SALT LAKE CITY — The email pinged into my inbox with no warning:
“Years ago you spoke with me on the streets of downtown Salt Lake City. I was conning people out of money. Saying I was stranded and needed to get home. When you confronted me I told you that most of the people asking for money on the street were heroin addicts. I believe that you wrote an article for the paper on this a few days later. For me this was a lifetime ago. I was a reckless, sad, lost child. Many things have transpired in my life since then. I am drug and alcohol free and have been so for over 5 years. I am a case manager who works with the homeless population here in Salt Lake. I am doing what I can to give back to the community from which I took so much.
“Our brief conversation and the few other encounters that we had afterward have stuck with me over the years. I’m not sure why. I would very much like to buy you lunch and talk with you. If you are not interested I understand. If you would like to chat you can email me or call my cellphone. If I don’t answer leave a message and I will get back with you. If not let me wish you blessings.
“Sausha Douglas Lovell”
It was mid-May when we met on the street. He said he was stranded and needed help. The problem was, he’d been using that same line for weeks. I called him on it, and for some reason he came clean, not only about his own drug addiction but about most everyone else begging on the street. They didn’t need food, he said, they needed heroin.
I wrote a column, “Dialogue with a stranded traveler,” that ran May 19, 2002.
I remember when we talked I found his story all the sadder because he was oozing with personality and charisma. I told my kids and co-workers at the office about him. In the back of my mind he never really left. And now he was back.
To hear he was off heroin and had turned his life around to the point he was helping others …
In a second.
We met at the Blue Lemon at City Creek, around the corner from where we talked in 2002. I ordered a salad. So did he.
I tried to buy. He insisted I couldn’t.
Sausha is 46 now and at least 30 pounds heavier than the last time we saw each other. Most of his hair is gone. I wouldn’t have recognized him in a thousand years — until he started to talk. And there it was, the same patter, the same charm, the same personality that kept that heroin habit funded year after year.
The column hurt business, he told me. After that, some passers-bys told him, “Oh no, buddy, I read about you, not giving you a dime.” That and trouble with the police got him out of town and off to California.
He was leaving his roots. Sausha was born at Holy Cross Hospital in Salt Lake City. He went to South High School as a freshman in its last year of existence — his and theirs. South closed the next year and Sausha was in detention. Raised by a single mom, his dad, a drug addict, died of AIDS when he was 10 or 11. He was already sniffing glue by then. In his teens he was using everything he could get his hands on. But heroin ruled. By the time he was 31, when we met, he was feeding a $50-a-day habit with his stranded traveler routine.
He was good at conning people, if he does say so himself, in Salt Lake City. But in California, different story. “I ran the same con but it was infinitely harder there because everybody’s doing it and they’re 10 times better than I am.”
He eventually drifted to San Francisco and got off heroin with a methadone maintenance program. But to take the edge off, he ramped up his alcohol intake considerably. Always loaded is no way to live. “Initially when you drink and do drugs you get high; it feels good, really good, but then you get to the point where you just need that to maintain, and then it goes dark, where you can’t stop using but it not only doesn’t get you high, it not only doesn’t maintain, but when you use it makes you feel worse.
“It got to the point where I was going crazy and all I could think is, I don’t want to die in San Francisco, at the Henry Hotel, SRO, 6th Street, I don’t want to do that. I’d seen so many people die there, and I thought I’m just going to go home. I’ll die there.”
Back in Salt Lake City in 2012, those run-ins with the law that sent him on the run a decade earlier came back to save his life.
Shortly after his return, he was stopped by police and the outstanding warrants were found. In jail, he got on DORA (Drug Offenders Rehabilitation Program). After he was released to probation he was placed in First Step, a drug and alcohol treatment center in Rose Park.
“Without that, Lee, we wouldn’t be talking,” he told me. “Because I’d be dead.”
The upshot of all this is a man born again in all the right ways.
“I don’t know how I survived, I really don’t. Divine intervention on my shoulder is all I can say. I don’t claim to know how, I don’t know Jesus or Buddha or Allah or anything like that, but I know for me there was a spiritual intervention, letting me find my place in the grand scheme of things, letting me find my voice in the choir.
“My place in that choir is to help. … I think I do that, not on the level I’d like to if I were a billionaire, but I manage to get in a few good licks against the darkness.”
His work is with the homeless and the addicted, the very people he once lived among. “I can look at people and say, 'I’ve been where you are now and I’m here now. I’ve lived in a cardboard box on the sidewalk in the rain, I’ve done that.'”
Now he has an apartment on South Temple, a regular paycheck, insurance, some paid time off.
“There’s some survivor’s guilt there, which is part of the reason I want to do this thing I’m doing. I feel like I owe — owe people, owe the universe. I don’t know, maybe I’m Irish in my past life. I’m lucky. Just to be able to have all my teeth, that’s a miracle.
“I still have my issues, but I try, try to find the next right thing and do it. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. The intent is what’s important, as long as your rudder’s pointed the right way, I think you’re all right.
“What I want to say is there’s hope, man, no matter what, there’s hope.”
When he passes panhandlers these days, even those who are obvious con artists, he says he gives them money out of pure empathy.3 comments on this story
“It’s not like if they get your five bucks they’re winning. There’s no scenario where they’re sitting on the beach laughing and counting their rolls of money. They’ve already lost. If they’re doing that, they’ve already lost.”
After two hours, we hugged and parted, literally yards from where we’d talked in 2002. He was off to help people this time, not con them. I was off to the office to do the same thing I did 16 years ago — write about what just happened, but with a much lighter step.