Lifestyles of the Rich and Homeless

He's on the verge of becoming a millionaire, but Bob Molchan is still happy living under the bridge.

The 25th Hour

It's just past noon, and Bob Molchan is at the bar, sipping his first Budweiser. He's ordered the liquid lunch.

This is a man who lived for more than 20 years under a bridge, where West 3rd Street crosses over the railroad tracks just south of Browns Stadium. He has always kept a modest appetite. Coffee, cigarettes, and the occasional meal usually left his pockets empty by day's end. Leftover bucks were spent recreationally -- on beer. Asked why he's spent his life on the street, Molchan points an accusing thumb at the mug, a tall, blond 22-ouncer. "It's this."

He admits to being an alcoholic, as is anyone who would routinely swallow a case of beer a day. But Molchan has moderated -- Budweiser for lunch being healthier than Budweiser for breakfast. And if drink drove him to the street, he stays there today for other reasons.

He's comfortable in his bum's ensemble of rumpled clothes and stocking cap. A gap-toothed smile cracks his weathered face, and he possesses a rolling, raspy laugh. He claims freedom, friendship, and independence as his addictions. Under the bridge, Molchan found all three in abundance. He was glad to let the world speed over his head.

But one morning more than four years ago, there was an accident. Molchan awoke to shattered limbs and the task of proving that, contrary to an insurance company's claim, his life was worth something. He succeeded. Now, this man who was happy to live and die on the streets will soon be a millionaire.

Born into a middle-class Lakewood family headed by a father who worked on a GM assembly line, Molchan says his favorite childhood memories occurred outdoors -- camping with Dad, casting a line off a pier into Lake Erie. So in 1979, when an 18-year-old Molchan arrived at the West Third Street overpass with nothing but the clothes on his back, the prospect of a night outside was fine by him. There were friends and family members who would always take him in, but guilt led Molchan to refuse their overtures. "I have a brother in Cleveland, a sister in Elyria. But I would rather stay under that bridge than impose on either one of them."

Besides, a family of transient, life-hardened men emerged from the city's shadows to embrace him as one of their own. They showed him where to find free meals and cheap smokes. They shared liquor. And they protected one another from drug-addled thugs desperate enough to rob someone who is already homeless.

Broke and thirsty for booze, the group found that ingenuity was its greatest ally. Molchan's friend Smitty figured out that those young, pie-eyed couples who spilled out of Flats bars on weekend nights wanted nothing so much as a place to park and make out. The lot attendants left in the early evening, and that's when Molchan and friends moved in to take over the job.

"We'd get tickets and we'd say, 'Five dollars,'" Molchan laughs.

"We made $400 a night. Do you know how far $400 goes for a couple winos?"

Molchan was the youngest -- and at 170 pounds, the thickest -- so his fists protected the group from the Flats revelers who picked fights with the homeless. Yet he couldn't protect them from the wine. Smitty had the shakes so bad, he couldn't find his mouth with a fork. He's dead. So is the friend they called "Twenty-two."

"They're all dead," says Molchan into his beer. "Every last one of them."

Friendship is plentiful on the street -- if only because loneliness is harder to bear than poverty. Molchan saw the same faces at soup kitchens that he saw at the shelters or standing in line for a day's work at some dingy factory.

It bothers him that most people think the homeless are lazy. Molchan and most of his friends worked in temp labor, easily the most grueling, dangerous, and thankless toil in the city.

In the late 1970s, Molchan worked a 500-ton steel press at Scottish Tool & Die. Every time the press slammed down, it splashed each man with oil. By day's end, he was covered from head to toe.

Molchan was blacklisted at another plant because he refused to load steel parts into a press the fast way and risk losing his hand. Then there was Atlas Inc., called "the house of pain" by workers because the job required so much heavy lifting. Bathroom breaks were seldom allowed, and this was a problem for Molchan, who was in the habit of drinking before work.

"You're going to open up that door, or I'm going to piss right here on your floor," Molchan told the foreman. When the foreman refused, Molchan made good on his threat. (Atlas executives did not return phone calls.)

Eventually, Molchan settled into temp work with companies where managers both respected his work and accepted that he'd often do it drunk. Tipsy or not, Molchan prided himself on efficiency.

"I love physical work," he says, holding out callused hands. "I'll get out there and shovel dirt. Or I'll get into the machines. It gets to where the tick-tick-tick of the machine, it's like music to me. You listen to the machine's rhythm, and your body just moves in sync. Where the other guy would move 2,000 parts, I'd move 5,000."

By the mid-'90s, Molchan was established at Superior Roll Forming in Medina -- a plum assignment at $9 an hour, reward for his nearly 20 years with Lakeland Labor, the temp firm.

On June 28, 1998, Molchan was standing outside Lakeland on West Ninth Street, waiting for the van that shuttled him daily to Superior. He was talking to another worker, with his back to the street. "I turned to grab my coffee," says Molchan, "and that's the last thing I remember."

Robert Williams was driving along West Ninth in his friend's pickup when he lost control. He hit a parked car, then jumped the sidewalk. Molchan still doesn't know what part of the Ford F-150 hit him. He only knows that his torso was crushed.

By the time Molchan arrived at the hospital, he had slipped into a coma and nearly bled to death. Eleven days later, he awoke to find himself in an ambulance -- his first moment of consciousness since the accident. Paramedics were driving him from the hospital to an intensive care unit.

The rest of that summer passed in a morphine haze. His most distinct memory is of the rails above his bed -- he used them to measure the potency of the drugs. When the rails melted before his eyes, the drugs were working. He needed them, since most of the bones below his waist had been surgically replaced with titanium. There was a plate from his right knee to his hip. Another went from his left kneecap down to his ankle. A hip and half his pelvis were made of steel. And when he hit the cement, the impact punctured a lung and turned his entire back into a massive bruise.

