When I get a call from distant family members or friends I haven't heard from since Kindergarten, I  say, "Suicide, right? Let me guess.  White, male, 50's." 

Unfortunately, I’m usually correct.

A cousin of mine killed himself yesterday, daughter found him.  And there’s that sickening feeling again.  I immediately mitigate people’s concern by following up, “He’s a distant family member, I didn’t know him.”  As if that matters.

I know the people that are caught in his ripple.  And it’s a huge splash.

Yesterday over the phone, I didn’t ask about the details, it doesn’t really matter how or when or where.  I just launched into crisis intervention.  Answered their questions, and lined up ways for them to support the family—these new Survivors of Suicide.  Told them what to talk about (everything) and what to watch out for in the future (changing the story or not talking).  “But know this,” I said. "Everything’s different now.”

Afterwards, I had to purge the call’s emotional debris and went for a walk down to the river.  In a wooded ravine, I passed by a transient campsite littered with trash.  A group of people were drinking beer and hanging out in the shade, and I felt anger rising.  No doubt displaced rage from the earlier suicide call, and I caught myself before saying, “Why can’t you people pick up after yourself? Why are you so fucking dirty?”

Instead of getting into a rumble with hobos, I found a black plastic bag and started picking up trash.  One of the guys yelled out, “You looking for cans?”

Dude thought I was homeless! Can't blame him, I guess all white guys with a beard and ripped jeans do look a little rough.  Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference between sandaled-hipsters and bums.

I laughed and chatted them up, a few even got up and helped me.  They were just passing through; it wasn’t their mess. When I told them about my cousin's suicide, I cried and they hugged me. For a moment, they helped carry my life's junk.     

After I shared a beer, I noticed a pile of aluminum foil strips nearby.  I remember these foilies from back in the day when we used  to “chase the dragon” and scrounge up cocaine residue from the carpet or the tiny bits of meth and heroin.  So, I should have known better.  Grabbing a handful from the pile of trash, I was looking up and talking to one of the ladies by the river when I felt a prick on my finger. 

And that’s how I got AIDS.  And Hepatitis B.  And Hep C.

Well, that’s the future I envisioned.  Fortunately, I saw the needle in my periphery as I was reaching into the rubbish.  I’ve seen a few of those pale blue plungers and discarded orange caps in the neighborhood lately.  Last year, one was in the gutter outside my front door. Before that, I discovered a used needle on a shelf at the Dollar Store. Right at a kid’s eye level. I remember taking the needle to the sharps waste dispenser at the nearby fire station. And my reward for a good deed? The Dollar Store clerk and the firefighters bestowed a look that simultaneously conveyed, “You’re a dope-fiend” and “Go take a shower!”

Luckily, I didn’t poke my finger. And with a little help, I am getting used to picking up other’s people trash, like the remains left after a father’s suicide.

Perhaps the lesson is this: When cleaning up your neighborhood, you might either make life-long friends or contract a blood borne disease. And maybe I should start wearing a tie.