I have been writing for Spare Change for about a year now, and over the time I have been lucky enough to cover a variety of different stories. From State Representative Barry R. Finegold’s bill—which would grant hate crime protections to the homeless—to Theo and Paul Epstein’s Hot Stove Cool Music, a concert to benefit charities dedicated to improving the lives of indigent children, each story is unique and features levels of complexity.
However, on rare occasions while walking the streets of Boston, I meet someone whose story is so compelling and profound that I am given the opportunity to step away from the norm of covering changes in legislature and charity events and share with readers the experiences of someone who has either struggled through homelessness and successfully rebuilt their lives, or whose character and determination while surviving homelessness is so compelling that it would inspire others. Sometimes there are even those whose life struggles carried them on a path to homelessness so multifaceted that it borders on unbelievable.
Recently I was lucky enough to run into one of these people. His name is Gary, and he is a Desert Storm Veteran currently panhandling in Harvard Square. Although—like with other bios I have written—I would like to take credit for finding Gary’s story and sharing to with the world, I can’t. Like many other homeless people, Gary gets passed by hundreds of people everyday, who usually continue walking without a single thought as to how he got there.
There are literally thousands of people on the streets on any given night with stories similar to his. My only hope is that his story will inspire you to consider the others’ histories too.
Though he served our country for nearly a decade, was responsible for painting multimillion dollar mansions, and had made more money in one summer then many people do in a year, he lost it all to the demons of his past.
The story of Gary, Harvard Square’s Desert Storm Veteran who requested to be referred to only by his first name, is one of triumph and tragedy. It is the story of a man who served his country for eight years before working his way to the top of his trade as a painting contractor. Yet it is also the story of a man who repeatedly succumbed to a life long battle with alcoholism. Now he is left searching for the most basic of human desires—respect.
Gary’s story begins when he first discovered a passion for painting while being kept after school and forced to repaint his classroom as punishment for writing on the walls. “I started painting when I was thirteen years old,” Gary said. “I got kept after school one day for writing on the classroom wall, and the teacher made me repaint the classroom. My mom showed up at school about five and went, ‘Oh my God where are you?’ And I am going ‘look at me, this is great!’”
Shortly after discovering his love for painting, Gary’s mother introduced him to a master painter in Harvard Square and while he was still just thirteen years old, he began to learn the trade. “I was taught by a master, a master painter,” said Gary. “I just loved it. I picked it up, just a love for making things look good.”
Gary continued, “His brother was a friend of my mom’s,” Gary said of the master painter. “My mom worked in a photo lab at the time; she also owned a photo lab.”
Though Gary had discovered his passion at an age when most kids didn’t even have jobs, by that time he was also well into his struggle with alcoholism. “I started drinking at the age of four,” Gary said. “The second I picked up a drink it was a problem. During grammar school—fifth, sixth grade—after school I would come down and hang out in Harvard Square and get some of the winos to…. It was easy for me ya know, I’d go to the newspaper boxes and get a stack of newspapers all the way up Mass Ave, come to the T station and sell them for a quarter.”
Gary would give the money he earned selling papers to local homeless people so they could buy him alcohol. “Fifty papers you’d have enough money…. I’d buy whatever wino…whatever he wanted and I’d get a quart of Colt 45. You know, sixth grade I am falling down drunk. It just wasn’t good. It just digressed from there.”
High school was not much better for Gary, and at the age of eighteen he dropped out. However, he soon realized he would need a diploma of some kind in order to move forward, and went on to earn his GED. “I dropped out of high school when I was 18 years old. I was…January, February, March, April, May, I was four months short of graduating.” Gary said as he listed the months he missed. “Pretty bad move.”
After high school ended and he earned his GED, Gary realized it was time for the party to end. He even thought he had found an escape from his addiction, in the US Military.
“I couldn’t stop doing drugs,” Gary said of why he joined the military. “I figured, ya know, they could straighten me out. And basically they did for a while, until I had my freedom again.”
Though Gary signed up for the military in order escape his life of drugs and alcohol, his addiction was so bad before he signed up that he says he later couldn’t even remember doing it.
