At rest, at last

Editorial Notebook

June 25, 2005|By Marjorie Valbrun

THE SEARCH for Howard "Petey" Biddle is not promising. He is lying somewhere in an unmarked grave in a large, old cemetery overrun by trees and riddled with sunken graves, toppled tombstones and patches of parched, cracked dirt.

There are no relatives to question, no friends to direct you to his resting place, not even a few plastic flowers, like those adorning neighboring graves, to mark his plot. He is as anonymous in death as he was in life.

Mr. Biddle and other once homeless men are interred at Mount Carmel Cemetery in Dundalk, placed there through the efforts of a social worker determined to spare them the indignity of being deemed state property - because no loved one had claimed their bodies - and turned over to local medical schools for research purposes.

Joe Johnson was 50 when he died in 2002. Gregory Moore died in 2001 at age 33. Harold Haddix died at age 60 in 2001. Mr. Biddle was 43 and one of 80 homeless people to die in Baltimore last year. Their deaths went mostly unnoticed in a city all too accustomed to homeless people on its streets.

For Lauren Siegel and other social workers who have spent years working with men who sleep in shelters and under bridges, hang out in parks and on street corners, drink too much, live too hard and battle demons real and imagined, these men were neither invisible nor forgettable.

In helping them fight drug and alcohol addictions or mental illness, Ms. Siegel became familiar with their failures and heartbreaks, their dark pasts and tragic family histories, their self-destructive tendencies.

As she wanders the well-worn footpaths between graves, crouching here and there to inspect small, orange plastic flags marking otherwise barren graves, Ms. Siegel, a 15-year veteran at Health Care for the Homeless, recalls past jobs the men had, the wives and girlfriends they loved and lost, the potential their lives once held.

"They were not just statistics and drunks and empty syringes," she says. "They were real people, with real feelings."

She reads out names written in black marker on the flags, growing doubtful that she'll locate Mr. Biddle's. Some of the flags are crushed, perhaps trampled by passers-by. The names on others have been washed away by rain, smeared off by mud.

Twenty minutes later, she happens upon Mr. Biddle's grave. "Look," she says excitedly, reading the words on his flag: Biddle lot 131S - grade 5.

"Oh, Petey," she says softly.

When Mr. Biddle died of liver failure last November, Ms. Siegel turned to the folks at March Funeral Home who had buried the others at cut-rate prices and went about trying to track down his long-estranged relatives.

He'd lived in foster homes as a child after his mother was jailed for killing his father. He had been raped. After attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings twice a day without fail for 18 months, he fell in love, got an apartment, began putting his life back together. Then his lover left, he began drinking again, lost the apartment and returned to the streets.

Ms. Siegel was not able to reach any of Mr. Biddle's relatives, but he was remembered at a memorial service at her office, and a poem he wrote was published in the center's in-house newsletter.

"Am I the keeper or am I kept?" the first line asks.

It ends with:

"If the world won't accept me, then what will I do?

"Bang on the doors with fists that are blue?

"If the world won't accept me, I'll turn back around,

"Make my last effort, and hold on to my ground."

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