He was a working man

Isaac White, who died May 10, often was homeless but never helpless

May 19, 2006|By BRENT JONES | BRENT JONES,SUN REPORTER

He called her "Miss Betty" even though he knew that was not her name.

It was often how Isaac White ended his requests to Kathy Berkley, as in, "You got any work you need done today, Miss Betty?"

If Ms. Berkley, an attendant at Arrow Parking on Park Avenue, did need Mr. White to do an odd job - say, sweeping snow from around the entrance - chances are, it would get done quickly.

Mr. White, who died last week of pneumonia and whose funeral was held yesterday, may have spent most of the past 20-something years of his life homeless, but he was far from helpless.

"Some days he would call me Miss Betty, then some days he would call me Miss Kathy," Ms. Berkley said. "It depended on how he was feeling at the time. I can't believe he's gone. I won't hear that no more. He wasn't one of those homeless ones that is out here begging. He wouldn't beg you for nothing but worked for everything."

The service was held at March Funeral Home, and 23 people attended.

Friends and workers at Health Care for the Homeless spun stories about Mr. White's life, which was equal parts enigmatic and energetic.

He was a hustler at heart but one who made a person want to open a wallet rather than protect it, they said. When he was having a good day - and there were more of those than bad - he could entertain like few others, mostly by showcasing a thirst for odd jobs.

Mr. White had become a fixture at the Health Care for the Homeless center and the community that surrounded it for the past 10 years, showing up every workday as if he were getting paid to do so.

Some in the business district west of downtown, around Lexington Market, called him "mayor" because he seemingly knew so many people and wore many hats.

He was a de facto handyman, security guard, food runner, street sweeper and entertainer.

A nickname

Other locals, including an owner of Fayette General Store and a number of lawyers, called him "Willie," although no one could say why or how he got that nickname.

Want a bite to eat from a local establishment? Willie could get the order, as he did for workers at the Ingerman and Horowitz law firm at Fayette Street and Park Avenue.

Working late and want an escort to your car? Willie could serve as protection, relying on the trusty hammer hanging from his tool belt.

And when it came to manual labor, that was Mr. White's specialty.

Chris House, coordinator of mental health and case management at Health Care for the Homeless, said Mr. White did not need to know whom he was helping before he jumped in and went to work.

"One time we were going down Baltimore Street to the Maryland Transit Authority building, and there was a truck parked beside the building, and they were unloading the truck," Mr. House said. "Isaac walks across the street, talks to the guy and starts helping him unload boxes off the truck. Wherever there was work, he would just gravitate to it."

Mr. House knew Mr. White about as well as anyone, but even he is a little sketchy on his background.

Mr. White was born in West Baltimore and dropped out of high school at an early age. What happened in the years between then and the mid-1990s - other than Mr. White fathering a child in Philadelphia - remains unknown.

As for why he left his childhood home on the west side, Mr. White was known to say that he would rather stay on the street than in the drug-infested conditions he was living in, Mr. House said.

Mr. House worked as Mr. White's case worker after Mr. White began going to the center in 1994. He recalled that Mr. White could be engaging and helpful around the building, keeping the front walkway clear of snow throughout the winter.

But there was also another side of Mr. White, which is the reason he was homeless much of his life and in need of help, said workers at the homeless center. They said he was an alcoholic. He battled drug addiction. And his mood swings were legendary around the building.

As much as the workers liked Mr. White, they had to put him out when he became irritable and disruptive.

Louise Treherne, vice president for clinical affairs, generally served as enforcer.

"My interactions with him [were] usually when he had a rough day," Ms. Treherne said. "It was my role to go down and help him leave in a successful way. But his anger always had tears."

When he was ranting, workers said, Mr. White would speak of his mother, who died in South Carolina five years ago, or his daughter, who lives in Philadelphia and whom he has had little contact with since she was a baby.

Minutes later, he might start another conversation with a different worker about spirituality, remaining completely composed.

Those in the business community also felt he had a split personality.

The beard, according to Ms. Berkley, the parking attendant, was a good indicator: When Mr. White was cleanshaven, he was sober. If the beard was scraggly and unkempt, he had probably been drinking.

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