The Cream City Hostel in Milwaukee used to be just that, a hostel. It was a place for travelers on a very limited budget to find shelter for the night. I’ve stayed in hostels in Chicago and Flagstaff, AZ. They are usually set up so that a person winds up sharing a room with three other people. The guest staying in a hostel should expect little sleep and no privacy. However, the price is very affordable. Hostels generally attract college students and the like. I was often the oldest person in the hostel where I stayed. It was always an interesting experience.
Cream City Hostel is so named because Milwaukee is nicknamed “Cream City”– after the buttery color of the bricks used in the older buildings. The former hostel in fact was built with those cream-colored bricks. The building sits on a busy intersection in the Riverwest neighborhood of Milwaukee. Riverwest is a scruffy, working-class section of town with an eclectic population. There are many young people in that neighborhood, and it has a diverse ethnic mix. It’s not an economically prosperous area, but it is relatively safe.
I was told once, “If you are traveling in a neighborhood with metal grills on the doors, don’t freak out. If there are iron grills on both the doors and the windows, keep driving.”
There are grills on only some of the doors in Riverwest, and none on the windows.
As I mentioned earlier, the Cream City Hostel used to be a hostel. Now it is a halfway house for recovering addicts. The setup remains the same. People still sleep four to a room. There is still a high level of turnover. The house is there to provide shelter for people who don’t require inpatient medical care but are not yet able to find a home of their own. A person can stay at the halfway house for up to six months. That is if they follow the rules. Many residents don’t or can’t follow the house rules. The fact is that anybody who is staying at Cream City has issues, otherwise, they would be living in nicer accommodations.
The first and most basic house rule is: stay sober. This would seem to be obvious, and it is. However, it is also extremely difficult for some people in recovery to obey. The penalty for using drugs of any sort while staying at any sober living house is almost instantaneous eviction. A person using will generally be booted out on the same day or maybe even during the same hour as the offense. It has to be like that. Every person staying in a halfway house is hanging on to their sobriety by their fingernails. A person who relapses has to be promptly expelled. It is a life-or-death matter for those who are trying to stay clean.
This morning, my grandson, Asher, and I went to Cream City to visit someone for whom we deeply care. Cream City has a nice playground set up in the backyard. When we arrived, Asher climbed on the jungle gym, slid down the slide, and stayed active. I sat back and watched as Asher and the person we were visiting spent time together. They both needed that time. They ignored me as they talked and laughed and enjoyed each other’s company. I was fine with that.
In a back corner of the yard is a shrine. It is a small wooden shed open on one side. Above the shrine hang brightly colored flags and banners. The shed itself is painted in neon hues: yellow, orange, and red. The inside of the shed is decorated in a macabre manner, with skulls, flowers, and other items that remind me of Dia de Los Muertos. There is also a small statue of Shiva and an icon of Our Lady of Guadalupe. A Bible is displayed in the shed. Mostly the shrine is full of small photos, some framed and some not. They are snapshots of the dead.
The pictures haunt me. They are almost all unnamed. Anonymous faces of people who were destroyed by their disease. Maybe they had an overdose, or maybe a suicide, or maybe some other medical complication. Almost all of the faces I saw were of young people. Addicts don’t get old (e.g., Jimi Hendrix, John Belushi, Amy Winehouse, et al.). I wonder why these faces are nameless. Perhaps it is because there is a stigma attached to addiction that lasts even beyond death. The people who grieve for these individuals now and who cared for them during their lives already know the names. Strangers don’t need to know who they were.
It is so easy to die. It is often so hard to live.
I looked at the shrine for quite a while. I turned around to see Asher and the other person smiling at each other. They were happy. They are both very much alive.
Frank (Francis) Pauc is a graduate of West Point, Class of 1980. He completed the Military Intelligence Basic Course at Fort Huachuca and then went to Flight School at Fort Rucker. Frank was stationed with the 3rd Armor Division in West Germany at Fliegerhorst Airfield from December 1981 to January 1985. He flew Hueys and Black Hawks and was next assigned to the 7th Infantry Division at Fort Ord, CA. He got the hell out of the Army in August 1986.
As the Voice of the Veteran Community, The Havok Journal seeks to publish a variety of perspectives on a number of sensitive subjects. Unless specifically noted otherwise, nothing we publish is an official point of view of The Havok Journal or any part of the U.S. government.