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‘Keep climbing’: Elderly Janesville man faces homelessness with upbeat spirit

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Neil Johnson
June 23, 2013

— When Bob Fisk crashed his car this spring, he lost nearly everything he had left in life.

The car, a beat-to-dust, 1995 Chevrolet Corsica with more than 400,000 miles and a rebuilt engine, was the 80-year-old Janesville man’s sole mode of transportation.

Except for a corncob pipe and some inexpensive tobacco, it was the lone possession that still afforded Bob a little freedom in his life of poverty.

The car, a wreck of red faded to salmon pink, was Bob’s badge of honor, proof that he had some control over his ever-shrinking world—a world that in the last year has brought him multiple illnesses, surgeries, accidents and homelessness.

The Chevy was more than a possession to Bob.

It was his home.

Until his crash this spring, Bob had been homeless, living in his old car and driving back and forth from his small web of haunts in Janesville: McDonald’s, Burger King, the Hedberg Public Library, the gas station at the corner of Parker Drive and Centerway and the tobacco shop on Milwaukee Street.

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Bob has a home, for now. But like a growing number of elderly, his security—if he ever really had any—is long gone.

He worked hand-to-mouth for years, tending cattle at an East Troy farm he said the state shut down in the 1970s after many of the cattle caught “red nose,” an infectious viral disease. He was paid $5 a week at that job, plus a bag of tobacco.

Later, he washed cars for an auto dealer in Janesville and delivered newspapers.

Bob said he has no savings from his years of menial work. He lives on food stamps and about $750 a month in Social Security.

That’s about par for the elderly poor served by ECHO, a church-based Janesville social service agency, said Jessica Schafer, an ECHO client advocate.

Most of the elderly population ECHO helps have income in the bottom one-third among those who qualify for services—that is, they have less than $13,000 a year to cover rent, medical costs, transportation and food.

If not for food stamps and subsidized food-share programs, many of the elderly poor would be undernourished or even starving, Schafer said.

In Janesville, the ranks of the elderly who receive aid from social service agencies such as ECHO keep growing, Schafer said.

“They don’t have pensions. They have no savings at all, and there are just more and more every year,” Schafer said.

For Bob, a Janesville social service agency has arranged to pay rent for his apartment for one month—after that, he may have to find a way to pay the rent himself.

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The car crash last spring was Bob’s fault. In his words, he’d stopped at a stop sign on Mount Zion Avenue and looked both ways. Then he started to go. He didn’t see the damned van, which seemed to come out of nowhere.

Boom.

The accident cost him a trip to the hospital with a banged-up chin and earned him a $156 ticket from police. Now, his car is in a scrap yard, its front end wrecked, its engine seized.

Bob rides a bicycle he bought with what little money he has. It keeps him on the road, but ever more snared in a routine of the familiar—close-by fast food joints and service stations.

“If I wouldn’t have crashed that damn car, I wouldn’t even be here in Janesville, I bet. I’d be gone. Traveling. Hiding out,” Bob said.

After he crashed the car, Bob was hiding out—on the lam from the few acquaintances who’d care to help.

For days, Bob stayed in the back parking lot of the Mobile TA truck stop along Highway 14. He stashed his belongings in a bag behind bushes at a battery supply store and hoped for the best.

Eventually, Bob was found at the truck stop by his friends—Scotty, a former homeless Janesville man who scraps metal for a living; and Stephanie Burton, director of GIFTS, a local, church-run winter shelter that took in Bob for months last year.

They talked Bob into coming with them, and with the assistance of another Janesville social service agency helped him get a temporary apartment and a few belongings—a radio, a TV, a toaster oven.

Bob recently sat in the booth of the Centerway Burger King and ate his $3.75 dinner—a Stacker cheeseburger and coffee. He chewed the sandwich toothlessly and leaned his head against the cool tile of the booth.

Bob stared off with milky blue eyes set behind round-rimmed glasses, his wizened face darkened by wind and sun and lined like a dry field.

He might not have realized it as he spoke, but he understands the law of providence.

“If it’s not for the crash, I’d be living in my car. If it’s not for Stephanie and some of these people, my friends, I’d be living down there in the woods,” Bob said.

He hooked a leathered, claw-like finger toward the tangled trails along the Rock River, where many of the homeless men he’s met spend their summer nights, tucked away from the eyes of a city where most people sleep in their homes in beds.

At 5 p.m. exactly, Bob walked out of Burger King. He squinted up at the clouds and smacked his lips at the cool afternoon breeze, laughing.

“The corn ain’t going to grow in this cold, but I like it. I ordered the cool weather. Boop! It’s better than hot,” Bob said.

He then hoisted his stooped, 5-foot, 3-inch, 130-pound frame onto his bike and headed off toward downtown. Up the hill he rode, toward his food-stamp dessert, a packet of honey buns from the gas station.

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For eight years, until fall 2012, Bob had lived in a subsidized apartment on Kellogg Avenue. He said he got kicked out last fall because he was smoking his corncob pipe inside the building. He knew it was against the rules.

At the time, he was having car trouble and was riding a beat-up bike around town. Then, coordinators at the GIFTS shelter found him.

The shelter gave him a place to stay in the winter and two meals a day. It was salve for Bob’s homelessness, which was a new experience for him.

“I love them (the shelter coordinators and guests). They’re my buddies,” he said.

Still, last winter was hard on Bob. Along with a few fender-benders in his car, Bob was hospitalized with a pneumonia-like cough, and he developed a blood clot in each leg, along with a foot infection—a complication from one of the clots.

The clots required surgery in his legs, and he now takes blood thinner, which costs him money out of his own pocket.

Bob’s new bike cost him $98, plus $100 in repairs to get it running properly. He rides the bike as gingerly and ploddingly as you’d expect for an 80-year-old man with poor circulation, yet not without mishaps.

Bob fell off the bike a few weeks ago on a hill near the former General Motors plant. His coat got stuck in the gears, and he went over the handlebars. He wasn’t seriously hurt, but now he’s nervous on the bike.

He walks it up steep hills and across the sidewalks at the Centerway dam, which is near his apartment. He now notices all the hills near downtown.

“I call this city the Janesville Mountain. It’s all a big hill.”

He laughed—a rough, little squeaky sound.

“Boop! I’ll keep climbing. I’ll keep climbing!”

As he smoked his corncob pipe in the shade outside his apartment, Bob talked about getting another car before winter. How he’d pay for it is anyone’s guess.

He said if he had a car now, he’d be out listening to country music on WJVL, looking for a farm that would hire an 80-year-old man to do odd jobs.

“It’s $100 for a U-Haul to rent and go to a farm. Boop! That’s what I want,” Bob said, his eyes sparkling from deep-set wrinkles.

For Bob, spending the rest of his days puttering around a farm would be the next best thing to his ultimate dream.

“I still want to go to heaven, but my time ain’t come yet,” Bob said. “Jesus don’t want me because he knows I ain’t ready to go.

“He knows I’m down here trying to have fun. He’s proud of me.”


 

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