A good friend came to visit me from Connecticut back when I was still working in San Francisco. She told me the one thing she wanted to be sure to visit was Coit Tower. Her request gave me pause. I had walked a couple of blocks away from Coit Tower every workday for nearly 20 years and never once thought to visit it to take a closer look. It’s kind of like the person with the awesome view of the ocean out his living room window who hurries by each morning on his way to work without even once glancing at it. We can easily describe the things we see every day, but over time they form a kind of soft-focus background to our daily lives even when they are people.
That’s kind of like how we see the local homeless people we see every day. People like Charlie Hensley, who has mostly lived rough on Ukiah’s streets for decades. Regular drivers and pedestrians in Ukiah have undoubtedly seen Charlie ambling along Ukiah’s streets, sitting at the bus stop behind J.C. Penney’s, or passed out drunk on the Ford Street corner, and most would recognize him as a local resident. But few would know much else about him. He’s part of the city’s background. But Charlie has a story just like everybody else, a story all his own, complete with the usual milestones of jobs, marriages, kids, grandkids, and all the rest. His story also, however, has a dark side that frequently lands him in the Mendocino County Jail, where I recently met him in the tiny booth closest to the front door in the visitors’ building, near the jail’s main entrance.
Even through the thick Plexiglas that separated us, Charlie looked a whole lot better after a couple days in jail than he does in his black-and-white booking shots. His slightly different-colored eyes were clear, though his face looked like the road map of a hard life lived mostly out-of-doors. His nose, obviously broken more than once, leans over to the right side of his face, giving him a slightly puzzled expression. His creased, deeply tanned skin looks like cowhide left too long in the sun.
After I introduced myself the first thing Charlie said was that his name was Charles, not Charlie, though he added that everybody calls him Charlie. For the sake of simplicity I’ll call him Charlie here, just like everyone else did who talked about him.
The acoustics in the visitor’s booth were terrible, but an accomodating deputy came in to pump up the volume so we could hear each other better. Charlie had a short attention span, his sentences were punctuated with long pauses, and at one point during our interview he showed me that he has no upper teeth, which muddle his soft-spoken speech. Except to say that his health is good, he did not reveal what, if any, diagnosis has ever been made of either his mental or physical health. From the get-go he spoke with stubborn pride and authenticity. Aside from Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey and his third wife Sadie, he blamed no one for his misfortunes, and never lapsed into self pity.
Charlie Hensley was born in Fremont, California, one of eight children. “I am the youngest of all of them,” he said. When he was four his family moved to Ukiah, where he still lives today. Charlie told me he graduated from Ukiah High when he was nineteen, and that it was during his high school years that he lost his upper teeth and his nose was broken three times playing football. (The woman who kept in closest touch with him told me that his nose was broken after high school from fighting.)
It was during his high school years that Charlie’s life began to unravel, though he never spoke about it in that way. His father long gone, Charlie, the youngest, was the only one still at home to care for his mother as she lay dying in the apartment the two of them shared on Talmage. His dying mother’s friend, Ukiah native Melinda Dale, lived in the same complex and promised Charlie’s mother on her deathbed that she would look after Charlie, a promise she has kept to this day, all these years later. “He was just a little kid,” Melinda told me. “He was very close to his mother, and he lived alone with her and took care of her.” Charlie said of Melinda, “She was my mother’s very best friend.”
Once out of high school Charlie said he worked “at the packing plant.” That would be the Alex R. Thomas pear-packing plant, where generations of locals worked until bankruptcy forced its closure a decade ago. Charlie said he drove a forklift, and that it was at the packing plant where he fell off a scaffold, permanently disabling him. “I get a hundred-dollar disability check every week,” he said.
Charlie told me his birthday is “four days before Christmas,” that he is 55 years old, that he has five kids, and has been married three times to Christine, Betty, and Sadie, in that order. He blames his third wife Sadie for finally pushing his life off the rails and ramping up his drinking (which according to Melinda was already well under way in high school). “Jack Daniels did it,” Charlie said. “Jack and me used to be best friends.” Today, Charlie says he’s given up cocaine but still smokes some pot, though he says he’s trying hard to quit his bad habits. “My second daughter asked me personally to stop drinking,” he said. “She took me in, helped me out.”
Charlie says he knows that quitting drinking will require a lifestyle change, beginning with his occasional stays at the Motel 6. “Living in Motel 6 can be a temptation to drink and do drugs…I do have friends that do drink and I’m trying to stay away from them.” He says he sees his social worker “every Thursday in her office” but is not part of any formal program like AA to quit drinking. High on his wish list, he says, is staying out of trouble and out of jail. “I don’t want to come back to jail,” he said. “Me and the officers don’t get along, they wear badges and boss me around.”
