As I climbed out of my Volkswagen Beetle during a recent visit to Portland and dug into my pockets to feed the parking meter, I heard a voice to my left.

“When you’re done, sir, do you have any extra change?”

I turned around to see a handsome young man, with the rakish good looks of actor Rob Lowe or a young John Stamos. I replied that I didn’t have any change, and ironically this disheveled young man, wearing a soiled gray T-shirt and torn blue jeans, gave me coins to put in the meter.

We shook hands, and he said, “I’m Shane.” I introduced myself, thanked my benefactor and said that, instead of giving him money, I’d buy him a meal. “That would be great,” he enthused, and added he would really like a hamburger “with ketchup and mustard.”

He walked me around the corner and pointed to a nondescript storefront. “You can get the burger there, only I’m not allowed inside,” he said of yet another bridge burned by his 10-year run of addiction. He’s been using since age 14.

His tousled black hair and bright blue eyes spoke of a hard, sad life. This he confirmed by telling me his father had died of an overdose when Shane was very young and that his mom has struggled ever since. He spoke with pride of his sister, a rising senior who would be the first in his family to graduate from high school.

He eagerly took my business card, thanked me again and again for the food and said, “I’m going to surprise you with a phone call some day. I’ll tell you it’s ‘Burger Boy from Portland.'” I told him I would welcome his call, that my 30-year-old son was moving to Portland and that I would be in town again.

We shared stories of addiction and recovery, and Shane’s eyes sparkled as he spoke about his favorite 12-step meeting, the one weekdays at 7 a.m. at a local church.

I asked him about his longest period of sobriety. With a wry smile and a wistful, almost apologetic, voice he said, “Five minutes.”

We talked about the scourge of addiction, society’s stigmatization of those suffering from the disease and our hope that he would get well and help others. “I already am helping others,” he said.

He didn’t have to explain as a young woman sauntered by and he engaged her in conversation, offering her a bite of his burger. She readily accepted and shared that her boyfriend was in jail for having beaten her up. And then she was gone.

Shane explained that her boyfriend was one of his best friends and that Shane had recently done some time for an unspecified crime.

He asked why I was in town, and I told him I was going to see a childhood friend, Mary Fahl, perform that night. He said he liked music and that he would stand outside the venue to give a listen.

Soon we parted ways, exchanging fist bumps and well wishes. My heart ached for Shane and the thousands like him living on the streets of Portland and other cities and towns in Maine. The number of homeless young adults in Portland, panhandling for money with handwritten signs, shocked and deeply saddened me.

I thought: Our government quickly found the money to bail out corrupt mortgage lending institutions and the auto industry, but we don’t have the compassion for the least fortunate among us – those who go hungry and without a safe place to lay their heads at night. I shook my head in disgust and muttered the words, “It’s a shame, a national disgrace.”

Later, I settled into my seat to hear the magical, incomparably dulcet tones of Fahl, for the fifth time in less than two years.

The lyrics of one song in particular brought me to tears. “Siren” is about the burden and pain of being that mesmerizing songbird (the disease of addiction, in my interpretation), capturing sea captain and crew.

Mary sang, “Someone come and set me free. Sad and lovely birds are we. Sorry for the ones before, all those bones along my shore. Someone come and set me free. I am not an oddity.”

My thoughts turned to Shane, and I said to myself, “Please God, save Shane from this dreaded disease. Help him out of the shadows of despair, give him hope to live a long, healthy and productive life.”

Thomas M. Greaney lives in Westerly, R.I., and is a recovery counselor in private practice in New London, Connecticut.

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