I never met the man.
He’d been dead for years
when I arrived on the scene he built
out of the scrapped lives
of the street people of Boston
and an old fire station
with a seven story replica Venetian tower
they used to train the cadets to jump into
and catch each other in a safety net.
But there are still men
who will come up
a decade and a half after his death
and say, “if Paul Sullivan
could see what’s going on now
he’d turn over in his grave.”
I always ask what they mean.
They never give a direct answer
but perhaps gesture vaguely
at the Pine Street Inn behind us
or in which we’re standing
as if to say “can’t you see,
are you blind, isn’t it obvious,”
so obvious to them
and how could I be so dumb.’
They’re often intoxicated, of course,
so it’s easy to dismiss them and their bitter chagrin

but then it happens again and again.
With that inchoate insistence
I’m so often confronted with in the men
I know they do mean something —
oh, yes something very important indeed.

Paul Sullivan, of course created
a refuge for the human throwaways
of a consuming culture that sees
value always in the Bottom Line
never on the bottom of the social ladder
out of a an old men’s hotel
and a Catholic worker vision
of his own experience of ETOH
and the collapse of the penal approach to drunks.

How could he have known
that the old men’s hotel on Pine Street
would become a beacon on Harrison Ave.
to all the lost souls dumped
out of condo-ized rooming houses
and state hospitals and boarded up factories
as industry became ‘service’
and the war machine finally lost
its evil empire antithesis.

So the Welfare Dept. that started out
giving out chits for the original Pine St.
ended up financing a new improved version
with subsidies that allowed the shelter
to finance the Paul Sullivan Housing Trust.

But the bodies keep falling
and we keep trying to catch them
except now there’s no net.


James Van Looy has been a fixture in Boston’s poetry venues since the 1970s. He is a member of Cosmic Spelunker Theater and has run poetry workshops for Boston area homeless people at Pine Street Inn and St. Francis House since 1992. Today marks his one year anniversary as a poet columnist for Oddball Magazine.