Crying Shame

On July 18, a cruel day in Phoenix when the temperature reached a record-tying 113 degrees, fire paramedics responded to an emergency call from a downtown apartment-dweller.

The caller was a woman who lives at Ninth Avenue and Grant. She said a man was on the ground in her front yard, and he wasn't moving.

It was just after 7 p.m., but the temperature still was 107 degrees.

Hours earlier, the woman's grandchildren had seen the man staggering around the yard, a strip of smoldering dirt and dried grass in a tough neighborhood often frequented by the homeless.

She had watched as the disheveled fellow slumped to the ground, and then as he sat dazed under the scorching sun. Two passersby had helped the woman lead the man to a shaded area. She went back inside, and returned with water for him in a 44-ounce Thirstbuster cup.

Some time passed before she again saw the same guy in her yard, this time lying motionless on his back.

She went out to take a closer look. He had appeared to be breathing, the woman later told a detective, but his eyes were closed and, according to a police report, "there were flies around his mouth."

The woman finally phoned for help.

The paramedics pronounced the man dead moments after arriving.

His death, if not his name, was newsworthy.

Referred to in media accounts as a "homeless, unidentified transient," he was the 12th person in Phoenix to die within 72 hours of what officials said might have been heat-related causes.

At the end of July, authorities said they suspected 28 people in Phoenix had died that month because of the heat.

By comparison, the state of Arizona had identified 34 heat-related deaths among its residents in all of 2004. That number didn't include the Mexican immigrants who died last year trying to cross the Arizona desert.

Most of the Phoenix dead were said to be homeless. The rest were almost all elderly residents who'd died inside their inadequately cooled homes.

(The county Medical Examiner's Office later ruled out heat-related causes in two of the cases -- one man died of heart disease, and firefighters found another man's body in a burned home.)

The spate of deaths stunned many people who rarely ever consider the plight of the homeless.

The dire situation soon attracted national media. An Associated Press reporter wrote on July 23 that the late vagabonds had "lived in obscurity, and many of them died the same way -- anonymous, ignored, alone."

Mayor Phil Gordon was compelled to answer queries about his city's seeming inability to cope with the grim situation.

But the reality that so many died in such a short period of time didn't surprise those who come face to face with the homeless every day. The lives that the deceased had led were terribly fragile, with few safety nets poised to catch them when they inevitably fell.

"We look at these poor folks out there in the street or in a field or wherever, and we know they've lived full and difficult lives," says Phoenix fire captain David Kalkbrenner. "You just never know who they've been or where they've been, or how they ended up where they ended up."

Many had been seriously mentally ill and/or had long suffered from drug and alcohol abuse. Several had felony records and, also typical of the homeless population, many had been crime victims themselves.

But as dreadfully as these men and women died, they had not always lived anonymously or alone. As it turns out, more than half of the people whose deaths tentatively have been linked to the heat were residing in permanent homes -- their own, or housing provided by mental health agencies -- when they died.

Nor were all of them ignored after their deaths.

As for the man who died in the yard on Ninth Avenue, he wasn't a nameless, forgotten bum, as he had been first described after his death.

A city bus card in a pocket of his dirty khakis provided police with his lone piece of written identification, later confirmed through fingerprints.

He was Carl Laroy Gholson.

He had been a professional musician before mental illness stole his mind; he'd played sax on the great Phoenix rhythm-and-blues recording, "Ham Hocks and Beans."

More important, however, was the sweet surprise of Carl Gholson's difficult life -- the positive imprint he left on those who took a chance and truly got to know him.

It might be best to start at the sad end of Carl Gholson's 52-year journey.

Toxicology tests at the Medical Examiner's Office are pending. But Phoenix police reports say Carl died with a crack cocaine pipe in his pocket.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin