Thursday, November 19, 2015

Tunneling the Spiritually Rich

Thanksgiving Story—the week before Thanksgiving 2013

I met Robert Dowdy Jr., (dancer), in front of McDonalds across the street from the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.  My cheap motel, the Diamond Inn, was just down a bit, right next to the Airport where my 6:00 AM flight would take me back to St. Louis the next morning.

I was stuck in Las Vegas for a few days and it was just not a good place to be, not at that time of year. Oh, great fun for one night, then it sets in and you want to run home to family and friends.  The weather was dreadful.  It wasn't the journey that I had in mind.

I had to scrub my Grand Canyon hike, the Rim to River and Back, due to an unusual snowstorm.  It was to be my fourth time doing the canyon hike.  On a previous trip, my good friend and traveler, John Manning, muscled through it with me and we ended up doing sports book for a day while we waited for our flights home.  I chose to fly in and out of Las Vegas without John this time because I had my flight booked in advance and he bailed. Sometimes this happens.  I thought, what the hell, “go by myself and make the best of it”. 

But upon arriving at the rim, the snow had already started, and the forecast was predicting 10-14 inches by morning.  I didn't even make it down to Indian Springs before turning back.  While it was really quite interesting descending in the snow, it was dangerous on the trail and the footing was terrible, and I was the only one there.  By midnight it was really getting bad so I left the hotel just after 2:00 AM and headed back to Las Vegas where it would rain and snow in the regions coldest and wettest spell, in like, ever?   The following is what I wrote on my device on the plane on the way home and posted on facebook. It's been two years to the date since then, so why not reflect back on my thanksgiving story from 2013.


In the Tunnels with Robert Dowdy Jr. (dancer).
I am sure Robert said he was a dancer. He told me he suffers from schizophrenia, and also has bad bouts with anger and sadness, but I do remember him introducing himself “Robert Dowdy Jr.; dancer!

Robert is called by his friends "the landlord of the Las Vegas storm drainage tunnels". They sit adjacent to the Las Vegas airport, and right behind the motel that I was staying in that Sunday night. It was the week before the Thanksgiving Holiday.  I was pissed because the snow and rain killed my dessert canyon trip, and I was stuck in Vegas for two days without being able to get a flight out. One day is enough in Vegas, btw, if you are taking the city in, great. One-day-is-enough!

It rained for four days straight, so the tunnels (basically a series of spillways and culverts where the homeless live) had filled and washed of their stuff down stream.  "They call this flushing the toilet", when the water comes through and cleans out all the belongings of the tunnel dwellers.

I met Robert while doing an early evening urban hike. Something I like to do to get the feel of a city.  It’s a great way to assess the social conscience of a community, seeing who’s on the streets and what resources they have. Las Vegas seems to be a fairly decent city for the homeless; so many of them, too.  There is good weather, many resources.  "Outside of the tunnels being filled with scorpions", Robert says it's really not that bad.  I wasn’t told this right off the bat, not until much later.

I am drawn to this type of experience for some reason, the homeless and the mentally ill and their struggles. I'm not a martyr and don’t try to exploit a condition by any means, but I have sensitivity towards the misunderstood. Often the most incredible people are the most complicated and Robert is certainly no different.

Sometimes on these urban hikes I'll stop at Subway and get a bunch of 6 inch and hand them out. Some times the people are thankful. Sometimes they share with others who need it.  Sometimes they'll talk.  Sometimes they'll tell me to fuck off. The experience has changed me, because you really cannot take these folks for granted. They function, some better than others, in a culture that has meaning.  Some are certainly nicer than others and Robert made this clear several times.

Robert had just retrieved a discarded McDonald’s bag from the trashcan on the perimeter of the McDonalds parking lot.  I also saw a car roll down a window and hand him a large Dr Pepper on the way out of the drive through. I watched the whole thing as I walked up the street, just after checking in to my hotel. I noticed that he didn't venture too close to the McDonalds and kept his distance.  He later told me he was "banned for life" for getting into it with the manager months ago. This is a total drag for Robert, his main source if food came from this building; handouts, the dumpster and the trashcans on the perimeter.

I surprised him when we met. I asked him how he was doing from behind and he spun around quickly and said:  "God is love Brotha, I couldn't be better"!  Since I had nowhere to go, and it appeared that he didn't either, we just stood there chatting for a while.

