The Long Walk Home
(Column: Veterans' Issues: The Long Walk Home)
Cherchez La Femme!
Kenyatta Yamel
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Cherchez la femme, one of the oldest clichés in detective fiction, means find the woman. During the time that I was homeless and living in a veterans' center from October 2003 to October 2004, I met dozens of men who had mental illness and/or addiction issues. And almost as inevitable as the ending in a paperback novel, there was a woman at the center of many of their problems. Some men spent hours drooling over the pictures they found on websites like blackpeoplemeet.com. Others were tethered to the phone and their women so long they resembled the RCA slogan: listening for the sound of his master's voice.

I remember one man in particular, John, who entered the center last October. He was an intelligent man in his mid 40s with a lot of skills and an active body. John had double trouble, addiction and mental illness. We talked about the anti depressants he was taking and how he was coping. Mainly, he just painted. Your garage, bathroom, doorknob or anything else left standing, John would paint it to help burn off his energy.

That is, when he wasn't talking to his wife, Jane. She would call the four pay phones throughout the building looking for John. Often, I would see him out in the hallway, hanging up and calling her back. On rare occasions John would consciously not answer the phone, preferring the solitude of painting. It's remarkable that he was able to repaint the front office and the stairwell in his struggle for inner peace.

The way that John talked, it was hard to understand why he had entered the shelter. He owned a house and his wife lived in a fancy lakeside apartment. But there were so many issues beneath the surface. What was he running away from and returning to? How could his wife afford to spend all day on the phone? How could friends help?

At the vets' center, friendship was limited. I remember the staff saying, "You came here by yourself and you will leave here by yourself," so often I could hear it in my sleep. The center is located on the middle of a street with drug dealing and prostitution. No matter how many times the staff warned us not to spend our $5 or $10 on a quickie somewhere, there were many who left, found a woman and used her to relapse.

One man, Ted, who had been put out of the house by his wife for drinking, relapsed three times within three months. Alan, a man who was struggling with bipolar, returned to the center three times, each time looking more pitiful than the last. I, too, spent months in the center as part of my long-term pattern of looking for women who could help take care of me.

I had what I thought was a wonderful relationship with an attractive Irish woman in Boston. We visited one another twice, including once while I was at the vets' center, and wrote letters constantly. For a time, I, too, was once of those men listening for a phone call. But I think the one-sidedness of our affair wore out. Alice was a French teacher in a high school and I was trying to rebuild my career and my self-esteem. She had money and I did not.

That imbalance seems to be at the heart of my fellow vets efforts to find women: someone, anyone, old, young, attractive or plain, whose voice they would listen to on the phone or at the end of a crack pipe. What is it that men are looking for and why do they think they will find it in a woman instead of inside of themselves?
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