An Inconvenient Friend

11/26/2011 06:02 pm ET | Updated Jan 26, 2012

I began to dread the calls. I knew what he wanted: money, help, love. But he'd gotten himself into this mess, I reasoned, and there was nothing I could do. Any money I sent would go to drink, and besides, I didn't have much myself.

I had known my friend for thirty years, back in the day when his eccentricities were charming. He was the Kramer in our group, the wacky wit, the groovy wardrobe straight out of the 1940's one day, the Renaissance another. He never seemed to have much of a future, but still I imagined when we were old and crotchety, we'd end up rooming together in some old restored Victorian bickering over how high or low to set the thermostat and what to watch on TV.

He was an excellent cook. He once got me a job cooking at a classy restaurant in Seattle where it turned out the chef was a con artist who couldn't grill a cheese sandwich. Those were hysterical days, one mad cap culinary adventure after another, and I marveled at how my friend could work the line, plating a dozen different dishes at precisely the same time with the mastery of a blackjack dealer.

He'd never had much to start with. His mother had died when he was a teenager, then his father, then his sister. He dropped out of high school and migrated west to start his new life where coming out as a gay man would be easier. Now the life he'd started was going from promising to promiscuous, just as AIDS hit the scene. How he escaped it, I'll never know, but his friends weren't quite so lucky. First one died, then another. His long time partner, the one guy he always came back to, and who always came back to him, died as well and soon my friend was alone.

He never made much money, but managed to stay afloat between cooking jobs and the occasional carpentry gig; he was always good with his hands. But as time went on, the world roughed him up a bit. His back began to betray him, leaving him in agonizing pain. Standing all day in the kitchen got to be too much, and heavy labor was eventually out of the question. But still he got by, managing apartments, catering now and then. Small jobs. Short term jobs. No benefits.

He'd always had the coziest apartments, filled with his collection of vintage robots, antique tableware and mid-century furnishings. Whenever I needed a place to stay, in between trips to and from Europe or romance, he always had a room to spare, just as long as I didn't mind sharing it with a naked mannequin or robot. Then housing prices shot up and it got a whole lot harder. The apartment managing gigs became scarce and rents soared way beyond his means. He turned his treasures into rent money until he had less and less and ended up renting a room. Then he took to drinking.

I moved away and was gone a long time. Kept in touch now and then, but mostly lost touch. Then a couple of years ago I moved back to the Northwest and saw my friend had grown older. His wavy hair was gray and mostly gone, his skilled hands now shook from drinking. He could still turn out a great meal, on a good day.

He had a few under-the-table gigs and was still getting by, but just barely. It had been years since he'd worked a full-time job and just as long since he'd had any health care. His teeth were hurting, and his fingers were numb and tingling, but once he started drinking they were no longer a problem.

He could no longer work the line because his timing was shot and now he was just another old guy. Every month he panicked when rent was coming due. When he finally got a job he quit it three days later.

Then he moved back east. He had a job waiting for him, he said. When I picked him up to take him to the train station, there he was, standing on the corner with an old busted up suitcase held shut with a bungee cord, a blanket rolled up and tied with some rope. He was wearing a dirty Fedora.

He got in the car and smelled like a bum, that foul boozy smell of sweating flesh and nights of hardcore drinking. "Just go," he said, his voice near tears, "and stop at the liquor store on the way." I waited outside while he got a pint in a brown paper bag. When I said goodbye at the station, I thought I'd never see him again. I went home, sad and relieved. It was no longer my problem.

Then the phone calls came. Things hadn't worked out as he'd planned. He began to move here and there. It was never clear where he was, if he was safe. I prayed that he was, but that was all. He'd done it to himself. Anything I did would be enabling.

"I'm leaving here tomorrow and will be at the bus station on Thursday," he wrote me in an email. "Can you pick me up and let me stay just one night? I'll call you when I get there."

Just one night. I was so irritated. How could I say no to just one night, but then what? Why had I ever even answered the calls, I wondered, I had enough to deal with. I couldn't help him; he'd done this to himself. He needed to get into treatment.

I called our old friends, but no one had room. We all felt the same way. But still. Who else did he have to turn to? How could he get into rehab with no money or insurance? I couldn't shake my annoyance at his return as I went about my day, running errands, shopping.

A homeless man downtown asked me for some money. I gave him a dollar, like I usually do. Handing over that dollar, thinking this is going to be my friend, standing on a corner with a cardboard sign, I wondered what kind of friend I really was. It was so much easier for me to sympathize with a total stranger asking for a buck, than the friend I'd known for decades. Was I only sympathetic to people I thought of as blameless victims? Somehow when our own friends hit rock bottom, we can be so unforgiving, abandoning them when they need us most. Helping them would be enabling. Just being there would be inconvenient.

I met him at the bus station, and brought him home to a good dinner with some old friends. We gave him a cell phone and gift certificates for some decent clothes. We had a list of shelters and resources for the homeless. I let him stay one night, then dropped him off to his new life.

He joined us for Thanksgiving. He'd sobered up, but who knows for how long. He wasn't shaking anymore, the color had returned to his face and he was laughing. He'd made a new buddy in the shelter, but he couldn't go back for a week. By leaving for a Thanksgiving meal and a shower he'd lost his spot for seven days. He wasn't worried. He had a list of other shelters.

I'd watched him over the years go slowly homeless. And the more his needs grew desperate, the more I and others pulled away. He'd done it to himself, there was no denying. And the world had done it to him, through a housing market and health care system that sure didn't make it easy. None of us could have stopped his descent. But being there for him when he was falling, when he needed his friends more than ever, well that wasn't comfortable.

"Avoid people who bring you down," the self-help books advise. "Associate with successful people," we are told. And give generously to the poor. As long as we don't know them. I know my friend, and that's what makes his downfall so unpleasant. It rubs off on me, annoys me. But sometimes the biggest difference we can make is not in the lives of strangers who are less fortunate, but in the unfortunate lives of those we do know. It's never convenient, but who ever said that friendship always would be?