For years, as he huddled through long nights under bridges and in tents pitched in patches of urban wilderness all over Colorado Springs, Calvin Muzzy warmed himself with malt liquor and fantasies about a different life - a life he'd once had and intended to again.
In the dream, he and his best friend, Pete Hill, would have an apartment, a refuge from the bitter winters, blistering summers and flying fists of other homeless people, high on drink or drugs and wanting to fight or steal their few belongings. They'd sleep not on beds of scavenged cardboard but soft mattresses, behind doors with locks, just steps from a private bathroom with a shower and a kitchen filled with enough food to share.
Calvin wouldn't have to fly a sign - "Homeless veteran" - begging for handouts at street corners. He'd be clean and sober, with a regular job, able to provide for his girlfriend, Lisa, who was new to the streets and dangerously naive, and for Pete, who suffered from a number of health problems, including epileptic seizures. Everyone would be "safe and happy."
In September 2014, Calvin and Pete were the focus of a first-person Gazette piece by former staff writer Cary Vogrin, who spent a year getting to know the two men and working with local police to help get them off the streets. The questions she hoped they could answer were ones that might shed light on the forces contributing to chronic homelessness in the Springs. Most importantly, were Calvin and Pete ready and willing to change?
Calvin told her yes. He and Pete both were 47 and "too old" to continue surviving like this.
They were going to stop drinking. Again. For good.
"That's easy," Calvin told Vogrin. "I can do that. So can Pete."
No chance to say goodbye
Three months after The Gazette story was published, on Dec. 3, Calvin had just emerged from a stint in detox when friends took him to where Lisa was slumped against a building at a downtown park.
"I freaked out when I realized she wasn't breathing. The guy who was with her that day said her last words were 'I just want to die.' Then she laid down and that was it," Calvin said. "She'd called me a couple times while I was in detox to see how I was doing. Apparently, she couldn't handle me not being around and she just drank and kept drinking until she drank herself to death."
Seven months later, on June 19, 2015, Pete was gone, too, whisked away by paramedics after he collapsed while Calvin was panhandling on South Nevada Avenue.
"I looked back over my shoulder and saw some cops down there. I didn't know what was going on, and then I saw the van (ambulance) go by," Calvin said. "A little while later, I found out it was Pete, and that he had died. I thought he had just laid down to take a nap. I wasn't even there to talk to him or say goodbye."
Suddenly, Calvin was alone. When he disappeared for several days after Pete's death, Carrie Genette was worried something tragic had befallen the kind man with the scruffy beard, who was so easy to talk to and laugh with.
"He'd lost his girlfriend and his best friend. I was scared he was going to commit suicide, and I thought he did when I hadn't seen him for a while," said Carrie, who also was homeless and had gotten to know Calvin through the Springs Rescue Mission and spiritual services held at a downtown motel.
When friends told her Calvin had been spotted, Carrie said, "Thank God."
"He was ragingly drunk, but at least he wasn't dead," she said.
Their relationship evolved quickly from friendship into romance.
"It was a whirlwind, but it wasn't one of those cheesy whirlwinds where you're fake with each other. We have the same sense of humor - we're both smartasses - and I could talk to him about anything and everything," Carrie said. "He was understanding, and he didn't judge me. I just absolutely fell in love with him."
'God heard me'
She didn't like him slurring and "being stupid," though.
"I told him in the beginning that if you're going to drink it's not going to be around me," said Carrie, a recovering alcoholic almost 10 years sober. "If you want to do that to your body, that's your decision, I told him. If you do it around me, I'm done. It was hard to say it, but I did and I meant it."
On April 4, 2016, Calvin awoke in his tent, wracked by the tremors of withdrawal. He took a drink to still the shaking, as he always did. Then he thought about all the things booze had destroyed and - if he kept on this path - what devastating costs lay ahead.
It was because of alcohol, and the loss of his driver's license after a DUI, that he first landed on the streets. Alcohol had estranged him from his family and robbed him of beloved friends.
