I’ve written about my oldest brother before, but in sum: His name is Donnie and he’s an alcoholic. And a drug addict. And homeless.
Last week, my mom was driving to the grocery store in New Jersey when she noticed someone familiar walking along the highway. He was wearing red shorts, no top, and was carrying a black bag. As she got closer to this man she realized it was my brother, her eldest stepson. Unable to pull over and unsure of his mental state, she called my dad to let him know. Everyone assumed he was either on his way to our shore house or to his brother, David’s house (less than a mile apart). But everyone was wrong. After days of Donnie-free sightings, David learned that Donnie had been sleeping on the beach.
It’s kinda weird to hear a story like this about a family member. A man walking along the highway, barely clothed, sleeping on the beach. Almost every day I walk past a homeless person on the streets of New York and think ‘how did they get there? where is their family?’ And now I wonder how many people saw my brother and thought the same thing.
It’s very simple for me to close off any feelings for Donnie. He’s over 20 years older than me (my dad started “playing house” pretty early) and he’s always been in and out of the picture. In when he needs something. Out when he’s flying high. The stereotypical rambling man, or prodigal son. I owe him nothing and he owes me nothing. We simply share half a bloodline. Hell, I remember the time when he showed up to one of my high school basketball games. He walked into the swankiest prep school in Philadelphia covered in tattoos and beer gut in full force just to embarrass the living shit out of me (at least that’s what I thought at the time). I swear one of my teammates actually asked what the homeless dude was doing there. Worse than Peter denying Christ, I wanted to deny my brother more than three times. And just last summer, I made fun of the fact that he was selling French Fries on the boardwalk. A grown man working a minimum wage job that high school kids do for the summer? O-M-G. Soo em-barr-ass-ing. We are so not related.
But sleeping on the beach? Walking from town to town without a shirt on his back? No money. No cellphone. I can’t make fun of it. I can’t roll my eyes. Goddamn it brother, why are you in my life at all?! I’m frustrated by my powerlessness, by his helplessness. Do you know what it’s like to want to reach out and help someone while fully aware there’s nothing you can do? Sure you do, you’ve walked past a homeless person before.
I can’t give Donnie anything that will change his life. Not even my love. If you give a bum some change, you don’t change his life. I could give Donnie all the money in the world–it would not alter his reality. This is how he chooses to live. Addicted. Schizophrenic. Literally. Do you know how many times I’ve referred to someone as psycho? But my brother really is. Thanks to a life spent shooting, smoking, drinking and snorting he’s damaged goods. He’ll call my parents at odd hours just rambling on about things that don’t make sense, about people out to get him. All they can do is just listen. They’ve tried getting him help, putting him in homes–he just leaves. None of us know what he’s after or where he’s going. We can only watch him walk along the highway; hear him ask for change.
From what I understand, Donnie started drinking at age nine and added drugs around 12 or 13. No one knows why. No one understands. It’s like cancer and car accidents–some people get it, get hit and some people don’t and it never makes any fucking sense. It’s a simple twist of fate.
“A saxophone someplace far off played/As she was walking on by the arcade/As the light bust through a-beat-up shade where he was waking up/She dropped a coin into the cup of a blind man at the gate/
And forgot about a simple twist of fate.” -Bob Dylan, Simple Twist of Fate
To hear the original track from the album Blood on the Tracks cut and paste this URL into your browser:
And here, a Jeff Tweedy cover of Dylan’s song with altered lyrics: