Barry Meyer slept for a month and a half in a port-a-potty near the Lynchburg public library: “It was a big one, I could do a twisting stretch-out with the toilet seat and my stuff.” He said it didn’t smell bad because “they cleaned it twice a week.”
Of course, his sense of smell, maybe his sense of everything, was off because each day he typically consumed eight “tall boys” (25-ounce beers) and a pint of whiskey. He favored Earthquake High Gravity Lager with its aroma of corn syrup and wet hay. Its fans say Earthquake “will get you buzzin’ like a chainsaw… It’s like putting your finger between the sprocket and chain on a motorcycle and then having your buddy crank the throttle. You may lose half a finger, but it’s an experience.”
Meyer, now 53, had days like that for years as he ping-ponged across the country, working for a while and then partying until the money ran out: California, Oklahoma, Virginia, North Dakota, Oklahoma, California, Missouri, always “buyin’ a Greyhound ticket to somewhere I’ve never been.” The pattern of a lifetime: “Worked for three months, then got thirsty again…. Went to detox in Joplin, came back and worked for a week, then the wheels came off, went on a month-long binge, ran through about $3,000.”
But something else happened in Joplin. Meyer stayed nights at Watered Gardens Ministries, a shelter that presents biblical truth to drop-ins and adds a financial plea: give up your SNAP Card (food stamps) and earn your bread. Meyer in 2018 was “working, doing good, thinkin’ ‘I qualify by government standards but don’t really need ‘em. I’d rag on people that did what I was doing: ‘Why are you taking advantage? Do it on your own.’ I was thinking, ‘man, you’re a hypocrite, raggin’ on people for doing something you’re doing.”
So Meyer did something only a few people do. He handed over his SNAP Card to Watered Gardens founder James Whitford, thinking “you know what, God’s providing for me.” Whitford nailed it to a wall in his shelter by the water fountain. But that didn’t mean Meyer immediately stopped the drinking pattern he entered about 35 years ago: 1) Do manual labor, 2) get drunk, show up, get fired, or 3) work for three months without getting fired, “get thirsty,” don’t show up, and buzz through savings.
Why? Maybe it stems from childhood, when his mother abandoned him and three siblings at a playground. The death of a brother also stung. Whatever the reason, here’s his situation in 2020: “Got hungry, wasn’t gonna risk a third DUI because that’s prison time in Missouri. So I called the taxi man, go get me the pizza, more alcohol, 40 bucks, gave him a $100 bill and said keep the change, man. Yeah. Boy, that money goes fast when you do that. The month ended, the money was gone, and I knew I was gonna get back in the shelter.”
This time, though, he was 51 and “several of the homeless people I’ve known for years are dying off. Yeah. Drinking themselves to death. Some of them younger than me. I thought there’s gotta be more to life than just getting blitz bombed drunk all the time. Seeing these guys die got the gears turning upstairs, got me thinking a lot.”
Once Meyer realized he had to change or die, he didn’t change immediately. Instead, he decided to “keep partying until the money runs out. Mm-hmm.” But when it ran out in June 2022, he says he decided, “No more bull—- excuses. Buckle down. Make it work.” He went through detox, then stayed in shelters with breathalyzers every night, then started taking Naltrexone, a blocker that “takes away the all-happy, party-on feeling.”
Meyer has stayed on a job for two years now, as a forklift driver. He’s saving money and taking care of past bills. In some ways he fits the stereotype of long-term alcoholism and homelessness. But it looks like he’s emerged from it. Why did Meyer at age 51 look at other men dying and think about the purpose of life? Do more among the long-term homeless start thinking that way? If so, why? If not, why not? Those are semi-mysteries I’ll explore in future interviews and columns.