The Rest of His Days
By Arthur Bradford
NOVEMBER 24, 1997:
"This book takes us into the profound depths of that other country that lies around us on the streets... and if there's any justice in the world, it should guarantee its author a roof over his head for the rest of his days."
October 26, 1997, San Antonio: Lizbeth, the world-famous dog, barks at me when I enter the apartment. Lars sits on a metal fold-up chair, surrounded by a pile of cardboard boxes and a suitcase. "Lizbeth, calm down," he says.
Lars' roommate Clint asks me if I want to sit and watch the football game on TV for a little while. Lars says no, that's not a good idea. We need to get moving so that we can reach Austin before dark. Clint unplugs the television and we load it into my car along with a vacuum cleaner and a box of tools. Lars stays back in the apartment to finish packing up the rest of their stuff while Clint and I head over to EZ Pawn to hock the valuables.
The eviction notice came four days ago, and, as of this moment, Lars and Clint have about $10 cash between them. With no real hopes of coming up with enough money to stay housed, they have decided it is time to leave San Antonio. They will hock what they can and then head up to Austin where they plan to live on the streets.
When I first met Lars Eighner in the spring of 1994, he was living with his dog Lizbeth and friend Clint in a cramped efficiency apartment in Hyde Park. Lars had just published his book, Travels With Lizbeth, a memoir of his last three years, spent homeless and on the road, and although the book was on its way to becoming a national bestseller, he hadn't yet received the bulk of the royalties. The apartment which he and Clint shared together was about the size of a large walk-in closet. In his book Lars describes himself as "uncommonly stout" and I found this to be a fairly accurate description of his stature. He is a tall man, standing 6'4", and I would guess his overall weight to be over 350 pounds. He and Clint, who is of average height and built like a wrestler, were having trouble coexisting in such a small space. Around that time, Lars would come over to my place and explain that he needed to stay for at least two hours because he had made an agreement with Clint to give him some time alone.
Later that spring, when the royalties arrived, I helped Lars and Clint move their stuff into a larger three-bedroom house in the same neighborhood where he had spent his days searching in the dumpsters for food. Lars had written most of Travels With Lizbeth in an abandoned bar with no heat or electricity. He used a manual typewriter and paper fished out of a dumpster. In this new place, he would have his own office, and a brand new computer. Things really seemed to be looking up for him. Prominent national publications like The New Yorker and Harpers reprinted long excerpts from his book and network television shows flew him out to New York and L.A. to tell of his unusual success story.
That summer I left Austin to go live in California. When I moved back two years later, I went over to Lars' place to see how he was doing. I expected, I suppose, to see him hard at work on a new novel or some other project, but when I arrived Lars was watching TV and the house was in disarray. The money from his book had pretty much dried up, and now he and Clint were having trouble paying the bills, the most daunting of which was their $880 monthly rent.
"I just don't know where all the money went," said Lars, shaking his head.
He estimated the proceeds from Travels... to have been about $100,000, although he couldn't say for sure. That first year he wrote out a check to the IRS for $22,000. He and Clint weren't living like kings, although they did have a few expensive belongings -- a big color TV, the computer, an espresso machine. The only real sign of extravagance in the house was an enormous weightlifting workout station, the kind one finds at health clubs or a gym. It was parked right in the middle of their living room. Lars explained that he had bought this as a present for Clint, who liked to work out. He also hoped that maybe he himself would take a liking to exercise. But now the weights were covered with dust and Lars was willing to sell, or even give the contraption to anyone who could haul it away. Lars spoke then of insurmountable debt and plans to move back out on the street. I told him that I'd do whatever I could to help him avoid that. He was still getting some royalties from Travels... and his other books (he has published several books of gay male erotica, as well), and occasionally he would write articles for local publications. Clint wasn't working a steady job, but he was making money here and there, and taking care of his own needs. It seemed to me they just needed to find a cheaper place to live.
Over the next few months Lars did a little research through reading classified ads in various newspapers and determined that San Antonio was a better town for Clint and him. He believed the rental market was cheaper there and in the new town he might still have clean credit. He and Clint were now living almost exclusively off of food which could be purchased with a gas station credit card. Their lights and gas had been shut off for some time. Lars told me he had no real hopes of paying these bills off, hinting that he expected to be dead before the creditors could locate him.
That January of 1997 I took Lars over to Half-Price Books where he sold all of his personal copies of Travels With Lizbeth. The clerk there recognized him and had him sign the books so that he could get more money for them. He got about $200, and with that money, plus the very last of his savings, we headed down to San Antonio where the rental market was indeed cheaper. Lars signed a year lease on a one-bedroom apartment in a nondescript complex on the outskirts of town. Clint got a ride down there in his brother's pick-up truck a few days later.
