Sydney Cook, 76, can see his daughter's front door from where he sits in front of the fly-infested pup tent on Thomas Road in Glen Burnie. But he is no longer welcome in her home.
Asked to leave his daughter and son-in-law's home early last month after a series of disagreements, Cook and his wife, Martha, retreated to the woods across fromthe Harundale Mall. The tent on a neighbor's yard is better, flies and all.
"I have developed a think-positive attitude," Mr. Cook says. "At least we got a place that's protected to stay."
He introduces Martha, 53, who is hesitant to talk to a reporter. "She's a Georgia peach, isn't she?" he says.
The Cooks sit in their "living room" -- their borrowed chairs on the lawn -- surrounded by jugs of water and an empty Michelob carton. Flies buzz over their smelly bedding. When it rains hard, the tent leaks badly.
Martha Cook has had trouble remembering things since she was hit by a car three years ago and suffered severe head injuries. She says she feels frightened when she thinksabout where she's living.
"It's scary. It feels funny to be living in a tent," she says.
They have been living there about three weeks now, ever since his daughter's neighbor, Bruce Parks, spotted them in a hole in the ground in some woods across from the mall. He offered his yard as a safer place.
"We're trying to feed them, and we let them take showers," says Parks. Parks, his mother Anita and his wife Chris already have a household of six and no extra beds, so they borrowed a tent for their guests.
"It's not much, but better than them sleeping in the woods," says Parks, who was laid off from his carpentry job. "We're just gettin' by ourselves, but there's no way I could stand it if I left these old people in the woods."
The Cooks have no cash, no property but a $50 TV and no long-term place to stay. They could seek a shelter, but, they explain, they don't know whereto go. The area is unfamiliar. They have no car.
Without a fixed address they can't get food stamps, and the couple's sole income, hisSocial Security payment of about $400 a month, has been stalled in the paperwork of his Florida bank.
He calls every day trying to trace down his September payment, so far without success.
Most of theday the Cooks sit outside the green tent, smoking cigarettes and eating corn bread and sandwiches brought by the Parks and other neighbors, who've also dropped off staples such as toilet paper. Their host's5-year-old daughter, Brandie, brings them coffee.
"We're comfortable," says Cook, with a twinkle, "but it's not exactly what the doctor ordered."
A retired coal miner from West Virginia, Cook last week was taken to the hospital by paramedics when he suffered a seizure.After a few days, he was released and went home to the tent.
The elderly couple left St. Petersburg, Fla., a month ago to live with Cook's relatives, but after family disagreements, the Cooks were asked to leave, they say.
Neighbors say the dispute involved money, but Cook says, "I drink a beer or two, and they may have used that as a reason."
He doesn't blame his daughter, who could not be reached for comment. "She doesn't approve of the way her husband is acting," Cook says.
He remains cheerful, dragging an old mattress from the woods into the tent to sleep on, saving bus passes to look for an apartment they could afford once his Social Security check arrives.
TheParks provided blankets and pillows, and offered their bathroom and shower for whenever the couple needed them.
Cook chuckles and reads the paper. He tells a Jack Benny joke. He mentions that he needs a haircut: "I told (Martha) the other day, if I didn't get a haircut the dog catcher would be after me."
"You got to accept reality," he says. "When it's hot, we go to the (Harundale) mall and sit. At leastwe're in the air conditioning, and it's (a) change of scenery."
Sitting in a borrowed white plastic chair, Cook talks about his family, his schoolteacher father and five siblings who also taught school. "My Daddy went away at 91," he says. "I think good, righteous living can prolong your years."
Cook retired five five years ago after breaking his hip. He has a steel pin in his hip, and has difficulty standing for long periods.
Still, bad as things are, "panicking doesn't pay off," he says. "This is rather undesirable, but I've found it doesn't pay to worry. It makes you sick. I try to stay cool."