, he would feel he was earning his keep and we knew he wouldn’t want to do anything to upset his good situation of being able to park there. He had a good relationship with his homeless cohorts and he could keep them in line as well. In the process, we would allow him to keep his dignity and feel important while guarding our turf and our clients.
We knew the homeless people were going to be there regardless, so we may as well have a free 24-hour security guard, especially one who had a good relationship with them. They were basically only there at night and kept a low profile during the day. Marlin’s job was to keep them from bothering anyone, panhandling or breaking into anyone’s car. He took his job seriously and chastised any of them who entertained any ulterior thoughts. There were never any problems, and in fact, he watched also for any glass or nails that had made their way into our lot from the construction or nightly activities that included the occasional bottle.
I had a good talking relationship with Marlin now. I sometimes approached him on a Saturday afternoon after my last client left and talked to him, usually going and getting him a hamburger first. One day I asked him what he saw himself doing in 10 years. He said he hadn’t much thought about it. I said I hoped he still wasn’t homeless. He said, “Oh, no, I sure don’t want to still be doing this.” So I told him he needed to get a plan, and I would help him. He was enthusiastic. I laid out a plan for Marlin to get out of his rut, get cleaned up, get a job and be a regular member of society. It included going to the nearby dental school to get some teeth (so he could get some self respect, which I thought was a good first step) then getting a driver’s license, so he could take his van to a construction site and live in the van there with his duck and dog while he earned enough money to eventually get an apartment. He liked the scheme, so I planned to take him for a drivers test, and was even willing to let him use my brand new car. He said he already knew how to drive, but had just let his license lapse during some jail time for being drunk and disorderly, and never got it renewed. Up to now, he had been getting another homeless person to drive his van from point A to point B to be parked, though otherwise, it was never driven. I figured he couldn’t get into too much trouble driving around a driving course with the driving tester. I went and got him a Rules of the Road book from the motor vehicles testing center, but he didn’t read any words with more than about 3 letters and needed tutoring, which I also planned to do for him. However, he was either never where he said he would be at the appointed time, or said that he was too busy or just didn’t feel like it that day. I even bought him a new watch. How smart is that-- buying a homeless guy a new watch? I wanted him to keep his appointment with me. He had it for about a day, then I’m sure he sold it—box and all.
Part of the objective for the driver’s license was for the value in having the official ID itself. In order to do this, I needed a copy of his birth certificate and had to contact his place of birth, which was
With all this in place, he finally confessed that he had no interest in obtaining a driver’s license, since he couldn’t read the street signs, nor did he care about an official ID. He only wanted the kind of picture ID that was easily obtainable from any agency for about $12.00 with any name anyone chose to give the clerk, and which, by most agencies, was not considered official. He had also said he didn’t want to “Go nowhere where there were cops,” when I offered to take him to the DMV just for the purpose of getting a valid ID with his birth certificate. I told him the people there weren’t cops, they just wore uniforms. No dice. It made me wonder why he was running from the cops.
I asked him once if he had an interest in my calling someone in his family to tell them he was okay. He said no one had any phones there—they lived way in the back woods. He had been homeless for 10 years, having left home when the last of his two parents died. Some other things that I learned were that his father used to shoot a gun in the house at the ceiling and scare them all to death to make a point in his drunken stupor. Marlin and his brother used get a different rattletrap car every month with their welfare check, drive it off the lot and get arrested by the cops the same day within a couple hours, only to get it confiscated. The next month they’d go through the same process, until the police got wise and would wait by the car lot on the day the welfare checks came out, and nab them fresh off the lot.
Marlin had hitchhiked first to FL. when his mother died, as he wanted to see the world. He had stayed there for 2 or 3 years, where a preacher tried to rehabilitate him from alcohol, to no avail. Eventually I think the preacher gave up on him, but he wound up hitchhiking to
He said the homeless people lived from state assistance check to check, which they would spend on either dope or alcohol. They occasionally checked into some tacky hotel for a few days to get ‘cleaned up’ –(I assume that meant mainly hygienically speaking) and sleep off their stupor, then in the winter, they would commit some crime that would put them away just long enough to get them through the winter in a warm jail, where they were also fed. They would buy clothes from the Salvation Army or habitually get them free from some church, and often they would stash them somewhere outside, like in the hole of some tree, but most often when they’d go back for them, the clothes would be so moldy they couldn’t be worn.