“Honestly I can’t remember signing up for eight years,” Gary said. “I came out of a blackout and I was in Fort Benning, Georgia.”
Gary noted that in the beginning the military had a positive effect on him. He liked the strict routine and began to overcome his personal demons. However, shortly after he completed his training he decided it was time to get out.
“I did as much training as possible, and then I wanted out,” Gary said. “Once I got my head cleared up I wanted out. The money wasn’t good. I liked the regiment, the structure and all that good stuff, it was great, but I picked up a drink again.”
Gary continued, “I picked up a drink and it was a nightmare. Not only was I falling down drunk again, but I was in the military. Three months, three months and I went ‘oh no I made a big mistake!’ I really never really looked at my alcohol problem I think until I picked up that drink down in Fort Benning, Georgia and I realized ‘oh my God, not only am I drinking again but I am trapped. I don’t belong to myself anymore, I belong to the government now, I am screwed.’”
Yet three months into his military career Gary decided he wanted to leave. However, quitting was not an option is his mind, so instead he decided to transfer to the U.S. Reserves.
“I wanted out, and I knew if I just quit I would be doomed for life, so I transferred to the reserves,” Gary said. “Somebody said ‘ya know, go into the reserves, that way it’s only one weekend a month two weeks a year and you can still have a life.’ And I was like ‘oh my God I can paint, I can make real money’ and that’s what I did.”
Regaining his freedom from the military meant that he had again succumbed to his addiction. But it also meant that Gary had also rediscovered the passion for painting he had found in a dusty classroom all those years ago.
“I met a women, I got married I was living down in Nantucket,” Gary said. “It was lifestyles of the rich and famous. I was making money hand over fist. I think the first summer I was there I made over $50,000 dollars in cash, then like another $38,000 on the books. It was just insane.”
Though Gary made a lot of money very quickly, his income was mostly limited to the summer time when resorts and houses would need to look their best.
“Ya know it’s a resort island so it only hit three months out of the year, and nine months are dead, nothing, nothing,” Gary
said of the work he found on Nantucket. “I lived there for 10 years.”
While almost all of his work came during the summer, Gary was able to land some very big jobs, including the house of renowned Cambridge-based architect, Graham Gund. “The last house that I did that was on Architectural Digest, on the cover, was Graham Gund’s house, the architect here from Cambridge,” said Gary. “I worked for a company called Kalman Construction, the smallest thing we would build and paint would be a million dollar one-car garage. I mean these houses were enormous.”
Along with his newfound fortune, painting gave Gary an opportunity to accomplish what he failed to do in Fort Benning Georgia—a chance to overcome his addiction. According to Gary, that opportunity came in the form of Kevin Kalman, the owner of Kalman Construction.
“Kevin Kalman, who owned the company, was a recovering addict and he only hired from within, within the rooms of AA and NA,” Gary said. “They made me prove myself. I had to get at least a year, and I begged, and begged, and begged. Then I kinda just gave up, and then one day the offered me a job.”
Gary elaborated, “These guys made me wait a year, and after a year of begging and pleading I just forgot about it. And one day—I didn’t even know I had a year sober—I went to a meeting, I was going to meetings every day vigilantly, changed my friends, changed everything. One day someone flipped me my one year medallion and offered me a job.”
Over the next five years as a member of Kalman Construction, Gary was able to expand on the skills of his trade. “We did everything,” Gary said. “We’d do everything from sanding the floors to staining them, urethaning them, tons of lacquer.”
His work with Kalman forced Gary not only to get sober, also but remain sober and stay on the right side of the law. “Working for that company forced me to do a lot of things,” Gary said. “They made me get a driver’s license. I had been driving in this city for years. Ya know, I was stealing cars, driving whatever I wanted to, never did anything legally.”
Gary also said of his former boss who made him get and stay sober, “Kevin made me grow up, he was a great, great guy great guy. I learned a lot, a lot about life, I learned a lot about my trade.”
Although Gary essentially learned what it was to be a man during his time at Kalman Construction, they eventually parted ways. “Kevin encouraged me to start my own business, and I did,” Gary said. “I had this knack for getting work. In a two-week period I went out and I drummed up three quarters of a million dollars worth of work, three houses. Three houses on Nantucket.”
