Monday, February 1, 2010

Hell and Back

“They say I’m mentally ill. I’ve been arrested here 1,200 times.”

“How do you keep count?” I ask.

“That’s what it sure feels like,” says my friend, who spells his last name Hellenback—“As in been to hell and back,” he clarifies.

David Hellenback is surely the longest-surviving homeless man in Dallas. Anybody here would recognize his grizzled, pugilistic face. Just when you think he’s gone forever, a year or two later, he appears in another sector of the city, settling into a back alley, a 7-Eleven lot or under a highway bridge. Would he consider a men’s shelter?

“Hell no, I haven’t given up on life.”

I first met Hellenback in 1988 on Greenville Avenue, when he was still allowed in a few bars, like the Winedale. But he was soon barred from each one. When he poked his head in, a bartender would point to the street, and Hellenback knew where to go. No establishment in Dallas, save for the Lew Sterrett Correctional Facility, grants him entry.

Like most winos from old skid row, he has a full, robust head of hair. Better able to brave rain, sleet, or snow than the United States Post Office, he’s a schizophrenic with an iron constitution. Hellenback resembles the great actor Robert Ryan, or late Dallas rockabilly legend, Ronnie Dawson. Or Jack Dempsey, who he sometimes thinks he is.

He has an upbeat demeanor, an easy smile, and in defiance of those who would argue to the contrary, I don’t believe he is an unhappy man.

“I’ve forgotten more stuff than anybody else remembers,” says Hellenback. He rattles off the starting lineup of the 1958 Milwaukee Braves, each man’s position, and even the management. Then he knocks off the lineup of the 1930s’ St. Louis Cardinals, the Gas House Gang. And here’s where he gets his wires crossed. He’s got Jesus Christ at 2nd Base.

“Whoah, there, David,” I interject. “Jesus never played for the Cardinals.”

Hellenback pauses to scratch his chin, considers hard, then breaks out laughing. No, of course not, he realizes, acknowledging his schizo moment. Unless Hellenback sees into dimensions we don’t, and knows things we can’t perceive.

“Do you think Willie Nelson is General Custer?” he asks.

No, I don’t believe so.

“How ’bout Jimmy Carter?”

No, not him either.

“Well, don’t leave a soldier lying in the field,” he says, when we part. “And don’t lie to Jesus. Jimmy Walker told me that.”

It’s unclear whether he means the whiskey or the dandified 1920s mayor of New York. For an old man of the streets in Dallas, Hellenback has some mystical connection to the streets of Olde New York. Over the years, he’s claimed to be on the run from Joe Profaci, who ran one of the five families, in Brooklyn. No doubt, he believes it. Other times, he’s stopped me in the street to tout betting tips on fights or horse races. Like he was on his way to see a Benny Leonard fight, the Jewish lightweight champion from the Lower East Side—in the era of WWI.

“Benny Leonard combs his hair in a perfect creased part,” he said, recounting the well-known legend. “His mother doesn’t know he’s fighting when he returns with money for her. He comes home after a fight without a hair out of place. That’s ’cause nobody can touch him.”

I delve into the cosmic time-space continuum sometimes myself, and few places suit me better than Lost New York. So I enjoyed a number of afternoons hanging out with Hellenback in the back alley behind my local 7-Eleven, during his 2007 stint there. Hellenback kept a set of home-made weights in the bushes and we lifted weights together. He used an extra long crowbar for reverse curls and a behind-the-neck military press. Then squats. “See, time is too valuable to waste.” He took off his shirt and flexed his muscles for women at the payphone. Each was inspired to quickly leave.

Hellenback says he’s been run out of many towns. He was first arrested as a youthful offender in Syracuse, NY, when he was 16, for joyriding in cars. “We never stole ’em, always left ’em afterward.” He was sentenced to three years, but had a good lawyer who got him three months in a mental hospital instead. According to Hellenback, the worst thing in jail or on the streets are rats. As in people who will rat you out. Never drop a dime on anybody.

When he was staying in my neighborhood, Hellenback picked up trash around the back alley of 7-Eleven in exchange for coffee or a roll. At the Laundromat next door, he serenaded customers with the banal “Ballad of Paladin” from the old TV western, Have Gun Will Travel.

“He must have an angel looking after him,” said a worker doing laundry, aware of Hellenback’s longevity on the streets. If it gets to freezing outside, Hellenback flops at the Avon on Lemon and Oak Lawn, that regal apartment building no one realizes is a flophouse. Meanwhile, Hellenback snuck into the back of the Laundromat late at night. He demonstrated, opening the back door with great effort. “Don’t say anything, they’ll arrest you for sleeping here. I don’t disturb anything. But they keep arresting me for wearing no shirt.”

Thus, part of the ongoing bureaucratic folly of arresting the likes of Hellenback, going by the book on petty offenses. He is what the police refer to as “shelter resistant.” His arrests are for vagrancy, public intoxication, open lid on a container. “They arrest me almost every day. In Phoenix they used to arrest me twice a day.”

So, the figure of his 1,200 arrests in Dallas does sound like a reasonable estimate. Some day I’ll check the records. Once, in 2002, he showed me his jail release papers from that day, as he emerged clean-shaven and well slept after a four-month stint at Lew Sterrett. And in high spirits, as usual.

I haven’t seen David Hellenback in over a year, so it’s possible he’s finally joined the Gas House Gang. But I always expect he’ll return somewhere.


© 2010 Josh Alan Friedman

3 comments:

  1. You're a hell of a writer Josh.

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  2. For a long time, I suspected he was some relation of Ronnie Dawson that had higher priorities than the rest of us, a happy jack on a slightly askew plane of existence, a man on a mission. I'm not the man about town that I used to be, so I haven't had the pleasure of running into him since 2002. I had reckoned he was up there with Lance, that other charming Lower Greenville bon vivant that used to frequent The Winedale back in the day. I remember giving the jacket off my back to Lance one cold January day, he was shivering miserably outside the Winedale when he was banned for awhile. OTOH, Hellenback may, once again, appear, perhaps a little older, more grizzled in features, but still surrounded by the aura emanating from his unbound inner joy.

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  3. Ooh, he does look like Robert Ryan! I do like that he thinks he's Dempsey. I look forward to more Hellenback. One hopes.

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