John Steele refused help, and now he's gone



John A. Steele Sr. was cremated without ceremony. Only his estranged wife and children attended the brief service at the Charles L. Stevens Funeral Home in Locust Point. No words were spoken. No death notice appeared in the paper. No obituary was written.

Jane Steele loved her husband but couldn't live with him. She stayed married even after kicking him out of their Clement Street rowhouse 16 years ago. He had stopped working and turned to alcohol 16 years before that. She worked then in a factory, putting labels on cans, and she sewed dresses and cleaned houses to pay the mortgage.

John Steele was 70 when he died at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center a month ago, days after he collapsed in Riverside Park and broke his elbow near one of the benches he called home. His liver finally gave out after 32 years and countless bottles of gin.

"As long as he was sober, he was the greatest husband in the world," Jane Steele, who is now 69, told me. "When he was drinking, he was a lion with a great big roar. ... His death broke my heart. Needless to say, I was in love with him for a very long time. But drinking took over his life. He didn't care about anything except his next bottle."

I knew John Steele from my South Baltimore neighborhood, where it seemed everybody had a John Steele story. He was a menace on Fort Avenue, passing out on sidewalks and on doorsteps, a frequent customer of paramedics who resisted taking him because they'd have to spend hours cleaning the ambulance, a nuisance to cops because he steadfastly refused to get help.

Two months ago, I joined a community walk with the commander of the Southern District, Maj. Scott L. Bloodsworth, and John stumbled by us under the gazebo in Riverside Park. Residents cringed at the large man wearing piles of tattered overcoats, his worn face smothered by a white, dirty beard.

They all turned to Bloodsworth to ask what the police were doing about John. The major said he had repeatedly tried to get him into a shelter, but to no avail. The major told me later that he once spoke to John and his younger homeless friend for an hour at Riverside Park, talking about his time in the service and life in Baltimore.

"It's frustrating because I really wanted to give this guy help," Bloodsworth said. "They had a routine. They weren't up there in the day with families and children. They came up at night to sleep under the pavilion where it was safe. I told them, 'I understand, but you can't sleep here in the park.' I asked if there was anyplace I could take them, if there was someplace they could go. They weren't interested. They were pretty set in their ways."

John's arrest record is long and tedious - consisting mostly of convictions of being disorderly, stealing, trespassing, loitering in front of liquor stores and drinking in public. John plundered from his neighbor's trash. He stood outside his wife's house and screamed profanities at her until she, too, got fed up and called the police.

Jane was 18 when she met John at the old Mayfair Theater on Howard Street. She went to see a John Wayne movie - she thinks it was The Quiet Man - and in a bold move for the time, he sat down next to her. They were married less than a year later, in 1957, and had three children and six grandchildren. "We were like any young kids," Jane said, "in love and thinking things would get better."

John had joined the Navy in 1956 and served for three years, including a stint on the USS Lake Champlain, first as a cook and then loading ammunition into guns when the aircraft carrier was deployed to the Mediterranean. He returned to Baltimore and drove a truck. When he turned 38, John marched into the house and declared, " 'I'm not working anymore. You better get yourself a second job,' " Jane said. "And he never worked again."

Sixteen years later, when John's drinking and abusive behavior finally became too much, Jane told John to leave. He returned every so often to pick up his $150 check from Social Security, and sometimes he would stay a few days and then disappear.

John Steele was a neighborhood character. You'd mention that someone left a beer bottle in your planter, and someone else would say, "By the way, I saw John Steele the other day."

The news of his demise came slowly and through the same idle chatter, delivered in passing from rowhouse step to rowhouse step: "Oh, I heard John Steele died."

Neighborhoods all over Baltimore have their own John Steeles, and there's a story with each one. The stories are tragic and cruel, about people who can't get help or who don't want it, about people who once had something and now have nothing.

I smiled as I talked with John's wife. He had his share of triumphs and tragedies - he married his sweetheart and served in the Navy, lost his first daughter to a car accident in 1998 and his first grandchild to bone cancer in 1995. He escaped death twice, once on the aircraft carrier when he fell down an elevator shaft.

He chose to drink and to continue until it killed him. He had a wife who loved him and still does, but doesn't regret telling him to leave and doesn't make excuses for what happened.

"He had plenty of chances," Jane Steele said.

The last argument the couple had was what to do after they died. She bought a burial plot. He told her that if she died first, he would have her cremated and her ashes later combined with his. Now Jane is giving John's ashes to their son.

"I don't want to be a hypocrite," she told me. "I didn't want him in my house when he was alive, and I certainly don't want him in my house when he's dead."

But then she thought of the well-wishers, the old-timers from the Formstone rowhouses cluttering Clement Street who had stopped by to offer their condolences.

"They said he never said one bad thing about me."

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