Richard Lamar Ochiltree wandered the streets of Washington, D.C., for several years, mostly along a few blocks in Foggy Bottom, near the eastern shore of the Potomac. He monitored comings and goings at the State Department, George Washington University, the World Bank, and other agencies. Rick was in his mid-fifties, but life on the streets made him appear older: a gray, nicotine-stained beard; a gaunt frame beneath layers of clothes; the dark edges of his frostbitten fingers protruding from torn gloves, resembling talons, clutching a cigarette. Yet he had kind eyes and genteel manners.
As university students and federal employees scurried past, Rick was consumed by theories of spies and corrupt politicians, of the millions owed to him by Coca-Cola. His code name was “Tick,” and he was a secret agent of the government he was evading. His elaborate delusions involved him in the work of presidents, monarchs, and three-letter agencies. “President Clinton was great until the CIA put a microchip in his brain to make him have the affair with Monica,” he whispered, adding with a mischievous grin, “Clinton and I were friends—but I never let on that I was a Republican.” Sometimes, while explaining a theory, he would point to his head as if somewhere in there was the source of the problem. Washington is a magnet for many people laboring under delusions of grandeur; only some of them are homeless.
Though he never begged for food or money, Rick would not refuse a donation or an invitation to share a meal. He would beg pardon for the fact that he and his clothes were filthy. He would offer to share whatever food or cigarettes he had. But his stories were his stock-in-trade.
The United Church in Foggy Bottom was the closest thing he had to a home, and he seemed never to venture more than a block from it. The United Church was established as a German congregation in 1833 during the presidency of Andrew Jackson. Its neo-Gothic, brick façade has been eclipsed in recent decades by the brutalist sprawl of federal agencies and the George Washington University campus. The congregation is a collection of contrasts: Lutheran and Methodist, American and German, progressive and traditional. The billboard reads, “You are precious, sacred, and beloved, of God, always.” In this spirit, the church embraced Rick.
Monroe Wright, then pastor, knew Rick and was kind to him, as was Kevin, the church’s office manager, who had to deal with the unsentimental reality of a charming mentally ill person on the premises. “The old ladies took a liking to him,” said Kevin. Their liking meant more work for Kevin, who was already burdened with the practical side of managing a charity. “He grew to be part of the church. He was a fixture here.”
The church gave Rick a locker to access by day but could not offer him accommodations for sleeping. There are many such services available, even in a city with too many homeless to number, but the mentally ill rarely avail themselves of them. Rick preferred to be outdoors. The church bought him a closet for the alleyway. “He would sleep right there,” Kevin said, pointing to a spot in the alley outside the church. “Even in a foot of snow, he would be there in his sleeping bag.” Only during extreme cold would Rick sleep indoors, on a bathroom floor.
Rick was a regular at the cafeteria in a building then owned by the Red Cross, a block away. Steven, who managed the cafeteria in 2011, and his staff of mostly Latin American women made special provisions to pay for Rick’s meals. They, like the United Church staff, had grown fond of him. It was uncommon humanity in a city famous for its Southern efficiency and Northern hospitality.
In March 2011, Rick shared a meal at the cafeteria with two people who worked near his stomping grounds. They asked Rick about his life, and he spoke in detail about jobs he’d had, his family, and his hometown of Greenville, South Carolina. One of his lunch companions later searched online, found one of the people Rick had named, and called. “This will sound strange, but I live in Washington, D.C., and there’s a man here who says he has relatives in South Carolina. If he’s someone you know, please feel free to call back.” Just as he was hanging up, a woman picked up the phone. “That man’s my brother,” she said. “We’ve been looking for him for ten years. We thought he was dead.” The woman, Pam, her brother, Wilbur, and their octogenarian mother drove the next morning from Greenville, South Carolina, to see Rick.
Rick was born in 1957, one of three children. They spent much of their childhood abroad with their mother and father, an Air Force officer in Turkey. Keeping watch on a Cold War frontier awoke in Rick a sense of wonder at the world, and a sense of adventure. Returning to South Carolina as a young man, Rick married, held down a job, and doted on his young daughter. But his family began to notice odd tendencies. He would speak as if to a person not there, and his voice would trail off.
Over the years his delusions intensified, as did his paranoia. He lost his job, and his marriage was strained. His family sought to help him and in the late 1990s had him hospitalized. Those months were terrible for Rick and for them. His sister recalled the look of helplessness and betrayal in his eyes as he was restrained. Rick was diagnosed with schizophrenia and released to their care. (It was an unusual diagnosis for a person in his thirties; schizophrenia normally manifests symptoms by the mid-twenties.)
For the next two years, Rick lived variously with his mother, sister, and brother. In 2001, he left his family and chose—insofar as he could be said to choose—to live on the streets. His family were heartbroken when he left. He made his way up the eastern seaboard to Baltimore before settling on the streets of Washington, D.C.
When Rick’s family arrived in March 2011, they weren’t sure how he would respond; they feared he might run away. As Rick sat in the Red Cross cafeteria eating breakfast, his mother, sister, and brother came up behind him. His sister said his name. He turned, and his eyes lit up. They embraced him and he smiled.
The family spent three days together, during which they reminisced about their years in Turkey. Rick’s delusions seemed to recede, and the “old Rick” seemed to return. He showered and bought new clothes. His mother bought him a portable CD player and some CDs of Elvis Presley, his favorite. Rick gave them a tour of the city and insisted on paying for some of the meals with what money he had. His family had difficulty keeping up with his long strides.
Rick’s family invited him to return to South Carolina with them. He refused. They accepted his decision and arranged to send packages and money to the United Church for his care. Arrangements were made with Steve at the cafeteria to pay for Rick’s meals there.
