It’s about a mile and a quarter from the Modesto Gospel Mission to La Loma Liquors at the intersection of La Loma and Burney in Modesto. That’s not far as the crow flies, but the distance stretches by magnitudes when Scottie Shovelski tells you that’s where he goes to cash his monthly disability check.
When’s Scottie’s on foot, which, during the day, is virtually all the time, people avert their eyes. He walks by a kind of lurching forward progress that involves thrusting a foot out, leaning forward until the trailing foot follows, then jerking himself back a bit to keep from falling on his face.
When asked if he has a driver’s license, Scottie says, “I know where the DMV is. I thought I really learned how to read, but I don’t want to push that. The only ID I have is my name.”
Scottie says he was involved in an “auto-train accident” but he doesn’t remember when. He’s also not sure how old he is, but he’s thinks around “forty-nine or fifty.” He figures he’s been staying at the Mission around two years.
“My mind is really bad and overlapping,” he says. “I can’t even remember the holidays.”
Scottie would like to live closer to his family, but he’s not sure where they are. “As far as I remember they moved to Gilroy,” he says.
When people approach Scottie too closely he pulls a penny from his pocket and holds it out in offering. He doesn’t see too well with his one eye, and is approached by panhandlers more often than one might expect. The penny is probably his way of showing he has nothing more to offer.
Like most homeless people, Scottie is short money at the end of the month. Though he doesn’t ask for money himself, sometimes people offer him a dollar or even five. His first inclination is to turn the offer down. If people insist, he will take the money and almost immediately head for Yosemite Liquors, where he can buy a pack of Swisher Sweets for ninety-nine cents.
“There’s two of ‘em,” he says, as though he’s the beneficiary of a retail error. He further economizes by breaking each cigar in half before lighting up.
Scottie tells different stories about how he got separated from his family. In one story, he “got left behind.”
In another version, he says, “I turned out more different than what an accident would cause. It gives them a lot of worry to have me around, so I stay away.”
Unlike most people who leave the Modesto Gospel Mission every morning to spend the day outside, Scottie carries no backpack or duffel bag. When asked if he has any clothing or possessions, he says, “I’m able to pick clothes. I have what I have on.” Most likely he gets his clothing from donor bins in and around the Mission.
Scottie has been in programs intended to help him with his disabilities. “I feel really, really, really bad about myself,” he says. When asked why, he replies, “For failing to make progress. I look in the mirror for why I don’t do something more with this life.”
Scottie says he worked for a year, “But there are too many things I can’t do and I made too many mistakes.”
When he thinks of pleasant things, an innocent smile plays across Scottie’s face, transforming his weathered features into those of a wrinkled child. “My babushka, my grandmother, she used to put a handkerchief on my head,” he might say at such a time.
When asked what he’d really like to do, Scottie says he’d, “like to be able to help someone out sometime instead of always asking for something.”
Scottie says the food at the Mission is good, but, “The idea is not to love it or want to be there. I would honestly like to develop my life and progress but I can’t go much farther without expert help. The trail is too hard; I’m on foot.”
Scottie likes the people at the Mission, but says other places aren’t as friendly: “I’m scared to go into strange doorways unless I have good protection; the trees and the brightness of the morning will show more welcome than some people.”
Scottie often seems lost in deep thought and silence. Sometimes after such a period, he will say, “Is there anything I can do to help you?”