YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) – Preston Carlisle does not look like the kind of guy who would leave bread for the birds every day.
I spotted him on his front porch Wednesday on West Delason under a darkening sky and the welcome smell of oncoming rain. He looked comfy in a plush chair, smoking a thin cigar and enjoying a cold 40-ounce can of beer with his two massive but passive dogs, Monty and the Brown Bomber, flanking him.
It had to be 5 o’clock somewhere, and given the fact that he might be homeless because of a fire earlier that morning, a cold brew just after lunch wouldn’t be a bad way to go for some people.
I was there because the fire report said the fire was caused by candles Carlisle used for lighting. He hasn’t had electricity since September, when it was shut off by Ohio Edison.
There were two main questions I wanted to ask him. The fire report said the damage was just under $5,000, but that’s also what the house is worth. In short, it was totaled and Carlisle would probably need to find a new place to live.
I say probably only in the sense that someone who has lived in a house for more than six months without electricity may decide to stay anyway if there’s a roof over his head. It wouldn’t be the first time that has happened in the City of Youngstown.
I wanted to see, in this time of COVID-19, where there are so many struggling people practically everywhere you look in the city’s neighborhoods, if he had a place to stay.
The second reason was the dogs. I see them just about every day. They are on the porch or in the yard and are well taken care of, but they are clearly outside dogs. I wanted to make sure they would make the move if there is a move, and if not, to perhaps make some arrangements for someone to come and take them to a shelter.
I don’t know what I was hoping for when I drove up Hillman on my way to the house. As I said earlier, I drive by regularly yet I had never seen anyone outside except for the dogs.
When I started work earlier in the day, I had driven past to see the damage. Without knowing the address, it was hard to tell there was a fire there, because most of the damage, save for the roof, was inside and not visible from the street. Plus, the house looks like it has been through some things in the past, although the yard is always cut.
I pulled up across the street and rolled down the window. I could smell it from the car: the fire smell, the burnt embers on the wind. It can stay for days in some neighborhoods. He was sitting in his chair like he didn’t have a care in the world. It was a nice day. He had his chair, and his dogs, and his cigar and his brew, and right now, that was all he needed to be happy.
I asked him if I could talk about the fire, and he said sure, in a raspy yet clear and dignified voice. He’s a skinny guy, and he doesn’t have many teeth, but there’s a spark in his eyes, even though he said he lost the sight in one of them when he was in the Navy after a SEAL took a swing at him in an enlisted man’s club. He said he still has no idea what prompted the punch.
“When I woke up, my eye was gone,” he said.
He wasn’t sure if he was going to stay. He was waiting to hear from his insurance adjuster, he said.
Carlisle is 74 and moved to Youngstown when he was three from Alabama for the same reason a lot of people moved to Youngstown; his father had found work in one of the city’s steel mills. He graduated from South High School and joined the Navy after a cousin came home wearing the uniform. It was quite an impression for the then 17-year-old Carlisle.
“I saw him dressed real nice when he came home, and I saw pictures of lots of girls,” Carlisle said. “I was 17 at the time, and well, you know, when you’re 17…” He didn’t need to finish what he was saying.
Carlisle ended up serving 13 years in the Navy, some of it during the Vietnam era. He served on the USS Repose, a hospital ship, which was stationed in the Vietnam theater, earning the nickname “The Angel Of The Orient.” He also served on the USS Ranier, a converted oiler that delivered munitions and other supplies to ships stationed off of Vietnam. Both ships won several battle stars for their performance in the Vietnam Theater.
Because of his eye injury, Carlisle had to leave the Navy on a medical discharge. He worked for the government at a military base in Oakland before he returned to Youngstown in 1988, and the home he lives in now which had belonged to his late mother. He has a daughter in California.
“She helps me pay my phone,” Carlisle said.
When asked about the electricity, Carlisle said it was shut off because the account was in someone else’s name and he hoped to get it fixed soon, but he didn’t seem to be concerned by it. In fact, he didn’t seem to be too concerned about much of anything. And that’s the way a lot of people I run into in the neighborhoods are, especially before the COVID-19 crisis. They have been living hand to mouth for years and always find a way to get by. As long as they can eat and have a roof over their heads, they don’t get worked up about a lot of things.
But there was one thing Carlisle was worked up about: Rats. Lots of them. He said whenever the city demolishes a house in the area, the rats have no place to go, so they invade his home. He offered to show me three that were burned in the fire that he pitched into a nearby vacant lot, but I politely declined. You can shrug off a lot after 20 years on the crime beat, but burned rats is not one of those things. However, he did show me the holes on the side of his house where they are getting in. He was not very happy.
And there has been a lot of demolition in the neighborhood, something Carlisle was lamenting as we talked.
“It’s depressing, at times, when you think about it,” he said. “Everyone’s either dead or moved to Columbus, Georgia.”
Carlisle’s block still has some houses left, unlike some nearby streets, where they might be just one of two houses per block and the rest is just grass and gnarled or dead trees. I counted eight empty lots on his stretch of the street, which I could figure out because you can see the remains of the driveways.
He said he misses the people.
“It’s been very lonely,” Carlisle said.
He thinks the decline of the neighborhoods is a conspiracy to keep the downtown looking nice. I didn’t tell him that it wasn’t until the arena was opened (and Federal Plaza was ripped up and two-way traffic could flow once again downtown) that the downtown used to be one of the most depressing areas of Youngstown. It wouldn’t have made much difference. He had his mind made up.
He said he was not worried about his safety in a neighborhood that has seen its share of violence over the years for two simple reasons:
“I’m not worried about any crimes because I got dogs,” he said although I had to wonder. Both the Brown Bomber and Monty had been very friendly when I pulled up. The only thing he said that really bothers him are the prostitutes in the area that are always there but whose numbers intensify when the weather gets warmer despite the best efforts of the police department to stamp them out.
The rain was now starting to fall at a steady clip so I knew it was time to wrap up my chat. I asked him what his plans were. He had spent the night with a relative after the fire.
He said he would stay at the home of a friend on the next block. The dogs would come with him, he said. I was relieved.
It was just as I was about to leave that he mentioned the birds. There was a Downie Woodpecker, indeed a strange sight on the South Side, nibbling at one of the pieces of bread he had thrown out on the sidewalk. He does it every morning. If he doesn’t, he said the birds remind him.”I have to wake up and put the bread out for them every day or they’ll come to the window and chirp,” he said.
I was worried about my camera lens getting wet in the rain, so I thanked Carlisle and drove away. In retrospect, there was so much more I wanted to ask him; is he retired? Why did he stay in the house for so long even though it was falling apart? How does he get places? As I drove away he was back in his chair with the Brown Bomber in front of him on the porch in repose, both surveying the front yard like it was their own kingdom. And it is.
The next morning I drove by to see if I could catch him outside again. He was not there. Neither were the dogs. Neither was the breakfast for the birds. I felt nothing but good things after I spoke to him and I still felt good even though no one was there. I would suspect that no matter what happens to Carlisle, the house will stay as is for years until it is either set on fire and destroyed or the city is able to demolish it.
The only thing that will be left are the birds. And they’ll find a way to get by without their daily bread. Just like the man who fed them did.