NORWALK, Conn. – The two groups of Norwalk veterans I am thinking about this week couldn’t be more different.
On Friday I was privileged to have lunch with some distinguished gentlemen celebrating the 237th anniversary of the U.S. Marine Corps. They had obviously done well in life; money was not an issue for these people. The man next to me pointed out two Marines that had become state representatives. They were proud of their military service and it seemed to have served them well. It was a pleasure being with them – they had nice energy.
On Sunday I went looking for Brian Meehan, who used to stand at Exit 14 with a sign that simply said, “Homeless,” accepting money from drivers leaving I-95. I’ve spent a lot of time talking to Brian. He wanted me to help him; he thought a story might help. He had been arrested many times for soliciting and he thought it wasn’t right. He was only holding a sign, he said. There were other signs in the vicinity. He asked why was his different?
Brian was a story, but I couldn’t figure out what it was. I talked to him several times; he said he couldn’t work because he had hemophilia and other health issues. He said he was waiting for a liver transplant.
It was obvious that he drank, but he was very pleasant and outgoing.
He decided I should write about his network of homeless people. He showed me their “shack,” a concrete block garage behind the long-defunct hardware store on Connecticut Avenue near Scribner, just down from Exit 14. He was proud of it. It was clean, he said.
I found him again, maybe a month later – or he found me. I was looking at some construction on Connecticut Avenue and Brian was in the area.
He said had been in the hospital for a week. It was too late for a liver transplant, he said. He was dying, he said.
He took me to meet his friends.
Robert Stephen “Crow” Jordan was sitting on a milk crate against the side of a building.
“We’re all veterans, we look out for each other,” he said.
I hadn’t heard Brian was a veteran before; if it were true, he hadn’t mentioned it. He once suggested I call his public defender for one of his arrests. I had, but she didn’t call back.
Crow said he had served in the 82nd Airborne from 1974-’76. He said he had never left the states, and had trained soldiers here. ”When you got blown up once, it changes your life,” he said.
He said he was “Mohawk, Iroquois nation” and grew up in New Canaan. Crow said he slept outside four days a week and his girlfriend let him in the other three days.
He was drinking, which he said was his problem.
“The number one symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder is substance abuse. I drink,” he said. He added that he was 55, had been hurt and had degenerative joint disease, COPD, hepatitis C and other health issues. “Who will hire us?” he asked.
Another man stood nearby but hesitated to approach. Crow described him as “a pissed off Marine” and a “really angry guy.”
His name was Bobby C. He came over briefly and showed me a veteran’s identification card, real quick, just to prove he was a veteran. Crow said he had lost his wallet.
They talked about their camaraderie and said there were people looking out for them.
“Brian and I are both really sick, we’re dying,” said Crow, who had a Norwalk Hospital bracelet on.
I walked away, still uncertain what to write about these people. Bobby had shown me his ID in a defiant way. How was I going to confirm they were veterans? That seemed to be the story at that point.
That was in February.
I saw Brian again a few weeks later. He said the guys were angry; their shack had been boarded up and they suspected that I had told someone about it. I had not. Confirming their status as vets was not in the cards.
Norwalk got really busy again; I was writing about the mosque proposed for 127 Fillow St., then the school budget battle.
I did stop and talk to one of the merchants in the plaza where Brian liked to hang out. The merchant confirmed that he had been helping Brian get to the Veteran’s Administration hospital in New Haven. Brian was harmless, he said.
It was late August, I think, when I called Brian again. I wanted to get him to help me with paperwork to confirm his status as a veteran.
He said he had had a really good day – he was not going to be homeless any longer. His hemophilia had finally gotten so bad he qualified for housing assistance. There was an apartment lined up for him, he said. He was happy.
The story had shifted again. It did every time I talked to him.
I called Brian again Saturday. He has not called back.
We went looking for him – he had said a few months ago he had found another spot to stand with his “homeless” sign. We didn’t see him.
The shack they had been using is now behind a chain link fence, as the building, long an example of Norwalk blight, is soon to be demolished.
It’s not unusual for Brian to take a while to call me back. But I hope he’s alright. I know he probably isn’t.
I’ve seen Crow since then once or twice, begging for money in one of the Connecticut Avenue shopping plazas. But not lately.
“It’s a real dilemma with veterans, the homelessness,” he said in February. “The VA’s trying, but there’s so many of us, they can’t help us all.”
I asked what could be done.
“Stop fighting wars,” he said. “What good does war do? All we get is a body count. It’s all about corporate America.”
It is Veterans Day, and I cannot stop thinking about it. The luncheon. The shack.
Like, I said, these two groups couldn’t be more different.
I don’t know what can be done about any of it. I’m just saying.