Old Bill

(This is a fictional story, but was inspired by a homeless man that I’ve seen many times in Glendora. I learned from my friend Mark that his name is James. He is a very quiet man and keeps largely to himself. I think I wrote this as an acknowledgement that we all deal with something deep inside that causes us to do what we do. Was that vague enough?)

         He was known by most everybody as Old Bill, which was odd because his real name was James Webster. Ten or fifteen years ago it was believed that some teenagers were teasing him, trying to get him to talk, and just started calling him Old Bill. Few knew that he was sixty-four years of age but he looked much older, the constant exposure aging him prematurely. Unlike many other homeless men he never used a shopping cart to house and transport his possessions. Rather, he had a backpack stuffed so full that it was a surprise the zipper didn’t give way, and a plastic garbage bag. He always wore a winter coat no matter what the temperature was, even in the dog days of summer, and a long beard hid most of his face.

         He’d been a fixture in Glendora, California since migrating there in 1977 from Omaha, Nebraska. People newer to Glendora would, on occasion, greet him, but he would barely acknowledge their presence with a grunt, never making eye contact. He had his route, his routine that needed to be accomplished before the end of every day.

         Here was his schedule:

6:00am – Wake up and eat the two breakfast bars he’d purchased the night before. Where he’d spent the night depended on the day, each weekday finding him in one of his seven regular spots.

6:25am – Wind his Timex watch that he’d had since high school. He would set it later.

6:30am – Gather things and pack them into their specific compartments. His backpack remained constant, but he changed out his garbage bag Sunday evenings.

7:00am – Walk to his first location which was the Arco at the corner of Grand and Foothill to use the restroom and buy a Los Angeles Times and his only cup of coffee, a large of the dark roast variety. If they ran out that morning he would go without. He would also set his watch with the clock inside the store.

7:15am – Walk south on Grand to Arrow Highway, turn left, walk to the front of Stater Bros. grocery store.

9:00am – Panhandle for exactly two hours. This usually rendered between $60 – $80, depending on the day. He had his regulars as well that often helped him out, but he still never really spoke to them.

11:00am – Leave panhandling post and head over to McDonalds for lunch, always ordering the Big Mac meal, large, with a Mr. Pibb. He’d eat it outside, behind the restaurant on a little patch of grass. A large oak tree shaded the area.

12:30pm – Walk to Lonehill, go north and stop at the corner of Lonehill and Route 66 to head to the Stater Bros. located there. (On occasion he would have to stop at the Big 5 sporting goods store for camping supplies, etc.)

2:00pm – Panhandle for two hours and make between $50 – $70.

4:00pm – Continue north on Lonehill and turn west onto Foothill.

5:00pm – Stop at the restroom in Finkbiner Park to do bathing and washing of the clothes he wore the day before. James had seven sets of clothes, one for each day of the week.

6:00pm – Continue west on Foothill to Glendora Liquor. Purchase the fifth size of Jim Beam bourbon, two breakfast bars, and a refrigerated ham sandwich on white bread. If they don’t have one or more of these items he has to risk more interaction with people by continuing over to the CVS pharmacy a couple of blocks away.

6:30pm – Arrive at the corner of Foothill and Grand. Continue to the overnight dwelling area depending on the day of the week.

8:00pm – Well, usually around 8:00pm, set up camp, spreading out gear in the exact, precise way that he’s done since his arrival in June of 1977: Pitch 4-person tent always facing south, lay out blanket to completely cover the floor of the tent, lay out sleeping bag on the east side of ten, feet toward the tent opening, place backpack on the northwest corner of the tent, lay out tomorrow’s clothes from the backpack and lay them on the southwest corner of the tent, take out sandwich, Jim Beam, and paper, sit cross-legged on the blanket in the center facing south while taking evening meal and drink while reading the entire paper cover to cover. When it got dark he would pull the camp lantern out of his backpack in order to see.

10:00pm – Finish remainder of the Jim Beam bottle and go to bed.

         Even when it was raining, nothing deviated from his routine. Day in and day out he had to follow this self-imposed set of rules and guidelines. If he didn’t, he would feel it deep inside in ways that really couldn’t be explained to anyone: Apprehension, fear, anxiety, just to name a few feelings that would bombard his mind.

