Personal Profile: Big Man in the Nut House - Big Al, an ex-Vietnam tank crewman, dishes out 400 lbs of wisdom on life in public housing.

Published August 2009 Vol. 13 Issue 7

text and photographs by Tom deMers

Tom deMers is a writer and former HUD property manager. He lives in Longmont, Colo. “Big Man in the Nut House” is a chapter taken from his unpublished book titled “Living in the HUD.” Names have been changed at the request of concerned parties.

Hobo Camp
Technically, Big Al was never homeless. He lived east of Boulder in a Tuff Shed. Times being what they are, Tuff Shed living may be a lifestyle more people want to look into. If so, Big Al is your guy. We spoke on the patio at Pineview, a public housing facility I managed. A cautionary note: talking to Big Al is like driving down an old country road, lots of twists and turns before it ultimately reaches its destination.   

“I stayed in the Tuff Shed while out at the hobo camp near the creek,” he tells me. Several years. “Digger lived there too. You know Digger?”  The name was familiar. “Yeah, he lived there. He came up on the list for Pineview, but they wouldn’t let him in. He had some real bad habits; they must have found out. Probably good. He used to shit on the floor and wipe his ass on newspaper and throw it in the corner. Hank loved everybody, but he finally asked Digger to leave.”

“Who was Hank?” I asked.

“He was a lawyer, but he was a hippy at heart. Great guy. He owned this land by the creek and loved to have us there with him. People came and went. Some guys had tents. Hank lived in a trailer,” said Al. “I had the Tuff Shed.”

The Tuff Shed sounded tough in the winter. Not for Big Al.

“Hey, it had a door. I ran the space heater, turned on the TV and sat in my old leather chair. It was great. Of course there was no running water. Unless you were Digger, you had to crap in the Porta-Potty. That was tough.”

“How come you left?” I asked.

“Had to. We all did. The county rousted us out and cleared the land. Some guy got tagged for shoplifting. The police came out looking for him and discovered us all. I mean, they went bush to bush chasing everybody out, except Hank. Lucky for me, just at that time, I was offered public housing at Pineview and two other places. I’d already turned down Section 8 because they were paying only $275 of my rent, which I’d have nothing left for food or doctors or anything. But now, two years later, my social security was turned on, and I had enough to make it work. Then, you showed me this place with its great view of the hills. I said, ‘This is it!’”

Big Al

Out of the Woods
Big Al was another remarkable man who crossed the threshold into public housing when I was the manager at Pineview. Describing Big Al as a man of good will captures much of his character but leaves out Big Al the stand up comic, Big Al the raconteur, Big Al the cultural critic, and surely the one he loves most, Big Al the godly man who wishes everyone the best, even those he considers to be walking the path of Satan. And that’s quite a few.

“I have a strong faith and belief that it happened exactly the way the Bible says, from front to back. That’s the real answer. I just wish all these Pinenuts would heed the word of God and the commandments of Jesus. Just do that. And guess what? There wouldn’t be any problems at this building. None.”

“Pinenuts” is a self-referential term many residents use to describe the Pineview community. Certainly it refers to food, but more pointedly to the “nutty” quality of life at Pineview, a place some call “the nuthouse.” In nearly all cases it refers to a place where people behave in ways and do things that “don’t make sense to me.” Big Al uses the term compassionately, but also dispassionately. The day we spoke, he was frustrated that no residents were interested in a trip to the natural history museum.  

“I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “We ought to be out somewhere having fun and enjoying ourselves instead of out on the patio smoking cigarettes until we kill ourselves. We’re Pinenuts, on the dole, living in a government house and going nowhere. No wonder they treat us like inmates with rules that don’t apply to the general population. The reality is we are not the kind of people who’ve made good decisions. Our judgment is in question. That’s why we are in public housing. God bless us, and God love us, too, because we are literally incapable of living our lives wisely.”

Physically the “big” in Big Al does not do him justice. I estimate him at over 400 pounds, and at 5’10” that makes him almost geographical in stature. A graying Van Dyke dresses up his round face, which is usually smiling as it closes in on the next joke. He is bright, witty, kind and mostly well informed. When feeling good, he plays a cornet at the mall for tips. When feeling off his game, he goes up to his apartment for a nap.  Al was not always this big. I don’t know that for a fact, but he was a tank crewman in Vietnam, and I know there were no 400-pound marines jumping in and out of tanks. He was wounded in Vietnam but did not get a Purple Heart. One wound was a wart on his foot, serious enough to get him flown to Japan for surgery. Another time he was bitten by a giant centipede, an incredibly painful bite that caused the flesh on his ankle to waste away. His sense of the comic has been honed on this sort of hardship, and today he laughs about these injuries.