When I asked how many times he’s been in jail he looked away into the distance for a long time before replying “about twelve,” a number others I spoke with called (way) low. Corrections Lieutenant John Bednar told me that, “Charlie adapts well to the jail’s routines and doesn’t cause trouble,” adding that typically mental health services kick in when people like Charlie get out of jail. And though Bednar said that the actual procedures haven’t been set up yet, his assumption is that when the county’s new mental health facility is up and operating “the folks with mental illness…would be sent to the new facility.” (If, in fact, such a diagnosis were made in Charlie’s case.)
It’s probably in the natures of most of us to cling to some positive hope for the future, whatever our circumstances. Charlie says his is to help out his oldest daughter, who he says lives in Willits. “This is for her and for my two granddaughters, I really love them,” he said. He also hopes to take a road trip with his oldest brother, who he says is a machinist living in Boise. Charlie says he has a specific trip in mind: driving from Anchorage, Alaska, to Key West. He says he also hopes to get his driver’s license back one day.
Charlie’s surrogate mother, Melinda Dale, told me she doesn’t see Charlie as much as she used to. I met her at the McDonald’s in Clearlake, near where she lives since her Ukiah apartment owner stopped accepting Section 8 housing vouchers. She’s had a difficult recovery from open heart surgery, the initial surgery to repair her heart and four follow-up surgeries to correct damage caused when a surgical sponge was left in her chest. An angry-looking but healing scar running vertically down the middle of her chest was visible at the top of her v-neck blouse. Melinda said that as far as she knows Charlie has only one daughter who lives near her in Clearlake. “She knows that Charlie is her father but don’t want nothing to do with him,” she said. Melinda said Charlie has lived with her on and off since his mom died all those years ago, including recently when her youngest daughter was still living at home. “He couldn’t stay away from it,” she said, meaning whiskey “He’d urinate on my couch in his sleep when he was staying here. I’d help him a lot more if he’d quit drinking.” She added that Charlie gets into fights when he’s loaded with Jack, and is a mean and combative drunk.
Melinda will soon be back at Woody’s Wash & Dry on Ford Street off North State where she’s worked for 10 years and where Charlie frequently seeks her out. She says the corner up the street is a frequent hangout for the homeless, and that many of the homeless sleep on the railroad tracks at the other end of Ford Street. She says Charlie sometimes “talks gibberish” when she sees him and that she can sometimes hear him “yelling and screaming” in a fight. “When he’s drunk I run and hide in the office,” she said. One day, during a below-freezing cold snap, Charlie told her that he got frostbite and lost a few of his toes. “I didn’t want to see it,” Melinda said.
Jerry, another employee at Woody’s, refused to have his picture taken or give his last name. “Most people think I’m mean,” he said at the laundromat on a recent afternoon while he was folding clean clothes in a wire basket. A cheerful, heavily tattooed woman sitting on a plastic chair nearby while waiting for her laundry looked up and said, “I don’t think you’re mean, Jerry!” He smiled briefly before beginning what sounded like a well-rehearsed harangue about the homeless in the vicinity of the laundromat, which he calls ‘the homeless highway.’ He said he sees “between 30 and 40 different ones in a month,” and that a black hippie bus with green flames and the logo ‘Going Nowhere’ regularly disgorges passengers who spread out to nearby streets to panhandle before loading back up and moving along. (No one I spoke with had heard of this bus, including law enforcement.) About Charlie, Jerry said, “He just wanders around drunk out of his mind.” About the local homeless, he said that, “Every winter I have to police the doors because they bring their soggy sleeping bags and fill the dryers. Our customers don’t want to use dryers that smell like feces and urine.” He believes that solving the homeless problem will take decisive action from the top, starting with the governor, since local officials fear lawsuits. “I would declare a state of emergency and round ‘em all up to assess their individual situations,” he said. “There should be FEMA camps set up, and the ones who are crazy should be locked up. It takes a governor with balls and brains and he has neither.”
Meanwhile, as you read this Charlie will most likely have been released, back onto the streets, again showing up regularly at Woody’s to chat with Melinda, who is scheduled to be back at work. Despite his resolve and good intentions, and recovery is always possible, Charlie’s chances of healing all the damage he’s done to himself are statistically slim. Though he says he’s not afraid to die, Melinda says she worries a lot about that. “He gets in lots of fights when he drinks,” she said. “He’s got a few friends who come by to tell me he’s OK, because I’m always afraid that he will be dead.”