We sat across from each other at the New Orleans Veterans Administration Hospital downtown on Perdido Street. What irony. Perdido means lost. The desperate young man came to my office because he needed lodging, and I was the Coordinator of the Homeless V.A. Program. In October 1987, most of those who came for help were fathers and husbands with house and car notes. All they asked for were jobs.
Homes and cars, repossessed, the men turned to relatives to take in their children and wives, but––not wanting to be a burden––took to the streets, looking for employment. Not many employers cared to hire the homeless, so circumstances forced them to settle for hunger, cold, threats of violence, and police brutality.
When Gus Harrington walked in, our appointment started like any other. I shook his hand. "Have a seat, Sir. How can I help you?”
“I've been trying to find work but can't find any. So, I applied for a home with Mr. Steve, my case worker, but I'm tired of waiting."
"Did you complete all your tests?" The homeless veteran’s program required passing drug, psychiatric, and blood checks.
"Yes Ma'am. But, I'm a vet who almost got killed fighting for this country. I don't deserve this kind of treatment."
"Yes, you served your county well, and you are worthy of help. You’ve earned that.” I paused to accent what I’d said, then continued, “It’s just, we didn't expect such a large need. So, we're behind schedule."
"But, I saw you on TV. You said you had homes.”
"Yes, but we're unable to keep up with demand. Do you have somewhere to sleep at night?"
"No. Sometimes, when I can get a voucher, I spend the night at a shelter.
"What about when you can’t get into one?"
"Depends. Mostly in a ditch I found where I can stay out of sight of both the cops and the other homeless people. I'm afraid of one as much as the other," he said shaking his head.
How would I manage in his place? Where would I hide? What would I do to survive?
Aaron Neville’s favorite saying came to mind: But for the grace of God. "I regret I can't help you today, but as soon as a home is available, I'll call Mr. Steve and let him know."
His white face reddened, and he twisted his swivel chair away from me and stared at the wall. After a few minutes, he turned back.
"Sorry, Gus. The process of certifying homes and meeting state requirements. It all takes time.” Who is this calm person talking to an armed man?
"Well, ya see, that's the problem...I don't have time."
Not trained in disarming patients, my guardian angel must have taken over. A desparate, armed person needs simplicity. Talking must be kept at a minimum. Only simple and clear directives should be given.
So, with a lowered voice, I said, "Mr. Harrington, I need you to put the gun on the desk, please.” Hoping to encourage him, I nodded toward the bureau.
His eyes darted. He must not have expected the response--or non-response--he got.
He swiveled again and aimed the weapon to the floor. He fumbled while trying to eject a bullet. Maybe, he's unloading the bullets and won't shoot me. Or maybe he wants to prove it’s loaded.
The stubborn mechanism unstuck, and one projectile spit out and clattered on the linoleum tile. He picked it up and held it up to me at eye level.
Again, I heard myself speaking. "Mr. Harrington, I need you to put the firearm on the desk, please."
After some consideration, he lowered the firearm to his lap. With a cocked head and furrowed brow, he waited.
"Gus, I need you to lay the gun down."
After a furtive glance, he cursed and yanked, trying to free the detachable magazine. Even with military experience, he handled the pistol like a rookie. He must be nervous.
Funny the things that come to mind in situations like this. Great, if he doesn't kill me on purpose, he'll kill me by accident.
I did nothing and said nothing. Why am I so calm?
When he freed the fully-loaded magazine, he held it up in plain sight, reloaded it, and turned the weapon on me another time. Stay cool, Connie. He's wants to rattle you.
We had reached an impasse. If he didn't comply this time...?" So, I spoke more determined than before. Too little or too much might mean disaster, though. "Mr. Harrington, I need you to put the gun on the desk. Right now."is mouth agape and his eyes widened gave me hope. The desperate man had played his ace card and lost. After a grueling pause, he lowered the firearm a few inches.
His hand trembled. "Okay Sir, place the pistol down."
He eyed the desktop. His hand dropped a bit--inch by inch. Nodding to assure him. I repeated, "On the desk." Strange. He laid the semi-automatic down like someone laying a sleeping baby in its crib, not wanting to wake it. Oh God, I can't believe this is working.
