Sunday, March 14, 2010


Most urban fire stations have one. Some stations have more than one. Stations have to be careful and set clear boundaries, otherwise they will be inundated with them and things will get out of hand.

Usually, this phenomenon occurs when one of them knocks on the fire station door and gets lucky. A compassionate firefighter will answer the door and comply with the request. The request will likely be for something simple like a cup of coffee, a glass of water or some other minor comfort that most of us take for granted. If the seeker is really lucky, he will get the same compassionate member on a subsequent visit/request and a relationship of sorts will be formed.

For the relationship to succeed, it has to be symbiotic. It can't be all take on behalf of the seeker. In exchange for the minor request, the seeker might perform some minor service such as picking up trash from around the station, trading tokens for items or keeping an eye on the firefighter's cars. 

Larry was one of those who was very lucky the first few times he knocked on the door of one of our stations. Raul answered the door. Raul was one of those quirky guys who had been at this station for ever and was quite set in his ways. A man of routine, Raul sometimes became irritated when things weren't done a certain way. This trait sometimes created problems with other members, although not anything that was unbearable. The other side of Raul was that he understood the fragility of the human condition and knew that "there, but for the grace of God, go I."

I wasn't around when Larry started coming around the station, so I can't say exactly how the friendship between Larry and Raul began. When I transferred in, Larry was ringing the doorbell almost every evening at around the same time. His requests were almost always very simple. A cup of coffee, a cup of hot water for noodles or maybe some ice cubes. In exchange, Larry patrolled the station at least once a day, picking up trash and cigarette butts.

Larry also obtained small stones from a nearby park. The stones were a unique shade of gray and had a very smooth texture. Larry believed that the stones were "magic" and that they had special powers. If someone other than Raul answered the station door, Larry would part with one of the stones in exchange for a cup of hot water. To him, it was a fair trade.

It appeared that Larry was a nocturnal creature. He was seldom seen during the day, but would appear in the evening hours. During the warmer months, we would return from a call sometime after midnight, and find Larry using the hose on the back ramp to bathe. He would remove all of the outer layers of his clothing and then use the hose and a bar of soap that Raul had left out for him to wash himself. The same bar of soap would be used to clean his clothes. I don't know what he did in the winter. He did not seem to be the "shelter type" of vagrant. 

Raul sometimes gave Larry gifts. A warm jacket, a sleeping bag or maybe a tooth brush. Things that Larry needed for survival, yet that were difficult for him to obtain.

I asked Raul once, if he knew anything about Larry. Raul said that Larry told him he was from the east coast and was completely estranged from his family. Larry lived in some bushes along side the state highway until a construction project forced him to move to another set of bushes next to the Municipal Gymnasium. Larry had told Raul that he stayed up at night because it was safer to be awake at night and sleep during the day when he was less vulnerable. Larry had admitted to Raul that he was basically anti-social and didn't stay in the shelters because he didn't like being around people and didn't like the rules.

My own observations of Larry was that he had some form of mental illness. He always spoke to us in a coherent fashion, but he often paced in a short, repetitive fashion, muttering to himself. I never saw him passed out on the streets, but he did admit to Raul that he liked to drink.

After some time, Larry became a bit of a problem. I was approached by some members of my crew, who were tired of the doorbell ringing in the late evening hours. They also felt that Larry was becoming demanding, wanting the crew to make fresh coffee if none was available. It was time to set some boundaries.

Raul told Larry that he needed to see his car parked in the F.D. parking lot, before ringing the bell. Larry was also told that he needed to arrive before nine pm, so that early sleepers would not be disturbed. Raul also agreed to answer the door between seven and nine, whether it was his turn or not. Although some members were still bothered by Larry coming around, it was mostly a tolerable arrangement. Some firefighters are more compassionate than others.

Larry was a district fixture for years. It all came to an end when the engine took a call for a man down in the bushes next to the Municipal Gym. Larry was DRT (dead right there) and was not a viable patient. Larry was just another unattended, premature transient death.

I don't know whether Larry's family ever claimed his body or whether they even were notified. Raul retired a short time later. Meanwhile another transient has likely claimed Larry's spot in the bushes. To my knowledge, the haven't knocked on the station door. It is just a matter of time.

Thanks for reading,


  1. It is these small gestures of compassion and tolerance that gives me hope for our continued existence as a species on this world.

  2. Dear Captain Schmoe,
    I will go further than Wallfisher and say that Raul and the rest of your station (even the gripers) gave Larry his most constructive contact. Setting limits. Showing generosity.

    I really believe that Larry came for more than coffee or water for his noddles. It may be that he thought over these small encounters every day and learned how to ask for things, how to remember. This is another intangible that matters.

    Most sincerely,
    Ann T.

  3. Capt. Schmoe:

    It's tough, you wish you could do more, but at the same time, you end up having to resist being taken advantage of. I worked ER at the VA for a bit; we had to set limits on how much food we gave to people who were not going to be admitted. If word got out that if you went to the VA and they would feed you, we'd have no end of homeless and needy vets with "chest pain" plaguing our EMS system and clogging up the ER. Sometimes it felt harsh, and a few nurses would give more on their own, but it had to be done.

    Terrific blog post, as usual.

    The Observer