Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington


The local tragedy in a nutshell: A boyhood schoolmate, who drank to excess and became homeless, repeatedly asked me to help him. But he rejected the kind of help he really needed. He died last month nearly alone.

“Pete,” as I’ll call him, will never know that his unfortunate end was noted—with compassion—last Thursday by A-SPAN President and CEO Kathy Sibert at the homelessness mitigation group’s annual fundraising breakfast.

A gathering of the Arlington establishment heard testimony from formerly homeless men from our county who moved into apartments thanks to A-SPAN’s ministrations.

Listeners were spellbound by Marymount University President Matthew Shank’s description of the harrowing night he recently spent—as an empathy experiment—disguised as a homeless man. In 25-degree air, he slept in a borrowed sleeping bag amidst all-night construction noise near Rosslyn Metro. Shank had to cadge access to restrooms. He wandered into churches where he was, in one case, ignored, in another served impromptu food. “It was the longest night of my life,” said the academic.

The Arlington Street People’s Assistance Network described Pete as one of an estimated 200 in Arlington who are “really difficult to house.” My decade assisting him as an untrained, comfortably middle-class, part-time volunteer confirmed that.

I was drawn to Pete by decades of shared fascination with sports, rock music and Arlington history. He earned money doing research.

But face it, the guy’s rigid personality and grooming habits did not make him “presentable” to other friends. He scared my family by calling at all hours to launch alcohol-fueled, one-way conversations. In reverse-the-charges midnight calls from the Arlington County jail, Pete would ask me to stop at an ATM and bail him out after one of many traffic violations.

The turning point came in 2011 when Pete got evicted from his longtime family home—a domestic dispute brought a restraining order. He was on the street with no chance to pack any belongings. I worked with police to allow him one visit to retrieve some basics. That began his years of crashing in motels, in his car, or with mysterious friends I never identified.

I worked with Pete’s family to get his possessions and memorabilia into a public storage shed. My plan was to buy him some time to sort them and discard the bulk.

His long-frustrated relatives warned me not to be an enabler. Yes, Pete treasured his independence. He cooperated only intermittently. So with storage fees rising, I moved many of his things to my garage in the hope he would find an apartment (thanks to his old sports teammates, who helped me out of that jam).

I let Pete put my address on his bank accounts (later revoked). I helped him collect disability checks as representative payee. But I balked after he gave my name as a reference to a prospective landlady –I wouldn’t lie and say I was a previous landlord.

Pete did seek treatment at Alcoholics Anonymous and in units of Virginia Hospital Center, whose providers sought my input. But rather than express gratitude, Pete turned hostile toward me. Perhaps his pride was wounded, or I knew too many secrets.

Pete’s family—far from Arlington—contacted me in March to report the circumstances of his apparently self-inflicted death and final days in hospice. There was, in the end, a reconciliation.


Washington Major League Baseball history “now it can be told” department:

Hall of Fame slugger Ted Williams, soon after arriving in the nation’s capital to manage the Senators in 1969, issued a memo of “player regulations” instructing his boys of summer to “LOOK AND ACT LIKE A BIG LEAGUER!”

Sample rules on the copy I found: No serious card playing; a 12:00 curfew (or for night games two hours after game ends); “no drinking in the bar of the hotel in which we are staying”; no golfing during the season–pitchers included; “a neat and presentable appearance is expected at all times. Wear a jacket when appearing in public.”

Take note, Nationals: Williams led the Senators to their only winning season.