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A Home in Burlington



Published March 9, 2011 at 10:04 a.m.

Fletcher Allen’s emergency room waiting area had plenty of empty chairs. I thought about how different this scene would appear in many cities around the country. I’ve been in this space when things are hopping, but Vermont has done a comparatively good job of hooking up the poorer segment of the population with primary-care physicians, thereby diminishing demand for more costly emergency room care. And I’ve heard that our newly elected governor has some health care plans intended to move things even further along. Man, I thought, this state is cool.

After a short wait, during which I sat perusing one of the last issues of Pontiac Enthusiast (sadly, following in the footsteps of the car model it celebrated, the magazine folded last fall), my customer appeared at the desk.

“Hey, I’m Jernigan,” I said, rising. “I guess I’ll be taking you up to the oral surgeon in St. Albans. You’re Blaine, right?”

The man nodded and shook my hand. It was hard to tell how old he was as he stood before me, his body thin and angular, wearing a beat-up Carhartt barn jacket over an equally frayed button-down shirt. I took notice of his small, greenish-gray eyes, but the distinguishing feature of his face was a long, silky, white beard that curled up slightly like a soprano saxophone. If he were a foot shorter and cheerier, I would have guessed he’d come down from the North Pole, on leave from Santa’s workshop.

“So, you got a toothache, huh?” I made conversation as we eased onto the highway, heading north, my customer beside me in the shotgun seat.

“Yup, that I do,” Blaine replied. “I guess it’s an abscess, and they’re gonna yank it.”

“Well, that ain’t good,” I said, wincing in sympathy. “But I’m sure you’ll feel a whole lot better once they get it out.”

“That’s the idea.”

Blaine delivered that last line as flat as a tortilla, and I couldn’t tell if he was being stoic, being ironic or simply stating a fact. In any event, I again reflected on how heartening it was to live in a community that doesn’t divert its eyes and kick a man like this to the side of the road. The hospital was paying me to transport him to and from this appointment, and I couldn’t imagine that he would be paying for the dental work itself out of his own pocket.

“So, do you live in town?” I asked.

“Yeah, I live in a tent. There’s a bunch of us living in this one area. I’ve been there a couple of years.”

I wanted to ask him the location of his makeshift neighborhood but thought better of it. Instead I asked, “The cops don’t give you a hard time?”

“Nah, as long as you keep things clean and don’t start any fights.”

“How do you stay warm in the winter? I mean, that stretch last week was, like, below zero every night.”

“I got a propane oven. Keeps the tent warm as toast.”

“Can you actually cook on the thing?”

“I can, but I don’t much. I really don’t have much money for food. So, I eat lunch at the food shelf and dinner over at the Salvation Army.”

“Are the meals any good?”

“They’re not bad.”

Homeless folks are in many ways no different from you or me. But, being with Blaine, I realized I didn’t truly believe that; I think of the homeless as something other — a strange tribe living among us, but apart from the community. This is the lie I tell myself to keep things comfortable. The truth is, the only difference between me and this person is our roofs: Mine is wood; Blaine’s is canvas. Other than that, we’re just two guys trying to get through another day in an often heartless world.

“You know, I’m a machinist,” Blaine picked up the conversation. “Anything metal, I can run it or fix it.”

“Can’t find work, though?” I asked.

“It’s been almost three years.”

The oral surgeon’s office was located just off Main in downtown St. Albans. Coming into town, traffic was backed up, the sidewalks and crosswalks flooded with animated teenagers — Bellows Free Academy had just let out. St. Albans, like Rutland and St. Johnsbury, is a Vermont city of old, with rambling wooden office buildings and old apartment blocks. Nearly all the retail shops are locally owned. Burlington presented a similar façade when I first landed here in the late ’70s, but the Queen City transformed rapidly throughout the ’80s and ’90s. The Church Street Marketplace of today is not exactly Fifth Avenue or Newbury Street, but it’s a far cry from Main Street, St. Albans.

The oral surgeon had kept his office open late that afternoon specifically to work on Blaine, so he got in right away. I left to grab a bite to eat at the Cosmic Bakery around the corner. I don’t know if I would describe the culinary experience as “cosmic,” but the bagel sandwich they served me was chewy and crunchy in all the ways you’d desire. When I returned to the office, the dental assistant came out to speak with me. She was gorgeous, with a Julia Roberts-like smile revealing radiant white teeth. In fact, the dental practice should use her face for advertising purposes. (OK, maybe the uniform got me, too.)

“The procedure went great,” she reported. “Four teeth had to be pulled, but Blaine is going to feel so much better in a couple of days. You’re driving him home, right? ’Cause he might be a little woozy for a while.”

As Blaine and I resumed our seats in the taxi, he displayed the closest thing to a smile I’d seen on him all day. He said, “Well, that’s a relief.”

Firing up the taxi, I said, “I got to say — that beard of yours is really something.”

Blaine nodded his head a few times and said, “And here’s how you know that I don’t live with stress, that I’m a relaxed kind of guy: My beard is white, but the hair on my head remains brown. Men who got all kinds of anxiety, well, the hair goes white while the beard is still dark. That’s how you can tell.”

Blaine’s physiological theory seemed a little suspect to me, but I had to admit, despite a challenging life, this man displayed an equanimity and acceptance that I couldn’t help but admire.

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