Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Lowest of the Low

This is another story I wrote quite a few years ago for the Haliburton County Echo.
I spent a few hours at Jeff Pinney's house and I remember driving back to the office with my heart pounding, the story writing itself as I drove. 
The last I heard about him, maybe four years back, he was living in a home and not doing very well.
I don't know if he is still alive or not.
I think I'm afraid to ask.
The good news about the story is how the people of Haliburton reacted to Jeff's story. I had several mysterious phone calls at the paper from folks who wanted to "donate" to him. I've seen that happen countless times to people who are down and out ... the community always gives money, food, clothing to those in need. But this was the first time I ever heard of donating marijuana.

A note to my online friend Brooke: this story might be too hard for you to read, considering what you are going through. I'm thinking you might want to give it a pass. OK?

The lowest of the low
Jeff Pinney, a man in a wheelchair, finally takes a stand against the people who have been stealing from him

Jeff Pinney looks a little like Stephen King. It's the shape of his face, mostly, the big, brown-framed glasses and the long, dark hair, tied back in a messy pony-tail, that's reminiscent of the bestselling novelist.
And like King, Pinney has been dealing in horror – not the fictionalized, paperback kind, but the real-life, gun-at-your-forehead-in-the-middle-of-the-night kind. It's the kind you normally dream about: you're alone in the dark, you hear noises and suddenly you realize you're not alone, not anymore, and you can't move. You can't run. And it happens again and again and again.
Pinney is a man in a wheelchair. He's more than that, actually. He's artistic, intelligent and generally self-sufficient. He built the unusual but beautiful house he lives in, built it up from an old hunting camp on the Buckslide Rd. He is known as the guy who carved the totem pole at the garage in Carnarvon and he has carved a life for himself, and his gregarious, grey cat named George, in an idyllic natural setting as he waits for tell-tale signs of his impending death.
He has multiple sclerosis. Has had it for 20 years or so, "longer than most people." It's a degenerative, terminal disease that confuses the electromagnetic impulses sent by the brain, eventually shutting down every limb, every organ. His sister, Julie, was diagnosed first so when he first realized his body wasn't reacting the way it should, it didn't take doctors long to figure out that he had it too. 
"When I was diagnosed I was still physically able to build a house," he says. "Since I knew I had this disease and I knew it was progressive, I knew I didn't want to stay down there in the city." 
He'd been to the Haliburton area as a child so he decided to move here, to build a house with his own hands. That way he would have no mortgage and would be comfortably set up, ensuring that when the MS got really bad, he'd be able to cope.
"It took me 15 years to build this house," he says. "And I'm not leaving."
He's a big man, hunkered down in his wheelchair, his one leg reinforced with some sort of support bandage; his other leg has a bag of urine tied to it. It's a cold, blustery day outside, but it's warm by the fireplace he has built. All around him are the bird carvings he did while he was able. 
In the last four years the MS has come down harder on him. He can't carve anymore, so he paints, but even that ability may disappear because he is losing control of his fingers.
Most people, most good people, would want to reach out to a man like Pinney. To help him. Not everyone, though.
"I keep getting robbed," he says. "Eight times in the last five years."
Sometimes they break into his house while he's there. Sometimes they wait until he's gone. The worst was at four-thirty in the morning one September, a few years ago. "I just woke up and there was a gun pointed at my eye."
There were five of them, he says. They were looking for drugs and money. He had a room mate at the time and they went to her room, woke her up and tied her to him, back-to-back, with duct tape. "I knew they were local because they were trying to say they were cops but cops don't use duct tape... 
"For some reason they got the idea I had money," so they grabbed the side-cutters Pinney used to snip heavy wire and said, "If you don't tell us where the money is, I'll cut your finger off." 
Pinney didn't think they'd do it. "I was thinking, in my mind, these were local idiots, not big-time criminals, and they're not really going to cut my finger off," so he didn't tell them anything – not that he had any money to give. "I was gambling." 
Then one of them found a propane torch "and they were going to torture me with the propane torch but then something happened. I think a car went down the road and they thought someone was coming. They must have taken off because suddenly it was quiet."
His room mate, "as you can imagine, was totally freaked." She moved out soon after. 
"It was terrorism," he says. "I'm not a violent person and when it was happening, I was like, holy shit, this is unreal."
Anyone else would have called police. Immediately. Pinney didn't because he was afraid of getting into trouble with the law because he grows and smokes marijuana. He does it to help control the symptoms of MS – the pain, the spastic jerkiness of his limbs, the depression.
There are other drugs used to treat MS – prescription drugs – but marijuana is the drug of choice for Pinney and for many sufferers. "It works for me but not for everybody. I don't use much," he says. "Sometimes I go a week and won't smoke at all. Sometimes I use half a dozen joints a week or maybe a little more than that." 
Other drugs have side-effects "that affect your whole system ... they leave me flat on my back." With pot, Pinney says, "I'm aware of the pain but I can separate myself from it."
He also finds the pot relaxes the violent, spastic movements of his joints. Once his foot jumped up so strongly that he broke three toes.
The government, he says, now gives licences to some people with diseases like MS, terminal cancer and AIDS, to use marijuana in their treatment. But when Pinney was terrorized by the people who broke into his house and held a gun to his head, there was no such thing as a licence to smoke pot. He was sure that if he called police, he'd be the one in trouble, not the thieves.
The thieves seem to know that, too. Since that time, he's been an easy mark for what Pinney calls the "lowest of the low ... "I look at people who rob from people in wheelchairs as the lowest people you can get." 
They come to his house, steal what money he has, steal what marijuana he has, rip up the plants he so carefully cultivates and even take the light equipment he uses to grow it. Once they even stole his jar of pennies.
The last time he was robbed was just a few weeks ago. One night he went outside to get some fresh air and got his wheelchair stuck in the mud on the front lawn. He says he was stuck there for four hours. As a result, he developed a severe bladder infection and was hospitalized in Lindsay. He got out of the hospital on his birthday, Oct. 5, and, in spite of everything, "I was feeling pretty happy, hey, it was my birthday." 
When he got home, he realized he'd been robbed again. All the marijuana plants he'd been so carefully tending during the summer so he'd have pain relief during the winter, were gone.
He doesn't have any money. He doesn't have any drug connections and says he can't simply call up someone and order more marijuana. Thieves have taken everything he has, all his growing equipment, all his plants, everything.
Pinney slipped into a deep depression. And then he got angry.
He called The Echo to tell his story because he's sick and tired of being robbed. He doesn't really believe that the kind of people who robbed him are the kind of people who will read the newspaper and see the error of their ways. But he's hoping that "word will filter down to them that I know what they're up to" and maybe if the public knows that he has been robbed, thieves will be less inclined to take advantage of him. He knows he could get in trouble because of the marijuana but he says, "if the police want to get in touch with me, fine ... they're robbing me on my own property, in my own house, and that's a crime."
In spite of the fact that he can apply to get a licence to smoke pot, he still doesn't have one. He says there's too much paperwork and red tape involved. It's the same for everything when you're sick, he says. 
Takethe stairglider he has installed in the stairway to the upstairs of his house. "It took a year to get and by the time I got it, my disease had progressed so much that I couldn't use it." 
He agrees that he should apply for the license, but he's beyond the point of caring whether or not he gets busted for growing pot.
Besides, he's not one for paperwork. Or any kind of conformity. "I'll paint a painting before I'll do paperwork." It's why he "gave up my social life" and moved to the country. It's the loner in him, the rebel, the desire to stand in the face of adversity. "I'm what they call an MS survivor. I should be dead. I'm not going to go to a home. That's my choice. I'll live here as long as I can. That's my decision."
He's not totally alone in the world. Homemakers come every morning to help him get out of bed and look after his health needs. There are also hospice volunteers who visit. And there's his 80-year-old mother who lives in the city looking after his sister. He doesn't tell her about the break-ins because he doesn't want to worry her. "She still thinks I'm going to be a politician some day," he says with a sorrowful laugh and a shake of his head.
Pinney says he doesn't have a lot to live for. Just his cat. His art. And the brief respite he says a marijuana cigarette brings.
"I'm tired of living this way," he says. "If I had a $100,000 it wouldn't do me any good because I couldn't do anything with it. There's very few things I have to look forward to." 
Depression is a battle he fights every day. If things get too frustrating, "I smoke, I calm down, I feel OK. It doesn't bother me that I'm not getting any painting done and I don't get so depressed."
He says he doesn't smoke pot to get high – "it's just a way to get by" – but then he adds, angrily, "When you're in my condition, God forbid I do something that would make me happy. Oh, God forbid it would ever make me euphoric."
It doesn't matter now anyway. He has no marijuana left. He has no money.
"You know the best way to stop people from stealing from you? It's to have nothing."
He has nothing left to steal.
And nothing left to lose.


  1. I am left without words to express what is in my heart and head.

  2. What a world. For every one person who does something selfless and kind, there are many more ready to destroy the act somehow. I suppose the miracle of life is that we continue to cling to it.

  3. firstly, thanks for the warning. it's awesome that you thought of me with concern. that said, i'm a brace yourself and be aware of all the possibilities type person... so of course i read on. now... thank you. thank you for writing this mans story. thank you for educating the people that read it. thank you for illustrating the sad reality of how people in these situations are so often taken advantage of by the ignorant, and cut off from their sources of protection, out of a different variety of ignorance. it is through sharing these sometimes "taboo" insights that people really learn how turning a blind eye to that which society blankets as wrong is often depriving those that need it of something that is truly life affirming. stories like this are how people are educated and opinions changed through fact and insight. it's extremely well written and a touching tribute to a man that shows such courage in a time when so many would just opt to shut down and wither. it made my day. thank you.

  4. thanks for your comments everyone.
    Eegad, Brooke, you brought me to tears with your comments. Such passion! I almost didn't post it because I didn't want to hurt you. He was in such an advanced state of MS... and there have been many advances in treatment since then. I hope your fiance fares well in his battle, I really, really do.
    Of all the newspaper stories I have written in my long (emphasis on long) career, this one stands out as one of my favourites. Jeff Pinney was one of the bravest people I have ever met.

  5. Oh, but that's heartbreaking. What a brave man.What a horrible situation. I hope he's OK.


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