I interviewed Nathan on the corner of SW Third Avenue and Alder Street on Ash Wednesday. Pedestrian traffic ebbed and flowed as buses across the street dropped off passengers. When he saw me approach, he took off a glove and shook my hand. “Good to see you,” he said. It was a cool, cloudy morning that began to clear as we talked. He seemed gentle, unassuming, but self-confident.
Nathan was 26 years old when one day, at work, he started hearing voices. He told me the story in brief, unemotional sentences. “I went to the hospital. They gave me medication. The medication made me tired. I lost my job.”
That was nine years ago. The hospital had diagnosed him with schizophrenia. He remains on medication today and has a counselor who checks on him to make sure he is taking it.
“Does she help you figure out how to deal with the voices?” I asked.
He shook his head. “You have to do that yourself. It is an individual thing.”
Nathan is grateful to Street Roots and the opportunity being one of their vendors offers him. “I can’t work a regular job,” he said.
Stress of working a job, at, say McDonalds, makes the voices in his head increase, he says. Although he hears voices while selling Street Roots, he can take a break whenever he needs to. The flexibility allows him to control his symptoms without losing his job or upsetting customers. He has been selling Street Roots since January, but having an honest way of earning money, has already helped him increase his sense of self-worth.
“I sell Street Roots to gain more ability towards life,” he told me. “I like having a job.” He sells papers seven days a week for eight to 10 hours a day. He mostly stays on the corner of SW Third Avenue and Alder Street but walks around downtown some also. Walking gives him a little break from standing still and helps him deal with voices.
“Would you be interested in a Street Roots?” he asks each person quietly as they walk past him. Most pedestrians ignore him. One man offered him a quarter. During the hour I spent with him he sold only one issue of the paper.
After Nathan lost his job in 2000 he hitch-hiked across the country. He has always wanted to be a writer and felt that travel would offer him experiences to write about. But this fall he was hospitalized at Good Samaritan hospital with what was probably bleeding ulcers. He said he required surgery and remained hospitalized about a month. Upon discharge he was able to spend a little time living at his mother’s house, he said, but then entered the Clark Center, a transitional housing facility helping about 65 homeless men.
“I want to be able to do more in life than just be a bum and exist on disability benefits.” Selling Street Roots is only the first step in his plan to improve the quality of his life. He has applied for, but is not yet receiving, VA disability. He uses food stamps to buy healthy food to help him recover from his surgeries. He says he abstains from alcohol and reads as much as possible. He says he likes reading the Bible, Homer’s “Odyssey” and
“The Iliad,” Charles Dickens, and Edgar Alan Poe.
Nathan has written a one page metaphysical paper called “The Beginning of Existence” which he hopes to get published in Street Roots.
“How do you cope with the voices in your head? What helps?” I asked.
“I keep a positive attitude.” We talked about what that means beyond taking the concrete steps described above to improve his life. He told me that he studies Greek literature. In it, he finds suggestions about “how to be free of the desire to sin and become more through mental will power.” His goal: to be “in reality for a height of mind.
By Elizabeh Schwartz