By the time I met Anthony Halbach, he had lived 50 years, and half of them hard. He'd spent a lot of time being angry and a lot of time drunk. He'd been homeless, estranged from kin, adrift in the world and truly lost. It was a life without smiles. There were long periods of loneliness and depression, and sometimes suicidal thoughts.
Halbach told me all this recently because his life is very different now, and better. He hasn't had a taste of alcohol since January 2011. Last month, he managed to have a reunion with the elderly father he had not spoken to in 14 years.
I found Halbach at Earl's Place, a transitional shelter just a few blocks east of downtown Baltimore and a few blocks north of trendy Harbor East. It's a rowhouse at Eden and Lombard streets, with room for 12 men.
Earl's offers a place for previously homeless men — and mostly middle-aged guys like Halbach — to sit still for a while, regroup, clear their minds, talk about the past, think about a future. They get their footing. Some finish their schooling. Some find jobs. They get on with life.
Earl's Place recently celebrated its 15th year. Halbach arrived there a year and a half ago. He wasn't drinking, but he wasn't exactly happy. "I still had a lot of anger when I walked in the place," he says.
The way he tells it, Halbach has had two problems since childhood, one emotional and one physical — anger and epilepsy, and maybe anger because of the epilepsy and the way people treated him when he had seizures.
"I had a lot of anger," he says. "Anger toward my father, anger toward God, anger at the world, anger at everybody."
He was 16 when he started drinking, and the binge lasted six years. "I stopped drinking when I was 22," he says, "and then I was sober for 15 years."
After he and his wife moved to Maryland and started to raise a family here, Halbach worked for a company that made insulated windows. Life was good, for a while.
But the epilepsy worsened. It became disabling. "I started getting more seizures," he says. "I was dropping glass at work. It became too dangerous for me to work."
He was hospitalized for a while. Then he had trouble finding another job. At some point, he says, his wife left him. "I lost everything," he says. "I lost my house. I lost everything because I had nowhere to store it. I had no place to go."
That was about 14 years ago. Halbach started drifting from city to city, town to town, in Maryland and Virginia. At one point he picked up a job cleaning new houses after their construction. He started drinking again.
"I was so brilliant," he says. "I was by myself and feeling lonely, and I thought a drink would make me happier."
He drank and drifted, drifted and drank.
He lived in an old hotel in Hagerstown. He wandered through Frederick, looking for work. He went to Westminster and Sykesville for a time. He says couldn't find a job because of the epilepsy. He lost touch with his family, including his father, who had moved to Kentucky. Halbach landed in West Baltimore and took shelter in an abandoned Pratt Street rowhouse that was a crack den by day and flophouse by night.
Halbach sought help for his illness in several halfway houses. One of them kicked him out for drinking. "I had no place to go after that," he says. "I had to do something."
On Jan. 9, 2011, he stopped drinking.
Halbach tried several recovery programs in the city. He says good things about most; they provided important counseling and support, as did Alcoholics Anonymous. He moved to Earl's Place to finish his recovery — from drinking and from anger — about 18 months ago.
Two important things have happened.
First, he reached out to his father for the first time in 14 years.
"I had to make sure I wasn't going to drink anymore," Halbach says. "I had to get well before I could face my family again. I was ashamed of myself."
He told his father all this in emails. His father, an elder of the Jehovah's Witnesses, and two sisters drove to Baltimore to meet with him. That happened just after Thanksgiving. They sat and talked in Earl's Place for two and a half hours. "We're men of German stock, you know," Halbach says. "But there were a few tears."
And hugs, and promises to keep in touch.
Next: Halbach moves to an apartment in West Baltimore with Leon Medley, another Earl's Place resident whose physical disabilities make it unwise for him to live alone. Halbach will take care of his new roommate; he feels good about that responsibility, eager to take it on. Maybe he sees it as a way of making amends for the past. Maybe it just makes him feel grounded, independent and useful again. It certainly makes him smile.