Tony waited for his girlfriend Angela at the table where they first met. He had his Earl Grey tea and scone, and a raspberry yogurt and muffin for Angela. She walked in promptly at 9am. "Hi Tony," she said and they kissed.
"Hi girl." They sat next to each other, holding hands and going over their schedules.
"I'm in the library until lunch time. What about you?" she asked.
"Sociology at Zellerbach. I have to come up with a social justice project, but I'm not sure what to do," said Tony.
Angela thought while eating yogurt. "You were in the military. Why don't you do something with veterans?"
"Hmm. Maybe. Any ideas?" Tony dipped his scone in the tea and waited for Angela. She was the creative thinker.
"Well, there's a lot of homeless on Shattuck. I'll bet some of them are veterans. You could meet with them and find out how their life went."
Tony made a couple of notes and rubbed his face. "OK, but this has to be more than a survey. I have to contribute something. What could I do for them?"
Angela paused and thought while eating. "Don't they have veterans' benefits?"
"Yeah. But if they're homeless, they probably don't know how to use them. They can get health care at the clinic downtown for free; maybe they need help with that." Tony doodled on his pad, sketching a route from the park to the clinic. "I guess I could help them with the paperwork and bring them to the clinic for a checkup."
Angela smiled. "That's my guy. Why don't I do the paperwork while you meet and talk with them?"
Tony smiled, realizing how lucky he was to have Angela in his life. "Oh, you're the best. Where would I be without you?"
Angela beamed. The contented couple finished eating, and then went their separate ways to class.
* * *
Tony found a half dozen homeless veterans and brought donuts and coffee. "Guys, I know life hasn't been fair to you since service. I'd like to see if I could help you get some health care."
Joe, a short thin man in dirty jeans and a plaid shirt took coffee and a donut. "And why should you care, man?"
Tony continued handing out coffee. "I'm an Army vet myself. But I was lucky enough to wind up here," pointing to the university sign. "I just want to give back." Tony could sense that trust was the first order. "Listen, it wouldn't hurt to get checked out at the clinic. Veterans can get that free and I'll do the paperwork for you."
Another man spoke up. "So you don't get paid or anything?"
Tony knew the men were skeptical. "I'll be honest. It's for a class, but that doesn't mean I don't care. I'm not here to change your life, just get you some help. Get you some medicine if you need it."
The six ate donuts and drank coffee, mumbling softly so he couldn't hear. Tony waited patiently, hoping they wouldn't bail on him.
"So no money?" said one.
Tony wasn't sure what they were asking. "No, I'm not getting any money for this, just class credit."
"No, I mean you aren't giving us any money?" said the man.
Tony realized that these guys needed more than a checkup. "All right. Tell you what. If you go with me to the clinic, I'll give you each twenty bucks."
"Twenty-five" said another, sensing their opportunity.
Tony knew he had to cut this off. "OK, twenty-five, but you have to promise to take any medicine they give you." The men looked at each other and agreed. Tony had his project underway.
He arranged to take the men to the clinic. Angela joined him to fill out forms while Tony gave each man a sandwich and some juice. After all the men had been seen, the doctor met with Angela.
"I'm sorry to tell you this. I can't discuss their medical conditions with you. Privacy laws. But I can tell you that Sam may have a serious illness. We are giving the other men medicine and they should come back next month. We do appreciate you bringing them in. Sam should go to the veterans' hospital in Oakland for more tests."
Angela wasn't sure what to say. "Thank you, Doc," realizing that Tony might have taken on more than he could handle. She pulled him aside and told him what the doctor said. Tony had thought this would be something he could handle in town, not expecting to get involved with serious illnesses. He hugged Angela and prepared to tell the men.
"Guys, let's go over to the park and talk."
"I want to thank you for coming down today. The doctor says that Sam needs to have a follow-up visit to the veteran's hospital in Oakland. The rest of you can take the medicines and come back for a follow-up visit next month."
"What about our money?" said one of the men.
"I have your money here," said Tony. As he handed out the bills, he hoped they would be spending it on food, but realized that wasn't likely. As he gave out the money, each man took off, leaving Sam alone with Tony and Angela.
Sam was the first one to speak. "What did the doctor say was wrong with me?"
Angela was tearing up. Tony tried to explain. "Sam, they can't tell us about your health. There are privacy laws. That's why they want you to go to the veterans' hospital for tests; I can help you get there."
"I feel all right. Why don't you just give me my money?"
"Yes, here you go. But I really think we need to go to Oakland." Tony could sense Sam's reluctance.
"Maybe later." Sam took the bills and headed off.
Angela took Tony's hand as they walked back to campus. "What do you think is wrong with Sam?"
"I don't know dear, but what can we do?"
* * *
A month later, Tony and Angela escorted the guys to the clinic for their follow-up visit. Everyone was there except Sam. "Where's Sam?" he asked the others.
Heads shaking, none of them had seen Sam in the last week. "He must have moved out of the park," said Joe.
"Can you show us where he slept?"
"I guess we could for a finder's fee," said Joe.
Tony checked his wallet. "I'm tapped out man. All I have is ten dollars."
"Deal!" Joe reached out for the bill and started walking to the park; Tony and Angela followed.
"Sam's tent was right under this tree," said Joe, pointing to a narrow dark underbrush.
"You go first, honey," said Angela.
"Sam. You in here?" Tony called. No answer.
Tony walked in a little further and saw a large lump under a blanket. Tony nudged it with his hand, but it didn't move. He pulled the blanket back gently and saw Sam lying there with bugs crawling around him.
"Oh God. Angela, call 911." Tony felt for a pulse and listened for breathing. Sam was just barely breathing with a slow and weak pulse.
As the ambulance arrived and took Sam away, Tony held Angela close to him as they cried. "I should have paid more attention." They followed the ambulance to the hospital and waited hours for some news. Finally, one of the doctors came out and saw them.
"Are you related to Sam Kowalski, the man who came in this morning?"
Tony stepped up and replied. "No, but we're concerned about him. Is he going to be all right?"
"Well, he should be, in time, but we had to amputate one of his legs; it was seriously infected. He really should have been seen months ago, but that happens sometime with the homeless. They don't like hospitals."
Tony and Angela cried as the doctor walked off. "It wasn't your fault Tony" said Angela. "It wasn't anyone's fault."
"I could have done more dear. I could have done more."