Does it bother you, I ask Glen Hilbrand, that some people look down on a man who’s chosen to beg for money rather than work? That they call you a bum?
“If they don’t think that’s work out there, standing in the heat for 14 hours a day, seven days a week, in the rain, sleet and snow, then. . . . ”
Glen trails off, his point made, then adds: “And you know what? I rather them call me a bum than call me broke.”
Glen must be our area’s longest continuously serving panhandler, the word he uses to describe himself. For 18 years, he has staked out a median on Sycamore Street in Arlington, near the East Falls Church Metro station. It’s because he’s always there that Glen knew what had become of a little black dog named Ms. Winter who disappeared in July.
When Ms. Winter’s owner, Laurie Nakamoto, went to the Stray Cat Cafe to post a lost-dog sign, assistant manager Dave Seldomridge told her to talk to Vince Tran, owner of the 7-Eleven about a mile away. Vince told Laurie to talk to James Hemphill, a man who panhandles near the convenience store. And James took her to see the king of the panhandlers.
“I used to ride dirt bikes up and down here before they put 66 in,” says Glen — 55, tall and tanned from years spent outdoors. He grew up a few blocks away, started drinking when he was 13, got addicted to heroin and crack, and has been locked up repeatedly. He was a junkie for 37 years but has been clean for more than five, since July 14, 2008. Glen remembers the date — 7/14 — because it’s the number he saw embossed on countless quaaludes before he washed them down.
At his nadir, Glen lived in the woods near the Metro station and scrounged food from trash cans. He panhandled because he thought it was better than stealing to support his habit, though he did that sometimes, too. His goal each day was to get $160 in his pocket, enough to head into the District and buy two 10-packs of heroin at 80 bucks each.
“The train is right there,” Glen says. “You’d have the cash in your pocket, take the train downtown, and then it’s over with, except for the misery.”
Glen’s body is scarred by reminders of his addiction. He’s lost count of the times doctors had to pull blood vessels from one part of his body to replace collapsed ones in another. He once had his weakened femoral artery blow while panhandling on the median. “Bloop” is the word Glen uses to describe it and the geyser of blood that followed.
“The fire department had to come wash that road,” Glen says. “By the time I got to the hospital, they put five pints of blood in me.”
A long rehab five years ago finally worked. Since he’s been clean, Glen has been able to get an apartment. He has a wife — another once-troubled soul — and is obsessed with music. He burns compilation CDs for bus and taxi drivers and DJs at events held by 12-step groups.
He starts every day by picking up every speck of trash in his area: every soda bottle, gum wrapper, cigarette butt. Other panhandlers — “drifters,” Glen calls them — sometimes try to horn in on his spot, but he runs them off, all except for a homeless woman named Helen whom he feels protective of.
Says Glen, “I’m not going to claim to own that place, but after 18 years of my life out there, I think I’ve homesteaded it two times and a half.”
On a Sunday morning in July, Glen spotted Ms. Winter, the elderly miniature schnauzer who had wandered away from home the night before.
“I’m walking up to the store and I see this dog in the road and the cars are just running it over,” Glen says. “And nobody stops. They just do not give a s---. I said ‘What the f--- is wrong with these motherf---ers? Someone needs to get out there and pick up that motherf---ing dog.’ ”
So that’s what Glen did. He walked into the traffic and lifted Ms. Winter from the pavement. She was dead. He took her body to the 7-Eleven and put it inside a trash bin.
“I was thinking about the owner when I picked it up,” he says. “I didn’t want whoever it was to find their f---ing loved animal crushed to a f---ing pancake.”
He explained all this to Laurie when she came a week later. He walked with Laurie up the hill to show her exactly where Ms. Winter was killed. And when Laurie had a memorial service on the site, Glen attended.
Twenty of Laurie’s friends were there, some with their dogs. They stood in a circle, remembering pets they’d lost. Laurie had written a letter to Ms. Winter. She set it alight on the spot where the dog was struck. There was a small party back at Laurie’s townhouse. Glen went — for a while: “They started drinking, and I got the f--- up out of there.”
Says Laurie: “Glen’s a real hero to me. Think of all the other people who drove by and never stopped.” He allowed her to have a sense of closure.
So, as I said at the very beginning, the dog died. But this story was never about the dog.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.
CORRECTION: Easrlier versions of this column, including in the print edition of The Washington Post on Thursday, gave the wrong date for when Glen Hilbrand became sober.