While the new place was less expensive -- $425 a month -- the location was less than ideal. Lars and Clint had no car of their own and the only local road was a major automobile thoroughfare. Public transportation was spotty at best. Clint had a bicycle, which would be of some use, but Lars, who was having difficulty just getting up and down the narrow staircase, would not be able to get around easily. Lizbeth, however, seemed to like the place okay. It was warm, and there was some green grass outside in a little courtyard. When I said good-bye to them that night I sincerely hoped things would work out. Lars spoke of getting some more writing done, and Clint of getting a job. "Keep in touch," I said, "and call me if you need any help."
I suppose I wasn't entirely surprised when I got a phone call some seven months later. It was Lars.
"Art," he said, "Help."
The pawn shop gives Clint $170 for the television, the vacuum cleaner, and the tool box. Clint tells them he intends to return soon and get the stuff out of hock. "This is just a temporary setback," he says to me.
Clint knows of a place where he thinks they can camp. It is in town, yet secluded and on state property. As usual, shelters or transient motels are out of the question because of Lizbeth. Lars will not be separated from her. I ask Lars if he's looking forward to this at all, if maybe he isn't a little excited to be living outside again.
"This will be the death of me," he says.
Although it has only been about four years since he was last on the streets, Lars' health is considerably more fragile. He is close to 50 years old now, smokes constantly, and has gained weight. Since he did not walk for any long distances the whole time he lived inside, he often finds himself out of breath after even minor exertions like getting up out of a chair. Lizbeth too, is not as well-suited for the street life as she once was. She is an old dog now, nearly 13, and she has lost most of the hair on her backside due to a chronic flea problem.
Lars often speaks of his own imminent death. In Travels... he mentions several moments when he felt sure he would not see another day. But these moments passed and here he is. I believe he is tougher than he gives himself credit for. But if Lizbeth were to die, I've come to think that Lars would soon follow. This would be the case if they were housed or not. And I suppose the reverse holds true as well -- if Lars were to go, Lizbeth would die soon after. The bond between them is that strong.
In Austin, we stop at my house to drop off most of Lars' and Clint's belongings. I've agreed to hold onto a few things like Lar's computer and their clothes until they need them again. Ever since I first got the call from Lars, I considered the possibility of putting him up at my place, but I have decided against it. I live with my girlfriend in a small house and I know that such a stay for Lars could become indefinite. I'm willing to put him up later on, if things go badly for him outside, but for now, my decision is made. I guess my real hope is that this time spent back on the street will spur him into action. Perhaps he will begin to write again.
Lars claims that the soonest he can see getting off the streets is in two or three months. At this point, in January, he expects a new set of royalties from his publisher. Perhaps these will be enough to secure a place for Clint and him. Clint, for his part, believes they will be homeless for a much shorter period of time. He speaks of getting a job and finding a cheap "hole in the wall" apartment. He says he's going to begin checking into this tomorrow. Lars explains to me that Clint's intentions often outdistance his actual deeds. He'll believe all that when he sees it.
The campsite Clint has chosen is a short walk from the road, but Lars doesn't want to trek all the way in there only to find it inadequate. He waits in the car while Clint and I go to check it out. We hike along a dry creek bed for about a quarter mile and then duck into the surrounding woods. Clint climbs up a steep bank and comes to a flat clearing with a small firepit dug at the edge. The area is littered with cans, bottles, and a few discarded pairs of shoes. Someone else was camping here, maybe earlier this summer, but he is gone now.
Clint knows this area well. He's been exploring around here since he was a kid. He considers this one of the quietest and safest spots to camp. "It's gonna be a little tough on Lars though," he says, and then slides back down the bank.
Clint admits he has been indisciplined in the past, but he points out that it was his motivation, four years ago, that originally got them off the streets. Back then Clint entered into a month-long pharmaceutical study after which he was paid a lump sum for his participation. This lump sum, about $1,000, got them that original efficiency apartment over in Hyde Park. Lars and Clint have been together ever since.
Back at the car, Clint agrees to haul the rest of the stuff out to the site while Lars and I go to the store for supplies. Our first stop is a discount camping store where Lars purchases a cheap tent and some bug spray with the money from the pawn shop. Then we go to the grocery store and get things like trail mix, Vienna sausages, and jugs of water. As we drive back to the site, it begins to get dark. The weather report says the temperatures will drop down to 34 degrees tonight. Lizbeth climbs onto Lars' lap and tries to get comfortable.
It is completely dark when we reach the creek bed. Lars holds tight to Lizbeth's leash as he stumbles along over the loose stones. About halfway there I spot a figure walking towards us. It's Clint. He sees Lars creeping along and tells him to let Lizbeth go. "She can make it by herself," he says.