Without missing a beat, I switched subject. The weapon was still near by. "Are you scheduled for any appointments today?
His eyes dazed, he rubbed the side of his chin with the palm of his hand. "Uh, what?"
Hold his attention. Hold his attention. "Who is your doctor?
"He's in psychiatry, right?"
"Do you know the room number?
“Yeah, it’s 437.”
Allowing no chance to change his mind. I stood, pulled the door open, and gestured toward the hall--inviting him to exit. Not demanding. Will he leave? "I'll call Dr. Fields' office and let them know you're on your way, okay?"
"Huh? Oh, yeah okay." Dazed, he shuffled out. Like a guilty child, his shoulders sloped downward, and his eyes fixed to the floor, he crossed the threshhold.
Lock-the-door, Connie. Now. With the door secured and my back leaning against it, I let out a sign, then called the security department. Within minutes, they swarmed in.
Chief Howard reached me first. "Are you injured?"
"No, I'm okay."
"Where is he?"
"On his way to Dr. Fields in Psychiatry, Room 437.”
“Where’s the weapon?”
My nod toward the pistol answered his question. He checked the magazine. "It's loaded alright." He turned to me and said, “How did you disarm him?”
“I asked to put it down.”
"You asked him? Is that all?"
“Yes. Had to do it four or five times, but it worked.”
He placed his hand on one hip and turned away, then back toward me. “All you did was ask him?”
The phone rang, and the voice on the other end said, "Ms. Hebert, we took Mr. Harrington into custody when he arrived at Room 437.”
"Thanks for letting me know.”
“Chief, if you don't need any more from me, I'm late for a staff meeting."
“All this happened, and you’re worried about a meeting? Don’t you want an escort?"
“No, not now that you've got him.” I picked up my briefcase and headed out.
Arriving at the gathering, I grabbed a seat among my colleagues. Vicki Sharp, a veteran social worker at the VA, addressed the group. She had been mentoring me, and I admired her as a professional and a friend.
Someone called my name. "Connie. Connie.”
Startled out of my fugue state, ”Oh, sorry, I didn’t hear you.”
I looked up and saw the concern in her face, furrowed brows, unwavering gaze, and mouth agape. "Are you all right? You're face is pale.” she asked.
The words tumbled out. "I was held at gunpoint." Once I had spoken the words, my body jolted repeatedly. I had no control of it. The gravity of my situation came into focus. And now, my heart throbbed and perspiration beaded my forehead.
Someone shouted. "Damn, they need to give you hazardous pay." Which only made me
more jittery. Vicki adjourned the meeting and walked me to the Social Work Department to help report the incident. Afterward, I didn't want to go back to my office. An empty room nearby provided me a place to stay the rest of the day.
One week later, I sat in the cafeteria with Vicki. "So, how are you holding up?" she asked.
"You've got him now. So, I'm okay." The wall clock read 8 o'clock. "Oh, time to go.”
As I stood to leave, she grabbed my arm and pulled me back on the seat. "What's the matter?" I asked.
She nodded toward a table not far from us. Mr. Harrington was having breakfast only a few yards away. Grabbing the table with both hands, I remembered stories of girls raped by men in apartment complexes who faced their perpetrators across the pool only a couple of days later.
What did you expect, Connie? That he'd disappear into thin air?
Turning back toward my friend, we held hands. To make sure I had not misidentified him, I peeked his way again. Yes, it was him. The two of us, glued to our seats, grappled for answers. What to do?
"They need to put gun control checkpoints at the doors." my friend blurted. "We've been trying to convince administration for years, but nothing's been done.”
Shaking my head, I said, "But, what do we do right now?" My mentor shook her head, raised her shoulders, and lowered them with a sigh.
Familiar with the modus operandi in the V.A. Hospital, we recognized nothing more would be done. We looked into each others eyes for comfort. What else could we do, but and face another taxing workday, hoping to make a difference.
(c) Connie Hebert, Copyright 2012