It was a slow night in winter. The bars had closed and the windchills were starting to get below zero. To conserve gas when I was sitting I had an electric blanket that plugged into the cigarette lighter adapter. I had the windows up and the blanket on with my hoodie over my head about to settle in for a short nap.
I was startled when I heard a tapping at my driver side window. I lowered my hoodie and placed my hand on my large mag light in case I needed a defensive weapon. There was an older man in a tattered work jacket and a stained gray hoodie and a scraggly beard staring at me. I cracked the window and asked what he wanted.
"Can ya take me to the hospital?" He asked with a smile missing some teeth.
I am behind a gas station at 3 in the morning. My alarm bells are still up about letting this man in my car.
"It'll be about $6," I said. "I'll need cash upfront."
"Well, I ain't got cash." He replied. I started to roll the window back up. He tapped on it.
"What?" I asked.
"I have cigarettes." He said smiling.
"This ain't prison," I was about to roll up the window and find somewhere else to nap.
"Now wait a minute! Sealed packs, many brands. See?" He pulled out a tote bag with several packs of cigarettes of various brands. "I'll give you two packs. That will cover the fare and a tip."
"All right," I said. 'If my good nature and loose morals gets me killed, I will be very unhappy in hell' I thought.
I started the engine, unlocked the back door and got on the radio to report a flag to the hospital. Dispatch gave me a 10-4 and I started the meter as I collected the two packs and got a whiff of the old man. He had not showered in days.
"Thanks, young man," he said.
"No problem. You okay?"
"Yeah, just looking for a warm place for a few days to ride out the cold front coming."
"So the hospital is better than the shelter?" I asked.
"Food's better. Especially if you are suicidal."
"Are you suicidal?" I asked.
"Nah, but I am bat shit crazy. Shell shocked, PTSD, whatever you wanna call it when you're a fucked up vet."
"If your a vet and need help, what about the VA?"
He laughed himself into a choking fit.
"If the VA worked for vets there would not be homeless vets with untreated mental illnesses. Soldiers are useful to the system, vets are a burden."
"Nam?" I asked.
"Yep. Survived fuckin la Drang, but this cold will kill me." he said.
"You served in 65?"
"Yeah. la Drang was November. How do you know your history and not current events? Mind if I smoke one before I go inside?"
"Go for it." I said. "So why the hospital?"
"It works like this. I go in with some specific symptoms that they will have to address and run tests. Once I am in and settled getting an ekg I will panic a little and say the right things to get a psych eval for suicidal ideations. I get admitted for a week and they get me meds for my ptsd and treatment. Then comes the cool part. They cannot release me until I get an intake to a shelter that deals with people with mental health issues and therapy. I get another shot."
"So want help, not a fix?" I was frustrated by this, not about him, but the system.
"Yeah. I've done this before. Kid, I'm alcoholic and quitting ain't that easy on the streets. Look. I know you gotta go, here is the short version. When I get public help, they get me in and eventually they get me into the VA system so someone else can foot the bill. I get in there and it all falls apart and I end up on the streets. I drink, get lost, do other things and then bottom out and do this. I'm a dead man."
"Shit," was all I could say.
"It was not always this way. I was always fucked up, but I had a job and a family. The bottle ended the family and rich people killed the pension fund."
"So what happens now?" I asked.
"I survive until I die. Living is over."
With that, he left the taxi and went into the er entrance.