And alcohol was the one incongruity and potential deal-breaker in his budding relationship with Carrie.
Calvin didn't want to face more losses - except one.
"I don't want you to find me like Pete and Lisa. I can do better than this," he told Carrie. "That's it. I quit drinking."
And he did.
"I woke up the next morning and didn't have the shakes for the first time in months. And you have to understand, as bad as I was, it wouldn't be two hours before I would be craving another drink and the shakes would start, but that day they didn't," he said. "I believe God heard me and was, like, 'Alright, I've been waiting for you to say that.'"
Carrie believes he chose love over alcohol.
"It's like, here's your reward for quitting drinking: Meet your soulmate," she said.
When a police officer with whom she had worked to get Calvin and Pete help called to say he'd heard Calvin hadn't had a drink in months, Cary Vogrin didn't believe it.
"Calvin's mantra was always that he could quit drinking anytime ... I heard of his good intentions time and time again, and so did the police and social service workers who worked so hard to help him, but not much ever came of it," said Vogrin, who now works in communications.
"I have no doubt that Pete's death had a profound impact on Calvin and was the catalyst for change. Pete and a can of Evil Eye were Calvin's two best friends. I'm glad that in the end, his relationship with Pete won out over the relationship with Evil Eye. Pete's death is likely what saved Calvin.
"Calvin's story certainly does show that changing your life is possible - it's just a matter of how bad you want it."
A courthouse marriage
Calvin had been sober for more than a month when he and Carrie married at the courthouse May 25, 2016.
The newlyweds spent the next seven months living in a tent with their dogs, Cinnamon and Domino, under bridges and overpasses and along bike trails, wherever they could temporarily scrounge out a home before authorities displaced the camp and sent them packing.
By February, they had applied for and received a housing voucher, through a program run by HUD and the Department of Veterans Affairs, that would cover a one-bedroom apartment. A few months later, they found a place in a complex northeast of Palmer Park. They moved from a spot under the Nevada Avenue bridge on May 10, in time to celebrate their wedding anniversary in their new home.
"I tell people, it's quite the experience to wake up in a tent and go to bed in your apartment," Calvin said.
He immediately began searching for a job, and - in the meantime - continued to panhandle, but with an updated message on his cardboard sign: "Out of Work Veteran."
"I get yelled at all the time, people saying 'Get a job' or calling me lazy, but they don't understand. When you're homeless, and you never know where you're going to be, you don't have transportation or access to a shower. Hygiene is a big problem," said Calvin, in late June, as he considered heading out to a spot near his apartment to catch the rush hour traffic. "I'm tired of not working. I want a job."
He knows he has to take it one dream at a time, though.
"All the furniture, everything you see here - it's from the rescue mission and it's ours. We don't have to guard our camp. We can shower if we want and use the bathroom without having to wait for someone to finish shooting up. If I don't like the weather, I can look out the window and (blows raspberry)," Calvin said, sitting on the couch in his living room. "We overcame a major obstacle - housing - and we didn't think that ever was going to happen. We can overcome this."
Three days of work
On a Saturday three weeks later, Calvin was flying his sign at King Soopers off Austin Bluffs Parkway when a man in a truck asked if he knew how to pour concrete.
Calvin told him 'No,' but that he could learn and he liked to work hard - "That's the only way to do it," he said.
The man told him to be at the same spot at 6 a.m. Monday morning, and he'd pick him up for work, helping pouring foundations at a residential construction in the Mountain Shadows area.
Calvin was able to put in just three solid days before Colorado's monsoon season "threw a monkey wrench" into things, though.
"We can't work when it's raining like this, and I need something with steady hours and a steady paycheck. I know you can't control the weather..." said Calvin, looking out the window of his apartment, at an ugly sky choked with ominous clouds. "And it looks like we're going to get another storm tonight."
Work frustrations aside, it's the kind of night that a makes a man happy to be safe indoors, with the ones he loves.
Contact Stephanie Earls: 636-0364