I have spent many nights on third watch, graveyard or whatever one’s term is for the time period when most hard-working, reasonable and sober people are sound asleep. The hours just before and after midnight are often harsh and violent. The alternate reality of night shift can also wear away on the softer natures of those who ply their trade in the dark: the nurses and docs who labor in the chaotic ER; the paramedics roused from sleep to perform CPR in the gutter; the cops who prowl the dimly lit streets.
When you spend enough time working the wrong side of the clock you become intimately familiar with the players. Because the unhinged folks who wander the nighttime streets often make up the lion’s share of a police officer’s time, they are as familiar to us as regular customers are to their favorite barista.
The majority of these unfortunate individuals, who seem to slip into existence just as the street lights turn on, are propelled forward into the night by a single, coalesced desire: to get high.
In a troupe that consisted of drug-addicted prositutes, small time dealers sampling their product, and homeless alcoholics who shuffled through the streets like zombies, the name Cecil was very well known.
I don’t know how many times I met the man named Nicolas Cecil Leading Horse. Until the remarkable feature in the Tribune, I have thought little of him in the years since I left the force in Tacoma. What I do remember is that the encounters were typically played out in one of two ways. In the first, I might see a sober and shaky Cecil warming his hands at a dumpster fire under I-705 by the Tacoma Dome. Within mere minutes, at least it would seem to me, I would see him in the second situation: lying face first in the gutter.
Cecil’s level of alcoholism was a whole new experience. He could consume extreme quantities of fluid that was only marginally fit for human consumption, and then he would defy all odds by not dying. On countless occasions I was present to see Cecil in that position. Then we would call for medical aid and watch the the paramedics coax him back to life. When he could lift his head he would give me a blurry glare and tell me to go to a toasty place with pitchforks. Later I would drop him at detox where the intake clerk would say, “Back already, Cecil?”
Watching the bitter, hopeless saga of Cecil’s existence was one of the reasons cops, including myself, come to view the world through a dim filter. It is the reason many of us, at least for a time, have little to say about the essential nature of humanity that isn’t cynical.
Then there are the moments in life that challenge your perceptions. I was blessed with one of those rare moments when I read the continuing story of one Nicolas Cecil Leading Horse, a man who is now clean and sober. Where I once would have seriously considered betting my retirement that Cecil would have died on the street, I am now faced with an unbelievable story of a man who made an astounding and courageous change to his very nature.
Cecil has a lot to be thankful for. The countless times that cops, firefighters, nurses, doctors and detox workers spent reviving him, picking him up, dusting him off and sending him out again are far in excess of the normal limits of mortal man. He should also be extremely thankful to those same people for their unrelenting care, especially when he cared nothing for himself.
I need nothing from Cecil. His continued sobriety is an open-ended statement that the power of redemption is within the reach of anyone.