Lars is drawing heavy breaths. He lets Lizbeth walk unleashed but calls out her name every few seconds. "Lizbeth... Come here... Lizbeth..."
Clint and I must help Lars up the steep bank. I push from behind while Clint pulls. When we reach the site Lars sits down and says, "Well, this is as good a place to die as any."
"That's a real good attitude, Lars," says Clint.
Although the tent is assumed to be the inconspicuous green color on the box it came in, it is actually a bright baby blue. We set it up and place it on flat ground. Clint unrolls a blanket and puts it on the floor of the tent. Lars crawls inside and Lizbeth crawls in after him.
Over the next few days I continue to visit Lars and Clint. The nights have indeed been cold and I worry about Lars and Lizbeth. Lars says he isn't getting much sleep on the rough ground. When he does manage to doze off, Clint wakes him up and tells him to stop snoring. Lizbeth, though, appears to be doing all right. Lars claims the fleas will leave her alone now that they are living outside. Clint spends the days working odd jobs, or looking for work. He is talking about doing another Pharmaco study. The campsite looks well organized at least -- utensils hang from tree branches, and black plastic has been spread over the tent in case of rain.
"When it rains," says Lars, "we'll be in real trouble."
In the past, Lars has gotten help from various friends and groups of local writers. The Texas Observer, for instance, organized a successful fundraiser to help him pay rent a little over a year ago. I ask Lars how he would feel about getting in touch with some of these people now.
Lars shakes his head. "I think everyone is pretty much burnt out on me now."
I tell him I don't think this is true, but in fact, I know just what he means. I remember the frustrated exhaustion I felt upon leaving Lars and Clint in San Antonio eight months ago. I had driven him from Austin to San Antonio three times in two days and then, at 10 at night, Lars had asked me if I could run them down to the H.E.B. for groceries.
"No," I finally said, "I'm tired and I need to go home."
I suppose at that point I, too, had become "burnt out" on Lars Eighner.
One morning, I get a message from Clint on my answering machine.
"We're getting busted," he says. "We have to move." He leaves a rough location of their new site and tells me to get in touch.
That afternoon I walk up the creek until I hear Lars call out my name. He is sitting out in front of the tent, which is now perched up in the woods near a bridge. One of their homeless neighbors at the old site had threatened to rat them out, so they moved. Lars doesn't like this new site. It is on sloping ground and he is worried that when it rains, and it seems that it soon will, the creek will rise up and wash them away.
Over the next few days I get a few calls from friends and acquaintances of Lars who have learned about his condition. Apparently Clint had placed a few calls for help and left my number as a contact. Each of these people I talk to, most of them writers, express the same frustration over what can actually be done for Lars. Everyone seems to want to help him, but what they really want is for him to help himself.
One morning, after some heavy rains, I go to see Lars and ask him if he needs anything. Coffee or cyanide pills, he says. The campsite is covered with newspapers, spread out to keep the mud from sticking to Lizbeth's paws when she ventures out. Their belongings are piled up outside, wrapped in black garbage bags. Lars says they spent the night huddled under damp blankets, wondering if the creek would rise up and get them.
That afternoon, as it begins to rain again, I get a call from Michael King, editor of The Texas Observer. He asks me if I can help him move Lars. Louis Dubose, the Observer's publisher, has agreed to take Lars and Clint in for a week or so, until they can find housing. In particular, he needs my car. Lars won't fit inside his. I say sure and so a group of us head down there and haul Lars and his stuff up the hill to the road. Clint isn't around so we leave a note for him pinned to a tree at the abandoned campsite. We leave just before it gets dark.
Lars and Clint have been staying in Louis' extra room for about a week now. There was some talk of an apartment which would take the two of them with Lizbeth for $450 a month, but no one is really sure where the money will come from. The Statesman ran a story about Lars, and when it hit the A.P. wire, complete with a picture of his rain-soaked camp, newspapers across the country picked it up. The other day, a tabloid TV crew from L.A. called about doing a story on him. I'm beginning to wonder when Louis' hospitality will run out.
Lars calls me up and asks if I can bring over his espresso machine and a box of computer disks which he'd stored in my closet. I bring the stuff over and then we go to the grocery store where he gets lost briefly while searching for a jar of pickles.
"I can't stand grocery stores these days," he says to me.
Lars complains about Austin all the time, cursing the changes and its affluent residents -- and I've certainly heard Austin complain about Lars. I suppose a lot of people in this town have their own Lars Eighner stories. But I think Austin should be proud, in a way, to be the hometown of a man like Lars Eighner. Like it or not, we will continue to support him, even when he seems to have no desire to do it for himself. He'll pay us all back with a good story in the end.
Arthur Bradford is a published short-story writer living in Austin. A fund has been set up to assist Lars Eighner. For information, contact Michael King at The Texas Observer at (512) 477-0746.
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