A Man Named Ken
There was a man named Ken who I met in the overnight shelter in Northampton. He was a tall man, maybe in his fifties, sporting a mustache. Ken was a medic in Viet Nam, also a heroin addict, but a caring individual. People were drawn to him, and he was a leader of sorts in the homeless community.
He took me under his wing, to some extent—showed me how to keep my feet dry in winter. Well, it worked to some extent. I remember that he had a girlfriend named Elizabeth, who lived in a tent beside the railroad tracks. She did not like staying in the shelter, I think because too many of the men would hit on her. I remember she was religious and carried a bible around with her frequently.
There was a waiting list for the homeless halfway house posted at the shelter and his name was right above mine. I remember that he allowed me to bump myself past him on the list when we hit the top of the list. I always felt guilty about that, because I made it to the halfway house a couple of months before him. Later on, he died of a drug overdose in the upstairs bathroom while sitting on the toilet. I imagined that if he had gotten into the shelter before me, maybe it would have made some kind of difference in terms of his fate. I know that sounds crazy, but that’s how I was thinking. The fact that I was the one who found him sitting on the toilet with the needle poised in his left hand accentuated this feeling of guilt, somehow.
Another thing: earlier in the evening he asked to speak to me downstairs and I was too preoccupied to take the time. Again, I imagined that if he had spoken to me about how he was feeling perhaps I could have helped him in some way.
Anyway, one day Ken shared with me something traumatic that happened to him in ‘nam. He said that a Viet Cong woman approached him with a rifle and using her baby as a shield. Ken knew that it was him or her and chose to shoot through the baby to save himself. He never forgave himself for that.
The halfway house held a community meeting after the overdose but I felt—rightly or wrongly–it was perfunctory and more aimed at covering themselves than dealing with the feelings of residents. You see, Ken’s overdose occurred during another community meeting (they were held once a week) and I thought that staff should have determined his whereabouts before proceeding.
I wrote a prose-poem and song about the incident that I will share now—part of my attempt to heal myself and somehow commemorate Ken…
Be a True Friend If You Dare (a song for at-risk teens)
Well, I want to tell you kids a story about a man I met one day, in a shelter in Northampton, Massachusetts, USA. He had a gentle, simple manner, but he lived a hard and crazy life. He never saw his son in Wooster and I don’t think he had a wife.
He helped me get acquainted with the danger of the street, to walk about in winter while avoiding frozen feet. I knew he had a problem. He stuck a needle in his arm. I knew he could be shady, but he never did me harm.
The man I’m telling you about was a medic in Vietnam, He could not leave his pain behind, and yes, he gave a damn. Before I had a chance to tell him just how much I really cared, I found him overdosed one day. My gift to him went unshared.
I wish I had had the courage to reach out to him back then. I would have tried to get him help with the battle he could not win. Sometimes in life we all need help and someone to be there. Be that someone who will reach out, a true friend, if you dare.
I guess you could say this was my attempt to use the experience as a means to help both myself and others. I have performed it in a variety of settings. But I am still haunted by the memory of that day.