         In 1970 Old Bill, or James as he really is, received his undergraduate degree in finance from the University of Nebraska, but all throughout his college experience, like high school, he really didn’t have friends. No one could understand him and his very rigid routines that he needed to do in order to simply cope. This routine helped him graduate Summa Cum Laude and he was able to land a job at a Bank of America branch in Lincoln right out of college.

         But after nearly seven years of trying and trying to set up his routine he decided that the modern, normal world would never work for him and, without telling his parents or his brother and sister, took what money he had and rode a bus to Los Angeles, eventually finding Glendora, which is about twenty miles or so east of downtown. It was safe, relatively wealthy, and nobody who knew him would find him there. He was able to set up the routine that, with very little variation, he has been able to do up until this moment. And he was happy. But Thursday was different.

         He had finished his final panhandling shift at the second Stater Bros. and was about a quarter mile east on Foothill, when he heard a sound coming from what seemed to be behind a small house on the north side of the street. It was a sort of sad, weak wailing and with it he thought he’d heard the word “help” through the slight breeze.

         He stopped in his tracks and listened. But his stopping caused him great discomfort because it wasn’t in his routine. He needed to continue and started to but he heard the sound again. He knew this time that it was the sound of someone in pain, and that someone, a woman, was probably older than him. The house was of the old craftsman style that were common in Southern California, probably had three bedrooms, though they would be small. It was painted in the craftsman style: light green with coffee colored trim. There was a small flower garden in the front that was well kept. A driveway was on the right side of the house and James could see a one-car garage in the back that matched the house in color. He listened and the cry went away. He wondered if he was just hearing things.

         No. He heard it again and he knew it was someone crying out for help in the back yard of this house. He looked around, hoping to find someone to check this out so that he could continue his routine. He was so close to the liquor store, so close to his evening meal and reading, not to mention his Jim Beam. There was nobody in sight, which was another rarity. This time of day he’d normally see six or seven joggers and several people walking dogs. Nobody. Why him? Why? He waited, hoping, and becoming even more agitated because he wasn’t moving!

         “C’mon! Someone! Anyone!” he grumbled to himself.

         Finally, after hearing the moan for the fourth time he veered off of his well-traveled sidewalk down the driveway of this home, hoping that he could do whatever needed to be done and then get back on his way.

         As he rounded the corner he looked to the left and saw a very elderly woman lying mostly on her side facing toward him on the back lawn. There was a broom near her and a tipped over stepladder. He walked over to her and saw that her head had a large lump on the left side of her forehead along with a gash that was trickling blood. It looked as if she was up on the stepladder and lost her balance. There was decorative river rock nearby and he realized that her head had slammed into one of those at the end of her fall. At the moment she was unconscious.

         He bent over and gently pushed on her shoulder. “Ma’am, are you OK?” he said, realizing that in her current condition she was definitely not OK.

         Her eyes opened just a little and she saw him through a haze. “Please,” she said weakly, “Please help me.”

         “Um, I don’t know what to do,” he replied.

         She lay there, weakly breathing, and her eyes closed again. But she had remained conscious and managed to eke out, “Go into my house and call 9-1-1,” she whispered.

         James stood back up. He did not want to do this at all, but he figured that he could just make the call and get back into his routine, only missing about five minutes.

          “9-1-1, what’s your emergency?”

         James heard these words as he walked the cordless phone back outside to where the woman was laying. “Um, there is an old woman who took a pretty bad fall behind her house and you’ll need to send someone to pick her up. She hit her head.”

         “Sir, is she awake?”

         “No, not right now. But she was earlier.”

         “Is she breathing?”

         “Yes, she seems to be breathing OK. Can you just call an ambulance so that I can leave?”

         “Do you know the woman?”

         “No. I was just passing by and I heard her in the back yard and she seemed to be hurt. She wanted me to call you with her phone, so I did. Can I please leave?”

         “Sir, I will need for you to stay there at least until the paramedics arrive. They’ve already been contacted and should be there in a few minutes.”