Though he was finding initial success, it would not last very long. With everything that Gary was capable of accomplishing in the applied aspect of his job, he lacked just as much on the business side.
“I got the money, a third up front on each job,” Gary said. “My problem was, I can do the work, I can get the work and score it, but I can’t do everything. I can’t run the business end, I always picked bad partners. I got screwed on every partner I ever…they took all the money.”
Gary explained, “I would rather be on a job site working away, I’ll give somebody…here’s a list of materials I need: spray tips, timers, all this, masking equipment, send them up boom I will just go to work. I will work twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. I love to paint.”
While Gary says he was duped by all three partners he had while he ran his business on Nantucket, he also says that he still completed the jobs he was hired to do. “I had three partners before I just sunk into this depression and said ‘I can’t do this, I can’t do this.’ I fixed all the mistakes from these partners, basically painted three enormous mansions for nothing, just to save face on the island.”
After ten years of work on Nantucket Island, five of which we spent trying to run his own business, Gary says he came back home to Cambridge where he was reunited with the master painter who had helped develop Gary’s talent for painting back when he was thirteen.
As time passed, Gary managed to make it fifteen years without any drugs or alcohol, a feat which he credits to his first wife for helping get sober. “I have been married three times; my first marriage is what motivated me to get sober. That ended up in divorce but I remained sober for the next fifteen years,” Gary said. And the next fifteen years I married two more times, and had a child with my second wife, and had another child with a girlfriend after that divorce, which I gave up for adoption. I did not drink, [even though] that was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life, give up a daughter.”
Though Gary had maintained fifteen years of sobriety, his last divorce was too much for him to handle. It brought him all the way back to square one. “That last marriage, that’s the one I wanted to die over,” Gary said. I picked up that drink and I didn’t die. I became homeless and it was a living nightmare.”
Gary also said, “My wife and I separated, I felt real bad and really guilty and once I found out it wasn’t going to happen I just wanted to die, and after going to meetings all these years and hearing about people with long term sobriety pick up a drink after like twenty years and they instantly die, that’s what I wanted to do, I wanted to die. I picked up a drink and it didn’t happen. It’s like that monster came back to life.”
Indeed, Gary did not die. Instead he was consumed by the demons of his past. He eventually also turned back to drugs as his life spiraled completely out of control.
“It was a living hell. It was a living hell,” Gary said. “Ya know, sticking needles in my arms, doing every drug under the sun out here in the street, sleep in the Coop, down at the tannery, I was sleeping on the river. It was a nightmare.”
Over the next six months, Gary would binge on drugs and alcohol. However, while Gary admits he wanted to die after his third divorce, he was eventually able to get control of his life again and has again been sober for the last several years.
Gary has been sober for some time now. Yet he has permanent scares from his relapse. “My liver is all screwed up,” Gary said. “I contracted Hepatitis C out here on the street, sharing needles. One of my kidneys has been infected. My health is not in good shape. It’s just been a nightmare, it’s been a nightmare. But like I said, last December was two years [sober].”
Today Gary is trying to get back on his feet. He is looking for housing, and eventually hopes to find work. However, he admits that it is frustrating that people don’t realize that it is nearly impossible to get a job without a place to live.
“I have my name on every housing list there is, I have applied for Social Security and disability. I have been fighting with them since the day I became homeless,” Gary said. “I have paid into the system since the day I started working and I don’t understand why I cannot receive any money.”
Gary continued, “They used to send me annual reports on ‘this is how much you paid in, this is how much if you decided to retire now you’d get.’ Well, I didn’t really retire; I just became homeless and unemployable. You can’t have a job without a place to live. I don’t know why people do not understand that. People come by and go ‘get a job.’ Well, ya know it’s easier said then done when you [don’t] have a place to live.”
Though Gary has seen rock bottom more then once in his life, just like in the past, he is again refusing to give up despite the challenges that come with being a recovering addict on the streets of Cambridge.
“It could be worse,” reflects Gary. “It could be worse. Keep a positive attitude, and [an] open mind. It could be worse, it has been worse but it’s getting better slowly.”