In the months that followed, Rick’s family and friends tried to restart his Social Security disability payments, which had been cut off ten years earlier. The Social Security case officer, no doubt accustomed to fraud, was skeptical of the claim. Rick refused to provide information because he believed the Social Security Administration was a malign actor. (Those trying to help him warmed to this view over time.) Rick could be deemed mentally incompetent, so that someone else could do the paperwork on his behalf, but for that he would need a legal guardian. This required the involvement of his social worker and a hearing before a judge. The social worker was impossible to track down. And if Rick disliked meeting with bureaucrats, he was even less inclined to appear before a judge.
Around this time, the Red Cross cafeteria came under new management. The new manager had received complaints (presumably about Rick’s appearance or odor) from the customers, and the company decided that Rick was no longer welcome. To his credit, the new manager permitted Rick to eat there for several more weeks. Pastor Wright noted that there were many places for the homeless to eat, so being cast out was hardly a death sentence, but he thought that eating at the cafeteria had given Rick a sense of dignity.
Soon after, Rick’s backpack was stolen, and with it the CD player his mother had given him. Also in the backpack were several items from home and his travels, which he had kept with him over a lifetime of sanity and illness. The Social Security Administration was unable to resume his payments absent proof of identity, an interview with Rick, a court hearing—all of which he resisted. The United Church remained something like a home, though Kevin said that Rick increasingly took his meals in the alley in solitude, distancing himself from the community.
One afternoon in July 2012, Kevin peered into the alley, saw only Rick’s new backpack lying there, and knew something was wrong. Rick never went anywhere without his backpack. Kevin emailed a cluster of churches in the city, asking them to keep an eye out for Rick. The days passed, and no one saw him. Volunteers at the church phoned Rick’s mother to tell her Rick was missing.
A few days later, Rick’s sister Pam received a call from Georgetown University Hospital. Rick had staggered into the hospital the day he had gone missing. An MRI revealed several tumors in his brain. He was lucid at first but then suffered cardiac arrest and was clinically dead for nearly half an hour before being resuscitated. He remained in a coma, and after a few days hospital staff found Pam’s number among his possessions. A year after their reunion with Rick, his family traveled back to Washington, D.C., to say goodbye.
This time, Rick’s daughter came with his mother and siblings. On July 20, 2012, the family arrived and went to Rick’s bedside. He lay unconscious with electrodes and tubes connecting him to monitors. Congregants of the United Church had sent cards, most saying how grateful they were to have known him.
The next morning, the family met with an emergency room doctor, a young man from the mid-Atlantic region. In theory, they should have been able to communicate with him. They asked about Rick’s pain, consciousness, and death. They and the doctor spoke past each other. “I don’t think Rick should’ve been brought back from cardiac arrest,” the doctor said. The family replied that they were grateful that he had. “Now we can be with him.” The doctor said it was wrong for Rick’s suffering to be prolonged. “You said he wasn’t suffering,” Rick’s daughter protested. The doctor walked off, not quite concealing his exasperation. One sensed there had been some debate about resuscitating Rick—or perhaps about resuscitating the hundred other vagrants who had died at the hospital before him. “I want the doctor we had yesterday,” Rick’s mother said. “He gets what we’re saying.”
An hour later, the doctor from the previous night returned. He was not a native speaker of English—he was from South Asia—but he spoke the language of Rick’s Christian family from the American South with perfect fluency. “We do not believe he is suffering, but he will be given enough medication to rest peacefully until God takes him,” the doctor said. “Whether to continue extraordinary measures to sustain his life is the decision of your family.” They absorbed his words and his calm and, after a little discussion, decided that Rick’s life support would be removed.
Rick survived for a few hours before his heart rate slowed. Each breath became more labored. His family gathered around him, first his mother, then his daughter, sister, and brother. They spoke to him and caressed his forehead. He died peacefully in their arms.
In Walter Scott’s novel The Antiquary, a grumpy rural landowner named Oldbuck clings to the old order on the Scottish coastline, where his ancestors made their home for generations. His Monkbarns estate is rife with monastic ruins, presumably modeled after Scott’s Abbotsford home. The estate features a medieval “hospitium, hospitale, or hospitamentum . . . in which the monks received pilgrims.”
One of the visitors to Oldbuck’s estate is a licensed mendicant, “one of the last specimens of the old-fashioned Scottish mendicant.” He is a King’s Bedesman, member of a medieval profession established to pray for the kings who sponsored them. The mendicant inspires Oldbuck’s compassion and exasperates the caretakers of Monkbarns. His name is Edie Ochiltree—Rick’s surname.
Bedesmen were scarce by the early nineteenth century, but Scott was fascinated by these “indolent peripatetics” who had “the privilege of the ancient jester” and were known for their gift of “gude crack,” or conversation. Today, on Scott’s Abbotsford estate, there is a statue of Edie Ochiltree, the “privileged nuisance,” the fictitious gray-bearded eccentric with a kindly countenance who bore “his hard fate with unbroken spirits.” The landowner Oldbuck and the vagrant Edie each had a place and purpose at Monkbarns.
The United Church harks back to the order that Scott captured even as it was fading. Its work reflects a belief that people like Rick have a place and purpose. The congregation feeds poor families every month, offers counseling to those in need, and hosts twelve-step meetings for addicts. But it is not unique. Amid the institutions of modernity—the huge and often impersonal arms of government and capital—kindly pastors, doctors, staffers, and friends recognize the humanity of unlicensed nuisances and show them charity. Among these humble ministers of an older order, the Rick and Edie Ochiltrees find refuge as in the ruins of Oldbuck’s estate.
Andrew Doran writes from the Washington, D.C., area.
Photo by Elvert Barnes via Creative Commons.