From a distance, Grafton could pass for an elder statesman of the old south. Long, lean, with a full head of snow-white hair, he stood with a soldier’s posture, despite the icy wind blowing in from Lake Michigan. It wasn’t until you got closer that you noticed how greasy his hair was, how poorly clothed he was, his tall frame clothed in pants too short, probably given to him by the Salvation Army, and a trench coat covered in stains, turned three shades darker by the dirt. It probably would have fallen off in tatters but couldn’t, because the embedded grime left it too rigid with filth to fall apart. His shoes were too small, and you could see the skin of his bare ankles, red with cold, in the gap between his pants and his shoes. It was about 35 degrees in Chicago on that November day in 1977, and Grafton would probably not make it through to spring.
He was born somewhere in the South, probably around 1910. He couldn’t say for sure because he had been born at home and couldn’t remember ever seeing a birth certificate. He grew up in a large family, and his existence was pretty hand-to-mouth. His father was a sharecropper and his mother took care of the family as best she could. By the time Grafton was a teenager, he had already decided that working someone else’s land was not for him. He preferred drinking with his pals, committing petty crimes and following trouble wherever it led him.
By the early 1930s, the family was without any income because the owner of the land they farmed on had lost the property to foreclosure following the 1929 stock market crash. Grafton’s father left the family to travel to a nearby city to look for work. The older children scattered, some to marriage, some to work in other towns, and Grafton to that interconnected network of train tracks that crisscrossed the country. He was part of that large group of young men, agile and daring enough to hitch a ride as the railroad’s guest. He spent years traveling from town to town, following seasonal work when he needed to, living close to railway yards, going into towns only to look for work or food. And always heading south for the winter. He loved being on the move, just couldn’t stay in one place for long. He wasn’t homeless really, because it was his choice not to have a home.
Some years before this, he had ended up in Chicago, and for some reason did not leave when the cold weather approached. Maybe he was getting sick. He certainly wasn’t the spry young man who had started his wandering more than 40 years ago, but he wasn’t your typical homeless person on the street either. While he drank, it was not to wretched excess, and he wasn’t an alcoholic. No drug history or mental illness. He was just an old hobo, too old to hop trains anymore, so he was stuck in Chicago, far from home.
The only reason I knew anything at all about Grafton is because he had checked himself into detox several times during past winters. He was one of the few who didn’t actually need detox services, but when the weather turned frigid, the line for what the men called “three hots and a cot” grew long. Everyone preferred the detox center to the Salvation Army shelter. The food was better, it was cleaner, and there was a larger staff, which meant you were less likely to get your shoes stolen. And you could have a bath. When you came to detox, you went through a fairly extensive intake process. And the staff wanted to get to know you because they wanted to help if you wanted help. They deliberately would build a relationship with you if you were open to it, and gradually, they would learn things about you. I was part of the outreach team for the center.
Grafton turned his head, saw me and slowly walked my way. As he got closer, I could see his face was red and raw from the cold. He must have spent at least part of the last night outdoors.
“Would you have a cigarette to spare?” he asked in that polite way he had. I didn’t smoke, but everyone knew I carried cigarettes with me for our clients out on the streets. They usually didn’t have money for cigarettes and if they did, it was spent on rolling papers and loose tobacco. Much cheaper, but the tobacco was foul. A real cigarette was a treat I was happy to provide. You don’t deny cigarettes to men who are already dying of something else.
I dug in my bag for the pack and pulled one out for him. “Thank you, ma’am,” was his soft response. He lit the cigarette and took a long drag, then began coughing. I had noticed this cough during the past month or so, whenever I saw him. At first, I thought he just had a cold, but this had gone on for a long time.
“Do you think maybe you should go to the free clinic to see about that cough, Grafton? It’s not going away.” My first thought was that he might have pneumonia or tuberculosis, both fairly common for people living on the street.
He shook his head, “No ma’am. You have to wait all day to see the nurse. I can’t sit still for that long. But thank you for the thought.”
I made a mental note to check up on him more frequently.
A couple of weeks later, I learned Grafton was in the hospital. He had been found unresponsive on the street late one night, and when he couldn’t be roused, he was taken to the ER. He had been admitted, so they must have found something wrong with him. I went to see him.