I offered to get him some food but he adamantly declined. He had all he needed for the night but mentioned under his breath how much he so likes those Christmas Cherry Pies. He wouldn’t take a hand out from me so I asked him if I could hang out with him for a bit. He eagerly told me about where he lived and how he functions day to day, so when I asked him if he could show me where he lived he lit up like a Christmas tree. We immediately walked down a hedgerow to an opening in a fence leading down a dirt path into a vast network of spillways, people and territories.

We were to meet some of his friends, "but only the nice ones" he said. "Up stream one of the guys is real temperamental". It was apparent that Robert was the one who helped the others get settled. "Seven blocks" he said, "that's my territory".

He told me that he doesn't drink or smoke or do drugs anymore. Doesn't need to. He also told me that there are three rules for living life on the street.  Rule #1, never piss anyone off who knows where you sleep! "That is also rule two and three" he says with a very serious look.

Robert is genuinely happy, and a perfect host as he wondered deeper into his world that seems guided only by the basic principal that Robert lives by:  "God provides, and God is love". Robert says that regardless of whatever God you choose to believe in, Love is all that matters "Then good shit happens", he says. He reminded me of this several times, like he could tell that I hadn't quite gotten that part yet.  He liked it when we talked about his faith.  It was his affirmation and I was his student for those brief couple of hours. He knew this and made sure he was driving home the message, one on one.

Robert had a smell about him, cheap cologne, not repulsive, but distinctive of unwashed clothes and cologne dowsed to cover up his body odor. His sleeping area was set up with a whicker couch and a mirror. His belongings weren't tidy at all.  How could they be after the flushing? I asked him how he took care of basic hygiene needs. He took me on another walk to one of the "bailouts" he calls it; a hole in the fence cut for access to and from the tunnels, hidden around every hundred feet or so. He showed me two water sources on the back of my hotel building. The manager allows them to use this; hot and cold. I remember the manager when I checked in to the place; an Asian fellow. I remember thinking how nice of a man he seemed to be, unusually accommodating, for such a low rent motel. Robert's stock isn't any better at the hotel than McDonald's, apparently.  He is only to use the shower at night as he has been banned from there too.

Walking up the grade of the cement spillway is kind of a chore, and he kept telling me how to do it without spraining an ankle or falling over and hurting myself. At one point he grabbed on to my coat to make sure I didn't fall. He does this many times a day, and is always helping the older residents as a result of seeing them hurt themselves making the journey in and out of the tunnels each day.

Robert is 65 years old and very, very fit. He looks homeless, there is no mistaking his condition.  He spends time on the street, looking for things to eat.  He loves finding gems tossed away by tourists, according to him, "God put the cheeseburger in my stomach and love gave me the Dr. Pepper". While we walked, he ate.

Then an ambulance went by.  It was so upsetting to him that he he held his ears and crouched down until it passed. He was in considerable pain and told me that it hurts his head, and changes his mood. He was angry because he was enjoying my company and he didn't want things to change.

He told me that he has good days and bad days, particularity with his anger. I asked him if I caught him on a good day. He told me that I made his day and that any day he is able tell his story and talk about his faith, he has good days. I could only smile and think about how profound that was. I was on the receiving end, not Robert.  I am not even remotely religious.  I thought about that for a while.

Towards the end of our time together, I asked him again if he wanted something from McDonalds. He wouldn't let me buy him more food but I kept asking him. He said "Man those Christmas Cherry Pie's sure are good". So I went in and got him two of them so he could stuff them away.  I am pretty sure he planned on giving at least one of them away.

I learned a couple things that night. First, Robert is there by choice. He is able to be who he is, regardless if his illness and regardless of what anyone might think if him. Had I judged him I wouldn't have "gotten" his message--one that I was glad to be reminded of, and needed to be reminded of. He would rather be himself and, in his own authentic spiritual realm, put his love and kindness to best use, making sure that the others don't have to suffer too much.  Second, I get the feeling he thought I was suffering some way, and that (that) was the reason he offered up his kindness. Whether it was then or now, who knows?  There is a time when we all suffer in some way. Gifts like this just don't come that often.  

As I turned to go back to my hotel he gave me a big hug and thanked me. Cheers to Robert, and his big ass Dr. Pepper filled to the rim! Happy Thanksgiving #Ifyouknowhatimtalkinbout.

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