To the residents of the Westpark apartment complex at 2130 P St. NW, the occupant of apartment 518E was something of a cipher. He lived in a middle-class building and paid a fair amount of rent to live on the bustling P Street beach in the heart of Dupont Circle, yet he didn’t appear to have a job. Over the years, his hair—what was left of it—had grown long and stringy and his 5-foot-7 frame was shrinking by the day.
His withered figure became a familiar sight at the bars along P Street: Mr. P’s, the Fireplace, P Street Station. As his illness got worse, his sanity slipped away. Bartenders at Mr. P’s found him wandering around, sucking down the dregs from abandoned beer bottles, and they had to ban him from the establishment. He would pick up street people and bring them back to 518E. Occasionally, they would rob him and cause a ruckus or sleep in his building’s lobby—much to the dismay of the stuffy Quadrangle Management Co.
Neighbor Nancy Fiedler didn’t really know the man, but she knew he was very, very sick. She saw him fall down in the hallway and noticed the lesions that appeared on his sallow face. Fiedler thought the man’s dementia was a product of the late stages of AIDS—at least that’s what the other building residents said. Six months ago, after the man’s street friends started squatting in the building, Fiedler complained to the property manager that the man in 518E needed help. The manager promised only eviction proceedings.
This summer, as the tenant in 518E grew more and more disoriented, he fell behind in his rent. In the past, he’d been able to pull himself together and pay up before the management company could take action. But in August, the process server arrived at his door with a summons for landlord/tenant court showing that he owed $1,475 for the past two months’ rent. He missed the October court date and the next three months’ rent payments, too. But last Sunday he diligently scribbled a reminder to himself on the back of an old envelope: “Pay rent…ask what I owe.”
He didn’t get around to it in time. Last Tuesday afternoon, Fiedler came home to find the man from 518E crouched by the front door, babbling to himself. An eviction crew was hauling all his worldly belongings out to the curb. She looked on as the movers added a cane and a walker to the garbage bags full of clothing, the chairs, and the other personal effects on the sidewalk. Before leaving the man with the tidy pile of trash that used to be his life, the evictors stuffed his pockets with more than $1,000 in cash they’d found in his one-bedroom apartment.
It’s not all that surprising that a corporate management company could so easily toss a sickly, demented man out on the P Street curb like a bulk-trash pickup. The Westpark is one of those huge, monolithic apartment buildings that diffuses any sense of neighborly concern, while the P Street watering holes provide a protective cover for lots of people who find freedom in anonymity. What is surprising is that Tuesday’s Dickensian scene of a dying man and his cane thrown out in the cold triggered a rare—if ultimately futile—display of compassion from strangers.
The sight of her former neighbor weeping by the curb prompted Fiedler to find someone who could help. She started with Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans’ office, where an aide notified Sam Jordan, the director of the D.C. Office of Emergency Preparedness. Fiedler asked Whitman-Walker, the city’s largest nonprofit AIDS services network, to help the man. Eventually, the police arrived and took the man away, and an Evans staffer told Fiedler the cops had taken him to D.C. General Hospital. With the man from 518E attended to, Fiedler made an all-out attempt to save his belongings from the city’s highly efficient scavengers, who would be swooping in at any moment.
She called a tenants’ rights group, which tried to pay Quadrangle $100 to bring the man’s things inside for 24 hours. Then she went across the street and got the bartenders at Mr. P’s to take turns standing watch over the man’s things until other arrangements could be made. But it was getting late in the evening, and there was no sign of Whitman-Walker or Emergency Preparedness staffers. At the request of Jordan, a police officer relieved the bartenders of guard duty. Eventually, though, he found better things to do. And Quadrangle claimed it couldn’t possibly find room to store the man’s things. Eventually, despite Fiedler’s best efforts, everything the man owned was stolen, including his cane and his walker.
“How could you throw out somebody so helpless mentally?” asks Fiedler. “It’s like throwing out a 1-year-old. It’s not like the owners would have starved if they had waited a month to get him placed somewhere.”
Quadrangle saw the occupant of 518E as a common eviction case. “This is a man who stopped paying his rent for five months. He knew about the eviction process. Our obligation is to make sure he gets notice. We gave him many notices,” says Elise Rabekoff, general counsel for Quadrangle.
She adds that the company attempted to notify the man’s emergency contact a week before the eviction, but no one came for him. “This is really a case where we did much more than a management company should have to go through to help him to prevent the eviction.”
“We have had many complaints about this man. We knew he was an alcoholic,” continues Rabekoff. “He was inviting street people into his apartment. They were sleeping in the building.”
With no family or friends in the area, the man himself has disappeared among the legions of the District’s living dead who, like pigeons, have become an integral part of the city’s landscape. He never arrived at D.C. General. According to spokeswoman Denise Nash, caseworkers from Whitman-Walker searched for him the day after his eviction but never found him. And Evans’ staff couldn’t be bothered for too long with a single sick constituent. Fiedler saw the man briefly in her building last Wednesday, but says, “He did not seem to know he didn’t live here anymore.” She hasn’t seen him since.
By Thursday, a few remnants of his effects still littered the sidewalk—the beige couch (minus pillows), a few plastic bags full of old clothes, condoms, and vacuum cleaner warranty papers. The contents of a couple of garbage bags tell the story of a man who had fallen a long way before hitting the P Street curb.