         James sighed and hung up the phone. He could hear the 9-1-1 operator saying more as he pressed the button that cut her off. He went into the house and replaced the phone on its cradle, then went back outside and stood about ten feet away from the woman and waited.

         After about a minute she stirred and her eyelids parted slightly. She saw James standing there. “Were you able to call 9-1-1?” she asked weakly.

         “Yes.” James replied.

         She closed her eyes again. “I’m so grateful to you. You…” She passed out again.

         James didn’t care. It wasn’t that he wanted harm to come to this woman, and he really hoped she would be all right. It was that he was not keeping his routine and he needed to continue. He only had a few more things to do, but he was starting to run behind.

         He could hear the sirens getting nearer and this signified hope to him. A minute later an ambulance, paramedic squad, and a police car skidded into her driveway and two paramedics leaped out of their vehicle, grabbed their gear from the side compartments, and ran up the driveway, the police officer with them.

         “Is she in the back yard?” one of them yelled over to James.

         James nodded and pointed. The paramedics rounded the corner of the house, headed over to the woman and began to work on her. James was relieved and started to leave, but felt the firm hand of the police officer grab his arm.

         “Hold on there. You can’t go anywhere yet. I need to ask you a few questions,” he said authoritatively.

         “I need to leave,” said James.

         “Not until I ask you a few questions. Please, take a seat over there and I’ll be with you shortly.” He pointed to a small bench near the driveway.

         James’ shoulders drooped and he slowly walked over to the bench and sat down. He waited. And waited.

Finally, the police walked back over to him. James rose and asked if he could leave now.

         “You know how this looks, right?” the police officer asked.

         “I didn’t do anything. I heard her moaning as I walked by and found her here. She told me to call 9-1-1.”

         “How do I know that was you?”

         “Who else could it be?” James was so frustrated right now. “Do you really think I’d hurt that poor lady, and THEN call 9-1-1?”

         “That’s why I need to have a conversation with you. I don’t yet know what to think.”

         That’s how it went over the next several minutes, with the officer seemingly not believing anything James had to say. Ten more minutes passed and the paramedics rounded the corner with the woman on a stretcher. As they rolled past, the woman suddenly regained consciousness. “Wait,” she quietly said to the paramedics, “stop for a moment.” Her hand slowly reached out and she signaled that she wanted James to come over to her.

         The police officer stepped forward. “Ma’am, that’s not a good idea. I need to keep him here for questioning and we need to get you to the hospital,” he said forcefully.

         “You can question him after I’m gone,” she replied with a harsh whisper, “but he saved my life and I need to thank him.”

         “What do you mean?” asked the officer as he walked over to the stretcher. James remained where he was and checked his watch for the twentieth time in five minutes.

         “I was sweeping cobwebs underneath the eaves of my house and lost my balance, falling off of the stepladder. I must have hit my head on the rock. When I would come to I would call out. It felt like over an hour when I woke up and saw that this man had heard me and had come to my rescue. I asked him to call 9-1-1 using my home phone. He did, and you’re here,” she explained.

         She looked over to James, “Sir, please come over here.”

         James did what she asked and looked down at her face.

         “Thank you for saving my life,” she said to him. “I’ve seen you before and know that you are without a home. Can I give you some money?”

         “Uh, no, ma’am,” he replied, “I have everything I need for today. Can I go now?”

         She looked at the police officer, who nodded. James simply turned and walked back down the driveway to the sidewalk, hoping desperately he could finish what he needed to do. He heard the ambulance as it roared down the road, sirens blaring. He looked at his watch and saw that it was 8:30. No! It was almost dark and he wouldn’t be able to finish his paper when he finally got settled into his Thursday evening location. Why did this happen to him? Why did he have to stop? He knew he had to, and now he needed to accept the awful feeling of incompleteness that he knew would accompany him into the night, and into the next day.

            It was 10:30pm when James finally arrived at his Thursday campsite, 11:00 by the time his tent was up. At 1:30 in the morning he finished the last of his Jim Beam and the paper and finally went to sleep. He would be so very tired tomorrow.