I encountered Roland Wood in the summer of 2005. I was driving my old Mazda south on San Jacinto Boulevard in central Austin and was zooming by when I caught sight of him: a big black guy slouched over in a wheelchair. Downtrodden people are not rare in American cities, and Austin—although prosperous by most measures—has its share. I had to make an immediate decision. Do I keep going or pull over? If it were the latter, I was certain to end up investing a fair amount of time, effort and money.
I hit the brakes, got out and walked up to him. He was utterly oblivious to me, since he was asleep, drunk and sick. I put a hand on his shoulder and got his attention. Roland seemed a bit surprised to have a stranger, a European American, talking to him and offering him aid. We spoke for perhaps 10 minutes before coming to an agreement by which he would at least find temporary respite. Roland was coming with me. He was so weak that he could not walk, and getting him into the passenger seat of my car was no easy task. His wheelchair was folded up and put into the trunk as we headed south.
I might as well be honest here. Roland just plain reeked. Homeless, he had not bathed in quite a long time. There were other sources of his high-powered stink, and we can leave it at that. Roland described how he had come to such a point in his life. He grew up in Waco (100 miles north of Austin) but dropped out of school, started drinking and never really quit. His list of health problems was long, including high blood pressure and diabetes. Our first stop was the St. Vincent de Paul thrift store on South Congress Avenue. While Roland waited in the car, I went in and bought some blue jeans, shirts, socks and underwear that might fit him. My home was close by. We both struggled and strained to lift him up three stairs, and he was making a lot of noise. My neighbor Linda later told me she thought something horrible was going on! Fortunately, a more enlightened neighbor named David came to lend some muscle. We got Roland up and inside my house, and I took it from there.
We went straight to the bathroom, where all of his unspeakably nasty clothes were removed and taken to the trash can outside. As I mentioned to David the next day, never before in my life had I been in such close proximity to a naked black man. Maneuvering him into the bathtub was difficult and tricky, but it was done. Then, for the next 15 or so minutes, I hosed him down with warm, soapy water and helped him get clean. Dried off, deodorized with a little baby powder here and there, and wearing some of the clothes I had bought for him, Roland felt much better. I rummaged in my closet and found a pair of old basketball shoes that fit his feet. I handed him a spare toothbrush and instructed him to do some thorough dental hygiene.
All the while, he thanked me and asked why I was helping him. I emphasized to him—and do so to the reader now—that I am neither saint nor angel. While gratitude was a natural and healthy response, he did not have to thank me profusely. “You’d do the same for me, wouldn’t you?” I asked, and he answered affirmatively. “You’re my brother, aren’t you?” Yes, he was.
Back in my Mazda, we went to a drive-through restaurant. Roland ordered and ate ravenously. The next step in our little adventure involved me dropping him, his wheelchair and $20 off where I had found him three hours earlier. I would not see him for a couple of days. Yes, he was back on the street, but now he had an advocate. I went to a nursing home in east Austin where he had once lived and met with the lady in charge. Let’s call her Ms. Garza. She confirmed what Roland had told me—that he had lived there until nine months ago and impulsively left because he found it boring or stifling. A foolish decision, we both agreed. I asked her whether Roland, reformed and repentant, might be allowed to come back. She called me two days later and said he could do so.
I returned downtown, told my friend the good news and brought him to the nursing home. He told me that some of his belongings could be found in a place in north Austin, so I retrieved them. When I arrived, I found Roland in a bed in his room. He had been bathed, and was eating and watching television. That seemed like one of the happiest moments of my life, but time would tell. Again I urged him to be thankful for what he had—a roof over his head, a warm place to sleep, sufficient food and medical care. He was away from the dangerous and precarious street life. I gave him another $20 before departing.
I took Roland out to lunch two or three times, usually to barbecue joints in east Austin. Given his history, I wondered whether he would truly settle down there. No more than six months after I met him, I called the nursing home to see about us sharing another meal. But Ms. Garza informed me that Roland had “fallen off the wagon,” first by sneaking alcohol into his room and then by moving out. Where he had gone and what he did from that point on, your guess is as good as mine.