Perhaps most all homeless people treat life like Marlin did, in that they live for the moment; what makes them happy in that small instantaneous time frame. That’s all that matters, and maybe somewhere deep inside, that’s all they think they have. They certainly don’t think much beyond that. For instance, one summer, he told me he was thinking about selling his van. When I advised against it, he said it was too hot. I tried to point out to Marlin, “Sure, the van is hot now because it’s summer. But what about when you need a dry place and shelter from the winter?”
His reply was, “But I need the money from the van to get cleaned up and get on my feet.” Of course he spent it on a few nights in a motel and was back on the streets when it ran out. So now we were back to square one.
As far as money, he spent whatever he had immediately. For this reason, when a client of mine gave me $20.00 to give him for his birthday, I rationed it $5.00 at a time.
Eventually, I filled the paper work out for Marlin to get state financial help, and set it up with an agency called ARC (Assoc. of Retarded Citizens) to receive and manage the checks and his money. He had had to go to a psychologist’s office to take a test to ascertain this ‘retarded’ status’, but I think the homeless people who want to, all know how to act mentally challenged to their advantage. To fail such a test, is to ‘pass’, in a sense. Less is more. I used my office address for his paperwork, as having a street address is essential to receive checks and any other pertinent mail. I was to open his mail, and for anything that needed to be filled out, I would go find him, usually at McDonald’s, and verbalize the questions, then I filled in his answers. He made any necessary phone calls from the outdoor phone on the McDonald’s patio, but then the offices would call me because the background noise made his end of the conversation inaudible and there were things they needed to understand. When need be, to bring them to a fuller understanding, I would explain that the McDonald’s patio was basically his living room.
With financial aid, he was able to get an apartment. They would give him money from his account, which was added to monthly by the state aid checks, when he asked, providing he hadn’t used it all that month. They also managed his money by paying his monthly expenses from that account also. His on-again, off-again girlfriend, had long ago repossessed her dog, and I had basically talked him into giving his duck to a good home in the interest of being able to get a job. He had made the acquaintance of a lady who raised birds, and had relinquished the duck to a good home.
He had me listed on every official paper he ever had to fill out, and I basically was his secretary, receiving his phone calls and his mail, taking the papers to him and tracking him down to remind him of various official appointments, (some of which he chose not to keep because he said he was ‘too busy.’) After he got an apartment, I didn’t see him very much—a couple years went by. One landlord I called to inquire of his welfare, told he me was a terrible drunk now, and that he had even influenced other formerly alcoholic and homeless tenants there who were trying to reform, to start drinking again.
One summer day after returning from a trip to my own hometown in
Upon my follow-up inquiry about the state-required autopsy in about a month, I did learn that he died of extreme alcohol poisoning.
There were several times Marlin revealed through his actions that he was a manipulator, manipulating people, even me, to get what he wanted. I say ‘even me,’ because I would think it would be to his advantage to at least keep me, if no one else, from being able to see this, when so much help was coming from me. There had even been a time one fall when I had driven him about 35 miles to be a live-in farm hand on a horse ranch that looked like a beautiful movie scene. It would have been perfect for him. $150.00 a week cash and a free place to live with all meals included. By my phoning the lady later, I was surprised to find he only lasted there 2 days, before he got mad and hitchhiked back to
It appears that they are willing to settle for complacency and a bit of inconvenience, as the alternative to working. Sleeping under a stairwell or around the back of someone’s house or store, or even on a park bench, is no big deal to them. At least not the ones I met and they told me as much. They keep their bedding hidden until it’s time to bed down anyway, so most of the time, they go completely undetected. If they are ever caught and asked to move on, they simply do, and don’t worry about it. There’s plenty of ground on which to sleep and stairwells to supply shelter. There were people who had offered various ones jobs, but the homeless person never showed up at the appointed time or place to take them up on it.
I also learned that the product of a particular given lifestyle and environment begets itself and it is probably more the exception that someone rises above it, though that occasional success story would be nice to hear. It would take another writing of this size to explain some of the things Marlin had done during the course of our relationship to substantiate some of these conclusions, which are equally as interesting, and some quite amusing. I may address these in a Part two if readers make it known to me via the comment link below that they have an interest in a more detailed follow-up.
It was difficult to ascertain how smart Marlin really was. He was cunning, perhaps had a learning disability, but not really dumb. There were probably several things he could have done to earn a living, but had no interest and was complacent about his situation. Unfortunately, there are 1000’s of Marlins, but most don’t have pets. For Marlin, who genuinely loved his pets, even they had a purpose, which served him to his advantage. It’s just a shame that the cunning and calculating couldn’t have been applied to some good end, even for just his own sake.