by Jason Albertson, LCSW
“The first order of clinical business is to find the other, no matter how distant, absent or confused in the hope that one day they will tell us what they really do want.”
—Leston Havon’s, “Making Contact: Use of Language in Therapy.”
The man lives on a bench, at a BART station. The bench is protected by a plastic cone, to warn people. Nobody should sit on the bench. It is his bench. I have told people not to sit on the bench when they tried.
The man has cagled the bench. The police of BART don’t like that he has cagled the bench many times. The BART staff doesn’t like to smell the cagle. The bench has a smell. It is his smell. At the base of the bench, there are many food wrappers and drink containers. They are his. When the BART janitors decide to clean the bench, they use a steam hose, and steam the cagle off. The man does not have a place to put his cagle. He may not remember that you put cagle into the toilet. His memory is poor. He thinks he owns a house in San Francisco that he used to live in. Someone else lives there now. He has gone there, to get his belongings. The people who live there now yell at him and he leaves. They do not know him. He does not understand why they live there now. He puts the cagle in his pants, and then puts on another pair of pants. He is overweight, and moving is hard for him, and harder once he has cagled his pants. The station agents do not let him use the bathroom. Every time he has used the bathroom, he cagles it up. They do not like to clean the bathroom after he has cagled it.
The cops do not want to arrest the man. The cagle would make the police car smell bad. He would make the jail smell bad, until they washed off the cagle. So they let him have the bench, and they call us. The detective I work with doesn’t want to keep him in a police car either, unless there is a good or special reason. We make a plan.
The man came from San Francisco. He lived there for many years. He is a child of San Francisco, until he became sick. Then he was evicted from a supported single-room occupancy residential hotel. He was evicted because he cagled the room. He does not seem to be able to not cagle in his pants, in his room, in the bathroom, in the elevator, at the bench. San Mateo has tried to keep him inside, to bring him from the BART station to a place of safety. He was given a hotel room, and he cagled the hotel room. When he rents a hotel room on his own, he has cagled that also. He is on the do-not-rent list for many hotels. They do not want cagle in the room. He is not able to say why he cagles in his pants. His former case manager, in San Francisco, thinks he does it for defense, to keep people who might threaten him away. Other providers think that he cagles because he is angry, and a nurse think he cagles because he is lazy. Once I thought he cagled because he was scared of seeing things that I do not. I thought that seeing these things may have scared him so much that he cagles. Now I am not sure why he cagles. I do not know why he cagles in his pants, on the floor, on the bench, in the elevator. He says he can’t find the right place to cagle. The man is lost in a way I haven’t seen. He has gone to cagle. He is lost in cagle. Maybe he is lost. I have not helped a man like this before. I think about what makes a man cagle his pants. I talk to doctors and psychologists. I think that he is lost to himself. If I can help him find himself maybe he will put his cagle in the toilet. Inside himself, he does not cagle. He does not like it when I tell him he smells of cagle.
He smells bad, and that keeps people away from him. He has asked me to talk to him longer. I tell him that we can do that when he is clean. For now, the first order of business is not to talk. It is to clean up the cagle. He stays on the bench, and goes to the post-office and other places. Everywhere he goes, he smells and nobody wants to spend time with him. Everywhere he goes, there might be a smell. People give him food, at the BART station, and he likes the library. He has been put out of places many times, for cagle. Last week he cagled the elevator at the Daly City administrative offices. He was looking for his SSI check, which hadn’t come when he cagled the elevator. The police were angry with him. They called me. They were angry at me. The police officer asked who my boss was. I told him. I told him I was helping the man, but that we had a plan and the plan would be executed tomorrow. That the plan would help to manage the cagle, and the man.
I made him a reservation in a San Francisco shelter, where he said he wanted to be, where he had been, where he knew many of the workers, staff, and the director. He cagled there, but they were willing to take him back. With the detective and an intern we put him into the Sheriff’s van and took him to Safe Harbor. This is a shelter. The people who worked in the shelter were glad that I was there to help him. They wanted him helped. I helped him to clean up the cagle. It was all over him. The shelter staff let me clean him in the shower. They were glad that there was someone to clean the cagle. After I was done I used a mop to clean up. There was some cagle. He liked Safe Harbor. He asked if he could have a bed there. We will see, I said, we will see. We are trying San Francisco first, where they know you, where you know them first.
A man who was using the bathroom ran out, gagging at the cagle smell. We had diapers, sweatpants, shirts, a coat from the used clothing store. He did not fit the shoes we brought. I knelt in front of him, after he showered, and pulled up his diaper and the sweatpants. He was happy that he didn’t smell like cagle and that the cagle was gone down the drain. He cannot bend to put on his pants himself. We took him to San Francisco, and negotiated with the shelter to take him back. He may stay. He may not. He may cagle in the shelter, and then they will put him out. You cannot stay in a shelter, two feet from the next bed if you cagle. That is the rule. The Daly City Police forwarded his check, the one that hadn’t come to the post office when he cagled the elevator. He may look for it again in Daly City. He may cagle the bench, or the post office, or the elevator. I can look for his check, if he will let me. If he will let me, I will look for his check. I will call Social Security for him. I know the words they want to hear.
The next day I spoke with the shelter director. He had cagled his diaper, but got up and changed it when he was asked. This is improvement. Before he wouldn’t get up and didn’t have diapers.
If he comes back, I will clean him, and then I will call Social Security if he wants me to. If he is missing his check. Restoring a person’s dignity is the right thing to do. A man shouldn’t live in cagle. Cagle is cagle. It smells. When it smells, clean it up. It is good to restore a person’s hygiene if they will let you. You are restoring more than hygiene. You are restoring dignity and the membership in the human club. It is only cagle. It is inside all of us. When you clean up a person, they have a powerful experience of you. It is more powerful than cagle, because you are fixing the cagle. Inside himself, he does not cagle and smells good. Always. This is how you find someone who is lost. Someone who may be lost. He may be lost in cagle. Cleaning up the cagle is a way of engaging of having a tender and caring experience with someone. This is simple to write but hard to teach. You have to overcome your feelings about cagle to do it. Try.
Jason Albertson is a licensed clinical social worker who has worked with San Francisco’s Homeless Outreach Team.