Several months ago, when a sex offender here stopped taking his psychiatric meds and started acting bizarrely, talking to himself and wandering outside in the middle of the night, Mickey convinced the man’s brother to take him to a nearby hospital so that he could be committed. And one afternoon, when a new housemate who goes by the nickname T jokingly suggested that he and I go out to dinner together, Mickey went ballistic. After I left, Mickey and Bill chastised him for an hour about the inappropriateness of his comment. That night, Mickey called me, then passed the phone to T. A sheepish voice came on the line: “I’m sorry if I offended you.”
At the moment, the tenant Mickey is watching most closely is Larry. Twice he’d caught him sneaking a prostitute into his room in the middle of the night. One night, after he heard the house’s alarm go off, Mickey ran outside with a flashlight and spied a pair of legs sticking out of Larry’s window. One more time, Mickey warned, and Larry would be evicted.
Mickey has a habit of feeding his tenants, especially the new ones. On a weekday evening this fall, he puts his shirt on—he doesn’t usually wear one around the house—and gets ready to pedal off to his drug program. Before he leaves, he leans into the bedroom of his deputy. “Take out the roast beef,” he tells Bill. “You’re going to have to mash the potatoes, drain the carrots.” And he should also look out for Hop: “Check if he ate. I think he’s been starving. If he didn’t, hook him up with a plate.”
Not long afterward, Hop is sitting in the narrow kitchen, hunched over a plate heaping with meat and mashed potatoes.
“It’s good,” he says, shoveling food into his mouth.
“You’re sure? Not too dry?” Bill asks.
“Not with gravy. And they’re real potatoes, too.”
Just then Stephen ventures in and surveys the scene: “I see you guys cooked a wonderful dinner.”
The hint does not go unnoticed. “You can eat some if you want,” Bill says.
Stephen joins Hop at the table and the two men talk about their days (Hop visited his brother, while Stephen went to get a state identification card), about people they knew in prison, about the house. “If you’re doing the right thing in this house,” Stephen says, “nobody will ever let you go hungry. This is paradise.”
But that’s not a bargain all of the roommates are prepared to keep. Larry wasn’t home that night for dinner because he hadn’t made it back from the parole office. On Wednesdays, most of the men in the house make the three-bus trip to Farmingdale to check in with their parole officers. Larry had flunked his drug test that week and been carted back to jail.
His roommates weren’t surprised. He’d been missing his 7 p.m. curfew and hanging out in the neighborhood. It was one of the housemates who’d tipped off the parole officer to give him a drug test.
Inside the house, opinion about Larry was mixed.
Bill: “Larry was bugged. He had something missing upstairs.”
Stephen: “He needed help. He had a good heart.”
Mickey: “He’s what you call a serious crackhead. That’s the only way to put it.”
That night, Mickey searched Larry’s room for drugs, but he didn’t find anything. Then he started sorting through his possessions—underwear, socks, flannel shirts, cassette tapes, CDs—getting them ready for Larry’s relatives to pick up. As he worked, he made a point of closing the door—partly to ensure that no one tried to snatch any of Larry’s belongings, partly so that nobody would see him cry. Nearly every time he cleans out another man’s room he gets emotional. He’d grown attached to Larry over all those hours spent helping him decipher his mail; he thought he’d be able to help him. But there wasn’t much time for tears or regrets. He had to get the room cleaned out. Another sex offender would be arriving soon.