According to his papers, 50-year-old Curtis Kelchner once had all the trappings of a middle-class existence. He holds a master’s degree in business administration. He worked at the Department of the Navy’s personnel office for long enough to retire on disability in 1990. He had an annuity from his government service and federal health insurance. He once had a wife. His parents and sister are dead. He has a 28-year-old daughter in California.
These are just the facts of Kelchner’s life. The connective tissue exists in the scraps of paper strewn among Kelchner’s things on P Street. There’s the anxiety attack hot-line number scrawled next to grocery lists of grits, mouthwash, and Alka-Seltzer. There are syringes, empty boxes of gauze, and St. Thomas Parish church programs with court dates sketched over bars of hallelujahs. Still, the scraps don’t explain why 30 years ago Kelchner started drinking; they note only that by the time he moved to P Street, he was swilling at least a pint of whiskey a day.
There are no personal letters among Kelchner’s things, only dunning notices for thousands of dollars in unpaid medical bills. There’s an overdue phone bill from 1994 showing $1,100 worth of 900-number calls—$127 for half-hour chats with a psychic, a buck-and-a-half for a call to TV Guide, $40 in calls to personal-ad services—but not a single call to his daughter. Scattered among the bills are cards adorned with the names and phone numbers of men Kelchner met at the P Street bars he frequented. One reads: “Gilbert—serious side…Jay..Hooker?” Another says, “Mariano…very nice…similar backgrounds and upbringing…likes to watch sports…workminded…country/westerns…Understood me.”
While Kelchner told neighbors he had AIDS, his old medical records don’t indicate that he did, although doctors warned him that his lifestyle made him a prime candidate. But his HIV status seems hardly relevant. Kelchner found plenty of other ways to kill himself slowly. According to the medical records blowing around P Street last week, Kelchner suffers from depression and suicidal tendencies for which he was hospitalized in 1989. A few months after he retired from the Navy, he suffered two grand mal seizures and was hospitalized at George Washington University Hospital for four months.
There he was diagnosed with dementia associated with alcoholism, a seizure disorder, liver problems, and incontinence. He was prescribed myriad powerful drugs: Dilantin and Tegretol for seizures, Haldol and Ativan for depression and anxiety, Allopurinol for gout. Nurses gave him a cane. A GW social worker wrote that Kelchner had periods of lucidity but experienced severe disorientation and would need help with daily living. He was unable to bathe or walk by himself. Without improvement, she wrote, Kelchner would need nursing-home placement, but he couldn’t afford it because his government annuity made him ineligible for Medicaid.
Hospital social workers tried to piece together the threads of his life, to find someone who might care whether Kelchner lived or died, someone who could keep him out of the cracks. But because of his decayed cognitive functions, one social worker wrote, “Patient is a poor historian.” As far as she could tell, Kelchner’s only flesh-and-blood connection was with his daughter in California, who was less than eager to come to Washington to attend to her alcoholic father, who had divorced her mother 25 years earlier. So social workers diligently attempted to get him into rehab programs with the Salvation Army or St. Vincent DePaul’s. AA meetings were recommended.
But in April 1991, the hospital discharged him to a homeless shelter. Someone there apparently helped him apply for Medicare benefits for the disabled. A few months later, the Social Security Administration sent Kelchner a rejection letter saying, “We have determined that your condition does not keep you from working….The medical evidence shows that you do have a history of alcoholism. However, you should abstain from the usage of alcohol. Although you have a history of depression your condition can be treated with therapy. Your blood pressure has not caused any damage to your vital organs. Your seizures are not of the frequency or severity as to interfere with your daily activities….[Y]ou can do other work.”
The garbage bags tell another story: that the man whose life was stuffed inside them was hardly capable of taking the Social Security Administration’s advice. After getting out of the hospital, Kelchner kept a log of his daily activities. On scraps of paper held together with a clip, he described a life that consisted almost solely of drinking, seizures, and falling down. In writing marred by hand tremors, he wrote:
very dizzy, clearing
3:30 up, drink
seizure and 5:15 fell.
clearing 5:30 am”
Other days have more detailed events. “Sunday. laundry messed up? Hit head right side…blood on rug…can’t tell whose it is…chest messed up…must have hit after turning off tv…wet bed.”
Kelchner also took pains to chronicle the conditions of his gout-ridden limbs and of his tortured mental state. He wrote one day, “badly depressed all day…late evening feel great…Librium…Prob: In a rut…no friends…Afraid.”
The logs and medical records begin and end in 1991. After he left GW Hospital, how Kelchner got from a homeless shelter to his P Street apartment is something of a mystery. His name was spelled wrong on the lease and on the court papers ordering his eviction. Quadrangle claims to have contacted someone to fetch him, but far more diligent folks before them had always failed in that regard. In 1991, Kelchner’s daughter declined a request from GW Hospital to become her father’s legal guardian. Apparently, she’d had enough of him as well.
The phone numbers buried among Kelchner’s grocery lists are mostly disconnected, the people attached to them long gone. Even his old prescription bottles don’t reveal any human ties. Kelchner lived off a veritable pharmacopeia of prescription drugs but has no doctor of record, only the faceless caretaker of D.C. General Hospital.
Kelchner’s trail ends where it began, back on P Street, where the last of his belongings are disintegrating in the winter rain.