A Veteran’s Affair
His serious injury did not become apparent until years later, actually a complex of problems Al avoided, until a local clinic told him he was probably suffering from exposure to Agent Orange. They urged him to visit his VA hospital. Today Al is diagnosed with diabetes and hepatitis C. He has short-term memory loss, sleep apnea and acid reflux. The VA asked him when and where he had served, Al says, but never told him whether he had AO exposure or not.   

“You’d go through areas with no foliage,” he says, “and it was noticeable because this was jungle country, but what was it? B-52 carpet-bombing or defoliating or even napalm could do that to the trees. You never knew, and they certainly didn’t tell you.”

Al gets his insulin and a pension from the VA. He theorizes the Hep C may have come in Japan where he volunteered in the amputee ward while his foot was healing. One time in particular a marine was rushed in for treatment with his arm blown off. “It took us forty minutes to stabilize him and stop the bleeding,” Al remembers. “There were four of us, and I got covered with blood. I didn’t have much medical knowledge, but I could follow orders, so I talked to the guy. He was delirious, and I don’t know if he heard me, but compassion goes a long way in those situations.

We’re All Bozos on this Bus 
Like many homeless people, Big Al has found the reality of housing quite different from what he expected. Some street folks might be loners who find community overwhelming. Big Al’s problem was different. As a “people person,” he loved living in community, but he also had clear expectations of how that community ought to function. For example, how people ought to communicate. He described an argument he witnessed the day before. “I’ve never seen anything worse, ever, in any circumstances, anywhere,” he told me.

“What happened?”

“Allison told Carol that Marge said something about her that Marge said she never said. They were all three yelling at each other but sensibly, you know. Women fight different than men. They make every effort to be logical while they are cussing and screaming like maniacs. It was obvious that Marge had said Karen not Carol and that’s what Marge was trying to explain, while Carol, who is probably the most reasonable person here, was pissed off and insisting she never said anything like that, especially about Marge. The truth was obvious, but they just wanted to scream. It’s like when you start a sentence and pass it through a long line of people, and it comes out completely different at the end. That always happens, only at Pineview it takes only one person. The very first person you tell it to will misconstrue it so bad that even a long line of people couldn’t screw it up that bad. Kind of funny when you think of it.”

Big Al laughs. His seriousness blends well with a persistent sense of humor. “One person can distort the message for everyone. This place is full of rumormongers, liars and defectives. How can you build a community out of that?”

He speaks candidly of the hardships of life as a Pinenut. “The building is full of people who will do this, that, and the other to get whatever they want. That’s why my friend says he feels sorry for those of us who live here. Because of the tension, because everything and every person and every deal you
 have to deal with is based on if you are an emotional genius, educated in dealing with people’s problems. And we’re not. I can barely deal with my own. Maybe I can deal with two, maybe four. But I can’t handle ninety four.”

In the next breath Al will tell you about the people he likes and how grateful he is to be living at Pineview. He mentions Marge and Carol and Monica as people he enjoys, but singles out Marie. “She doesn’t participate in anything other than that spiritual meeting you go to sometimes, but she is the nicest person there. She has no agenda whatsoever, won’t spread a rumor, has a concern about your personal health. All the tension and gossip, she just lets it float past her. I love her.”

Big Al’s point is well taken. Things can be crazy. Of course, his biases define what nutty means. For example his Christian beliefs have shaped his opinion of a Buddhist intern.  She was recently hired by the housing authority to work with residents. Why couldn’t they have chosen a “godly person?” asks Al, meaning a Christian.

When I mention that Marie and Monica are Buddhists, he explains, “The only thing they are short on is the belief in God and Jesus. Everything else is just like Jesus commanded. These are people that please God. You know, Monica is always thanking people for what they do, giving somebody a pat on the back or heaping praise on someone. She does that to a lot of people, makes them feel good about themselves. That’s an enlightened way of behaving.”

Big Al reflects for a moment. “But that counselor from the ashram who they have coming in, she’ll have us all saying ‘Om.’”

He deftly role-plays the counselor. “‘Hey, mister, you’re not saying Om. You’re out of the group.’

“That will be me, ‘cause I won’t say it. Jesus never said Om, I’m sure not going to.”

Whether Jesus said “Om” or not, I don’t know.  He did say “love,” and that sounds to me like Big Al’s mantra. •