Nurses who poked his feet received no response. A doctor told him he would never walk again.

But Molchan had a restless energy that he could only devote to recovery. "After a while, I said I'm not laying in the bed no more. So I took a sheet and hung it up over the top of the rail and started working out my own leg." By leaning against other beds, Molchan could make the long, slow trip to the bathroom -- a statement of independence that was important to him. Before he even started physical therapy, Molchan was already walking, albeit with vicious pain.

But the physical labor that had always kept him from starving was now impossible. And he would learn that driver Robert Williams was uninsured; so was Ricky Wilson, the man who owned the pickup. (Neither could be located for comment.) Workers' comp provided Molchan with $17,000, but since he could no longer work, it would not last.

Molchan moved into his father's home and began phoning lawyers from his bedside, starting with the letter A in the yellow pages. He claims he went through 100 personal-injury attorneys. All rejected his case as futile. Vincent Stafford, in the back of the alphabet, finally accepted.

Westfield Insurance is Lakeland Labor's insurance carrier. The company denied Molchan's initial claim for a work-related injury. He was waiting to work when he was struck, but he was not actually working, the company argued. After Stafford asserted that waiting for his work transportation qualified him as being on the job, Westfield conceded a measure of liability and offered Molchan a $500,000 settlement.

"Professionally, it was very satisfying to be able to significantly change someone's life," says Stafford. "For someone who was living on the street, handing them a check for $500,000 was gratifying."

But Stafford and Molchan wanted more. So they accepted the half-million under the condition that they be allowed to argue in court that Molchan qualified for the upper limit of Lakeland's coverage, which was $2 million. A judge ruled in their favor, and though Westfield has appealed that decision, Molchan remains a good bet to land a judgment of a million-plus.

That money may be a year away, according to Stafford. In the meantime, Molchan is in the unfamiliar position of having money but being disabled, after decades of having nothing but his body. He walks with a limp, and his reconstructed figure remains thin and awkward.

Used to shopping for survival, he never bothered to consider what luxury items he'd want. "I lived under a bridge," he exclaims. "I got no furniture, no dishes or silverware. Convenience of the home to me was a lantern and a coffee cup."

Not knowing what else to do, he spent $32,000 for a Chevrolet Avalanche, discounted from $42,000, thanks to his dad's job at GM. With his brother, Molchan bought 11 acres of woodland in central Florida, along with a double-wide mobile home.

"I already have deer down there," he grins. "I dump 50-pound bags of corn by my back porch, and they just come right up. You can sit right there on the porch and smoke cigarettes and drink beer, and they come right up to eat."

When the remaining million or so arrives, Molchan intends to buy more acreage across the road and build a trailer park. "It will be for the traveling and the homeless," he says; Florida has lots of both. He'll operate half the park on a nonprofit basis, for the homeless, and lease the rest for profit, probably to prison guards, another group well represented in that section of Florida. Molchan's brother is a guard, and it's clear they envision the trailer park as a merging of two cultures, both of which apparently share a love for the sauce. "When [the guards] get together, it's worse than a bunch of homeless drunks," laughs Molchan.

For all this newfound prosperity, however, Molchan feels anything but lucky. He misses his old life. Under the bridge, Molchan had a giant tent that was all he wanted in a home. "I had a bookshelf up there with novels on it," he says. "I had family pictures there. I had a reclining chair. I had two beds. I had a lantern. I had everything. I was set. I could have stayed the rest of my life there."

He would have enjoyed that life -- which makes him adamant about winning his case. Working for Lakeland Labor left him with permanent disabilities that can't be erased. Molchan feels the company at least owes him a pleasant retirement. "I want these people to pay," says Molchan, "not so much because I'm mad at them, but because it is the right thing to do. And because in 10 years they're going to go in, pull this metal hip out of me, and take another two years out of my life."

When doctors once again replace his hip, Molchan says, he must learn to walk all over again. At 41, he already aches like an 81-year-old. He is four years removed from the last surgery, yet he can still barely climb steps. He can't crouch. If he lies on his right side, he can feel the pins jab his bones. And when bad weather rolls in, Molchan's legs stop working altogether.

"The last big rainstorm we had, me and my buddy were down here in the Flats, and when [the storm] hit, I couldn't walk. The rain or cold, it gives me muscle cramps, and they get so tight, I can't move them. So he had to throw me over his shoulder and carry me up the hill. That will happen the rest of my life."

But Molchan has channeled energy to another cause. The Day Laborers Organizing Committee was founded two years ago to advocate for the workers who take the gruntwork that was Molchan's career. He is among the DLOC's leaders, and with his breadth of experience, he knows the temp industry's sins by heart: "They take half your pay and use it for profit, you don't have any benefits, and the safety still isn't there."

But the position requires political hobnobbing, and Molchan freely admits to lacking finesse. By 2 p.m. on a recent weekday afternoon, he's on his 66th ounce of Budweiser, and he is scheduled to meet Congresswoman Stephanie Tubbs-Jones at 5. He is already reminding himself not to cuss.

Though he occupies a new tax bracket, Molchan is in no rush to refine himself. Earlier in the day, he awoke under the same bridge as always -- a spot he has now ceded to his friend Mike, with the understanding that Molchan can drop by whenever the spirit moves him. He was up at 4 a.m., the same time he rose each day before the accident, and by dawn's arrival had already walked three miles -- painful but necessary exercise to repair his legs. He inspects the parking lots and alleys where clubgoers are likely to have dropped money. He says he gives it to his friends on the street.

And even though he owns a double-wide in a pristine corner of cozy, warm Florida, he nevertheless hangs around Cleveland, waking up under freeways, in blankets made crisp by frost.

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