Every new day at the shelter officially began when the big fluorescent lights snapped on at 6am. At this time, a jostling for position took place as the men fought to get a good spot in line for bunk assignments for the night to come. Nobody got the same bunk twice in a row. This meant the person who had been to each side of you and the person who had been above you would usually be different the following night.
You may or may not have gotten to know your neighbors. And you may or may not have gotten along. They could have been horrific snorers, drug users, thieves, schizophrenics, or psychopaths. They may have been people who have neglected, for whatever reason, to bathe for a few weeks. It was for these reasons among others that men tended to try to group together in the bunk assignment line. This way that they were more likely to wind up being close to people they could trust more or be less likely to have disagreements with.
Those who were more concerned with avoiding the security patrols for whatever reason were fine with bringing up the end of the line. This meant they would be located far to the back of dorm one, or in dorm two. These were the darkest areas of the shelter, where security feared to tread and basically anything went.
Before I figured this out, I learned the hard way that chaos reigned in the shadows.
Men smoked spice, methamphetamine and other intoxicants out of glass pipes. Others smoked heroin off sheets of tinfoil and cheap pipe tobacco from shelter-made cigarettes. The air soon turned into an acrid, lung-searing smog. I was coughing badly by the time I had been at the shelter only two days. After five days, my nose began bleeding every morning as well.
Utah has some of the filthiest air in the entire nation to begin with. So, with every passing day, breathing itself became more difficult. Before my days in the shelter were over, I was diagnosed with COPD. I will have to spend the rest of my life using an inhaler.
After I got wise to the bunk assignment game, I started getting up earlier to make sure I would not wind up in the dark, unpatrolled areas. But I never really knew who I would wind up next to, or what their story might be.
Few of my temporary neighbors left cheerful memories, but one of those who did was a delightfully funny older black man who called himself simply, Champagne.
I was very fortunate to have some time to get to know him. Champagne was slight in stature, but very handsome for an older man. He had bright white hair and dark eyes that sparkled with merriment when he laughed. He had several amusing anecdotes and family tales, far too many for me to remember. The best one was the story about how he got his name.
When his brother had turned 21, he threw himself a big birthday party inviting all his older friends over to enjoy some wine and champagne now that he was officially of legal age.
As every little brother has always done from the dawn of time, Champagne was aching to join his older brother. Of course, as every older brother has also done since the dawn of time, he shunned his younger brother. Champagne was relegated to the bitter position reserved for every younger brother – the cold shadow of the older, grander sibling.
Champagne was told that he had to stay downstairs, away from the party and away from all the fun. But Champagne wasn’t the type to take this without protest. He rejected the notion he wasn’t mature enough to partake and railed inwardly against the injustice of the situation. Unable to contain his curiosity, he tried to steal a bottle of wine but was thwarted.
Temporarily flustered but not defeated, Champagne retreated to the basement where he knew his mother had hidden away another bottle his older brother apparently did not know about.
Digging out the hidden bottle, he carefully worked the cork back and forth, slowly, so the tell-tale pop wouldn’t give him away.
When it finally came out, the bubbly liquid overflowed the top. He got his first taste of the forbidden liquid as he licked his fingers. The flavor was strange, kind of bitter, and he had trouble seeing what the attraction was. He was repulsed by the taste at first but forced himself to drink it slowly until the glass was empty.
Of course, after a while he was feeling pretty good, and decided to have another glass. After the second glass, he was feeling even better! After the third or fourth glass he just lost track of what he was doing and passed out. When he was discovered by his mother later, he wasn’t feeling very good at all. He had been rudely awakened to the beginnings of his first hangover and a furious parent! It turns out that his mom had spent an appalling amount of money on a very special bottle of Dom Perignon for when his father got home after months away at work.
Champagne’s father was an army drill sergeant, and he was on his way.
When his father did arrive sometime later, he shook his young son awake again to confront him. Right at that moment, as if on cue, Champagne experienced a wave of intense nausea and vomited up his father’s gift all over the shirt of his dress uniform.
The party was over, especially for him. Suffering already from the agony of his first hangover, he was apprised of the seriousness of his crime. After being given the old “This will hurt me more than it will hurt you” speech, he was given the beating of his young life.
The memory of that day never leaves him, as he was given the nickname of the liquid that he had imbibed and wore it proudly for the rest of his life.
He does remember his original name, of course, but has only heard it at formal occasions such as the day he got married. From the day of his brother’s party on, Champagne never once touched another drop of anything with alcohol in it. When people asked him why, he said that his first and last drink was of the finest Dom Perignon, and how on earth can you top that?
The story of how it was that he came to be in the shelter was decidedly unhappy, however. He walked with a cane, limping badly. There were horrific scars wrapped around his lower legs. I couldn’t help myself and asked what on earth had happened to his legs. This is the part of the story that isn’t cheerful.
Champagne’s wife was Hispanic and had been born in Salt Lake.
When she passed, the family decided to gather in her hometown for the funeral. As Champagne had been living alone with his wife for many years, he arrived in Salt Lake alone and only met with family on the day of the funeral. After the funeral, the family members went their separate ways and Champagne returned to his hotel. Being unfamiliar with Salt Lake, Champagne got a room at an inexpensive hotel on North Temple, unaware of what a mistake he was making.
Later when he got hungry, he decided to go to a Denny’s that was just a few blocks from his hotel. It was an unusually warm autumn day for Utah, and he decided to relax in the sunshine on the grass in a park-like area across from a commuter train station. Salt Lake City’s urban grassy areas can be deceptively bucolic to a visitor from out of town. But they can be very dangerous places, as Champagne unhappily discovered.
Resting on the soft grass in the warm sun, with nearby shade trees rustling in the breeze, Champagne fell asleep. Shortly after that peaceful moment, the sadness of his wife’s passing was magnified by a horrific and unforeseen tragedy.
He awakened to find a couple of Salt Lake City police officers looming above him, one with an attack dog. Champagne had never gotten along with dogs for some reason. The startling circumstances of his arousal caused him to panic, which didn’t help. Somehow the dog was released, and Champagne received a mauling that resulted in $40,000 worth of damage to his legs. Not only that, but the police tossed in a charge of resisting arrest for good measure.
As Champagne did not have a lot of money to begin with, the legal battles and the medical bills drained every resource that he had.
He wound up in the shelter. Champagne was too proud to ask for help. His family did not know the extent of his injuries and were unaware he was in a shelter. Fortunately, his family did eventually discover where he was and came to his rescue. They came to the shelter one day with fresh clothes and a date with an attorney. The day before his family came for him, Champagne came to tell me what was happening. I was very happy for him, feeling wealthy for having had the privilege to get to know him.
To be fair, the North Temple area of Salt Lake City has long been synonymous with crime, drugs and gang activity. It is unfortunately the kind of place that has developed a rough reputation and tends to draw the roughest police. A couple of uniformed policemen with a dog in tow wouldn’t seem out of place on North Temple, whereas a sleeping black man may have.
That said, I sincerely hope that Champagne got a piece of the city proportional to the piece of himself that he gave up to the dog.
Photo by Jose Murillo on Unsplash