The Other Side of Utopia – A Pre-Obituary for Gary Abler

I visited Gary Abler in the hospital yesterday. Gary was in room 23 at Petaluma Valley Hospital. I refer to his being in that room in the past-tense as Gary seemed pretty certain that yesterday would be his last day there. He said that the hospital was going to release him the following day – essentially kicking him out today because he has no medical coverage. So if anyone that reads this wants to visit him there, I would recommend calling in advance.

Gary Abler

I heard about Gary’s situation from “Dakar”, one of our cherished street people. She was sitting on the cement bench near Smiley’s in Bolinas, her face covered with chocolate pudding — a look that is normal for her — and wearing a hat that appeared to be made from a mix of straw and rope. A purple ball – or maybe it was some kind of a sink-stopper – remained clenched in her teeth as she relayed to me that she was feeling very upset because of what she had seen.  Dakar said that she had witnessed Gary – who was sick with cancer – being taken away by sheriff deputies in handcuffs – and that she heard that he was now in Petaluma Valley Hospital. She said the name of the hospital twice. She said again that it upset her to see Gary, a mainstay of downtown Bolinas, taken away be sheriff deputies.

“He had done nothing wrong,” she said.

I told Dakar that since the hospital was on the way home for me, that I would stop by and see how Gary was doing. And so I did.

Gary Abler arrived in Bolinas in 1972 – in his early to mid twenties and in the midst of the hippie era. For the next 35 years he would call Bolinas his home – although he never actually had a home. I can’t vouch for where he slept at night in his initial years there but for as long as I can remember – at least for the past twenty years – home for Gary was in an old van that was parked behind the Bolinas store. Gary lived a life that was a blend of sweeping the floors and stocking shelves at the local grocery store and busing tables at the various restaurants.

For most of the time that I have known him, Gary has had long flowing hair and a beard. His hair was a golden brown when he arrived in town and was quite gray by the time that he left. Women were curiously attracted to Gary – in spite of his well-known alcoholism and addiction to gambling. He was soft-spoken, clued in to everything that was going on, and someone that a person could trust if they were to lend him money. I didn’t know anyone that didn’t like Gary – who became a fixture in the community and transcended, I think, the image of what people thought that a street person was or should be.

Note left by Gary on community Bulletin board 

Gary at one time posted a note on the bulletin board asking anyone that could do it for a $1,500 loan. He had concocted an elaborate plan where he would pay the person back in two installments of $900 — that included a generous $300 bonus for the trouble.  Interested parties were directed to Gary’s dwelling, which was inside a dilapidated van that was parked behind the store. I asked Gary what he needed the money for and he said that it was to pay off gambling debts at one of the Indian casinos. Gary had apparently bounced several checks at the casinos and was afraid that “hit” people were coming after him. I don’t know if he ever got the fifteen hundred – but I did hear that he had quit going to the casinos.

On a Fourth of July in 1994, Margaret, a woman who was visiting Bolinas from San Francisco, confessed to me over morning coffee that she was attracted to Gary – and asked if all of the women in town had crushes on him. I told her that I had no way of knowing – but who knows – maybe she would get lucky? We walked downtown to Smiley’s and were enjoying a pre-parade Bloody Mary inside the saloon when Gary showed up at the door shirtless and with a half-empty flask of Wild Turkey whiskey in hand. He put the bottle down and reached up to the windowsill above the door and began doing chin-ups – all the while yelling across the room, “Let’s all masturbate!” It was no later than Nine O’Clock in the morning.

I asked Margaret, “Are you still attracted to Gary?”

Laying in his hospital bed in room 23, Gary looked more like an holocaust survivor than he did the somewhat fit person that I had known for thirty-five years. He was gaunt – with arms that were about as wide as broomsticks and his legs were like bony pieces of wood. His gray hair and beard were now cut short and he strained his eyes to try and recognize me as I came into his room. He lay contorted in his bed – with every slight move visibly causing him spasms of pain.

I asked him what the verdict was – what he was in the hospital for – and Gary told me that he had cancer that spread to his spine – and that he was dying. It had all started several years earlier when he had severely ruptured a testicle, he said, and had not sought medical treatment. Things had gotten so bad that he finally did go to the doctor in Point Reyes Station – five years after the injury – to get a note to excuse him from jury duty. That’s when they ran blood and found that he was sick with cancer, according to Gary. He told me that he had not been able to sit for years and that being placed in the back of the sheriff cruiser in handcuffs and then being driven over-the-hill was an exruciating experience.

Gary asked me to pick up a styrofoam cup that was on a table near him and to empty it in the toilet. I had assumed that it was coffee or soda pop in the cup, but Gary said that it was urine. It was easier for him to pee in that than in the plastic latrine that was next to the styrofoam. With urine that dark, it was a miracle that he was still breathing, I remember thinking.

He remarked that he was bitter that after living in Bolinas for 35-years that it had come to his being, in his view, kicked out of the town. Besides that, he was broke. Someone was supposed to have delivered him a hundred dollars, but they never showed with it. He suspected they had used it on meth. And with regard to going back to Bolinas, there was no one that would put him up. He had tried staying at a local convalescent home for a time but said that it hadn’t worked out.

“If I go back there they will just capture me again,” he said.

What he really needed, he said, was money – “a hundred dollars just to get a taxi to a motel room.”

Better, would I come by and drive him to a hotel because it would save him a lot of money. Mind you, Gary had already said that he was broke so I’m not sure where the hotel was that he planned on staying.

“The people of Bolinas have abandoned me,” he sobbed, putting his hands over his eyes. “After 35-years calling Bolinas my home it has come to this. My van is gone – they towed it away. My books are gone, too – thrown in the trash instead of being donated to the free box or given away. I don’t have any friends…”

Gary had mentioned in the course of our conversation that he had seen his grandchildren several years ago. He had five then, but there were seven now. I asked if he would like for me to contact his son or daughter – I wasn’t sure which. But he paused from his visible grief said no – that he wasn’t in touch with them.

I asked if he would like me to contact a social worker to help him get back on Medi-Cal. Again, no. He said that the hospital staff were already “hovering” over him trying to find a way to make him pay.

I couldn’t think of anything else to say except to tell him that in spite of what he thinks that he has friends and that there are plenty of people that love him. They may not always be there, but I’m sure that they would be if they could, I said.

“Dakar loves you! She told me that you were here,” I said. “She is worried sick about you.”

“Ah, Dakar. I love Dakar…” said Gary, his voice fading to nearly a whisper.

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