When I walked into his room—actually, it was a six-bed ward—he was sitting in a chair looking out the window. When he saw me, he looked surprised. The first thing he asked was if I knew where his clothes were. I went to the small locker by his bed, but when I opened it, there was nothing inside but his shoes and a spare hospital gown. I didn’t actually expect to find his clothes. When street people are admitted to the hospital, their clothes are thrown away. They are too filthy to keep, and the hospital didn’t provide laundry services. He would be given clean, used clothing when he left. But for now, unless he wanted to walk out of the hospital into the Chicago winter in a hospital gown, he was stuck.
I looked down at the ratty old shoes in the locker. This was the sum total of Grafton’s acquisitions over a lifetime. I wondered if it had been worth it for him. If the total freedom, enthusiasm, and excitement with which he had lived his life on the road were worth the almost total lack of control he now faced.
“They want me to go to a home,” Grafton said quietly, “because I have cancer all over my body. They won’t just let me go.” Of course, they wouldn’t. Federal regulations prohibited hospitals from discharging patients to the street, and you couldn’t discharge him to a shelter, because he required ongoing medical attention. Unless the hospital wanted to break the law and jeopardize its federal funding for the treatment of poor patients, the only option was to discharge him to a nursing home. His wishes in the decision didn’t count because he had no money or family.
A week later I made another visit to see Grafton, this time at the nursing home. It was appalling, like all warehouses for the poor are appalling, but this one was the worst; severely understaffed, reeking of urine, a perpetual wailing of unattended patients ringing through the halls. Not finding Grafton in his room, I searched and found him in what they called the day room, which was filled with stained and broken furniture, an old TV shoved in the corner. Grafton was sitting on a couch facing the one picture window I had seen since entering the place, and why this was the location chosen for a picture window I didn’t know. It looked out on a small dirt and weed-covered yard strewn with scrap. The garbage bins were pushed up against one side of a dilapidated fence. There was a half-dead tree off to one side; it had probably willed itself to die because the view was just too depressing. I glanced at Grafton, staring hopelessly out the window and thought the tree was an apt metaphor for what he was experiencing.
I tried to make small talk and gave him some cookies I had brought. For a few minutes, he was silent. Then, without looking at me he said, “Can you get me out of here? I’m going to die, and this is not where I want that to happen.”
I fought to keep the tears out of my voice. “Where will you go?” As I spoke those words, I realized I had already accepted the idea that Grafton needed to get away from this hellhole.
“Back home. I know I still have family there somewhere,” said this man who had deliberately chosen to have no home for most of his life. Was he right in thinking he would be able to locate his family? Would they want to help him? What if he couldn’t and they didn’t? This situation was about more than Grafton wanting to leave. That was the simple part. Like the caseworker I was, I would need to figure out how to make all the other details work. I had a lot to do.
I went back to the office and talked to my boss Jack. A Lutheran minister, he had spent his whole life in social services helping the most marginalized populations. And he understood people like Grafton, admired them even. Jack told me there are just some people not born to a home and a life lived in one place; that while most of us live constrained lives, and are often happy with those lives, there is another breed altogether, individuals who cannot and should not be expected to live as most do. I knew he would want to do what was best for Grafton.
I had gotten information from Grafton about the town he came from and the family he believed still lived there, but this was before we had a world of information at our fingertips, and I had no idea how to begin looking for Grafton’s family. When I again turned to Jack, he told me not to bother. A bit surprised, I asked why. Jack told me Grafton had asked me to help him get out of the nursing home, to find a way for him to obtain a ticket back to the small, Southern town where he had been born, so he wouldn’t have to die in the nursing home. He didn’t ask me to arrange a soft landing with his family.
“Think about the most basic thing Grafton is asking you for,” said Jack. “What is it he wants? That is all you have to concern yourself with.” Of course. Simple.
Jack found the money for me to buy Grafton’s bus ticket, and I had it in hand the next week as I showed up in the capacity of Grafton’s caseworker at the nursing home. I was there to get him out for a while, take him to lunch, I told the nurses’ aides. They were happy to have one less patient for the afternoon, so I signed Grafton out after he had changed into the clothes I had brought for him, and we stepped into the brisk late-winter air. I took him for a decent lunch, made sure he had his prescription bottles and then drove him to the bus station. It would be several hours before his bus departed, so I slipped some cookies into his pocket and wished him good luck.
Grafton just looked at me and said, “Thank you, ma’am.” I walked back to my car, and that was the last time I saw Grafton Hicks.
Back at the office, I told Jack what had happened, and asked if he thought Grafton would actually go home. He just looked at me and asked, “Does that matter?”
No one from the nursing home ever called to ask where Grafton had gone to.