Forget the Bootstraps: It takes more than "suck it up" to deal with being bipolar

By Margo Pierce

The barista greets some customers by name and wishes everyone a good day. Under the “Pick up” sign stands an older woman wearing a jacket, skirt and tennis shoes, staring into space. A man with three children sits at a table sipping coffee while the kids run around; he’s the only customer in casual clothes in this coffee shop on the first floor of a many-storied office building in downtown Cleveland, Ohio. Two tables over sits a man in a traditional blue suit with a striped red tie. Which one has been diagnosed as bipolar?

It could be any coffee shop in any town. The hiss of steaming milk, the slamming of a refrigerator door, the grinding of beans, “Mocha latte for Bob!”

The man in the blue suit begins to talk.

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Personal Profile: Paco In Paradise

Published February 2009 Vol. 13 Isuue 1

by Tom deMers

Before this story begins, Paco was leading the ordinary life of a double agent. By day he sold credit card processing systems for MasterCard. Completely legit. By night he called law enforcement officials with information on consumer fraud. “I felt like Clark Kent,” Paco told me, “earning a living in my business suit and informing on these mafia types in my Superman role.”  His undercover work prevented the financial abuse of working people and seniors, and Paco was proud of it.

But when the evidence he gathered on one Ponzi scheme was filed in Denver district court, his life became a nightmare. The filings were public record, and the thugs he informed on came after him. The death threats made him quit his job and drop out of sight. They phoned his mother in another state and harassed her for his whereabouts. Paco said the stress was unbearable. He moved out of Denver and into hiding at the home of a friend. After 18 months that situation became untenable, so Paco moved into his truck and hit the road.


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Personal Profile: Laying Tracks with Jack McConaha

Published October 2009 Vol. 13 Issue 9

by William Hillyard

Jack McConaha answered my knock in a white t-shirt.  “Come on in; have a seat,” he said.  “Say hello to the kids.”  

His ‘kids,’ two toy poodles, yipped at me from the side of the king-size bed that practically fills the windowless living room of his sprawling Wonder Valley cabin.  The dogs’ bed and food and water bowls sat in the rumpled covers.  The whoosh of the swamp coolers covered the room with a blanket of white noise, reducing the TV at the foot of the bed to a murmur.  

Jack disappeared to finish dressing.  “Must have picked up a nail,” he shouted from deep within the warren of the house.  “I checked the air in my tires this morning and one was a little low.”  It seemed he was continuing a conversation that had begun before I arrived.   “Don’t matter,” he went on, “it’s just down a couple of pounds.”  

Chatting constantly, he told me he doesn’t like the Firestone tires that came on his new patrol Jeep.  He’s going to replace them, he said; get BF Goodriches—they self-seal if you get a puncture.

Jack reentered the room dressed for his desert patrol; summer weight camouflaged fatigues—Marine Corp issue—draped from his short, stout frame, a 40-caliber Smith and Wesson on his hip.  The tin badge on his breast designated him “Captain of Security.”

Jack’s hand, resting on the grip of his pistol, showed the faint scars of the welding accident that earned him his lifetime of disability checks, the money he has lived on for his nearly 40 years in Wonder Valley.  

He came to this hardscrabble desert enclave when it was still largely peopled by pioneering “jackrabbit homesteaders” brought to this area by the Small Tract Homestead Act of 1938, which carved Wonder Valley into five acre parcels free for the taking.  All you had to do was to “prove up” your parcel: clear the land, build a cabin.  When Jack arrived here in the early 1970s, some four thousand cabins flecked this remote patch of desert.  These days only a thousand or so still stand—and half of those sit vacant.  The remaining few house the snowbirds and retirees, artists and writers, drifters and squatters that live out here along Wonder Valley’s nearly 400 miles of washboard roads.

Jack volunteered as a fireman when he first arrived; even did a stint as chief of the area’s small all-volunteer brigade.  Now he’s the one-man security force patrolling the valley’s lonely roads.  Some people come to these abandoned cabins and empty desert from “down below,” from L.A. and that mess down there by the coast, to cook up drugs or dump a dead body or just wander out into the saltbush scrub and blow their own brains out.  Jack told me about the Wonder Valley man he came upon, standing in the sandy lane, bashing his wife’s head with a rock. He told me about the meth labs he busted, the all night stakeouts, the search and rescues.  He told me about the people he’s helped, how they tell him how much they appreciate what he does.  He talked of the commendations he’d been awarded, citations, newspaper clippings, the luminaries he met in the line of duty as the self-appointed guardian of this remote corner of the Mojave Desert.  

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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

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