Removal

A “removal” used to mean moving a dead body from a home or hospital to a funeral home in preparation for burial or cremation. In President Trump’s America, however, the term has come to refer to deportation from the United States.  Still, when I think of “expedited removals,” the image that comes to mind is one of a black hearse screeching up to the curb and guys in dark suits with bad haircuts running up to the front door with a gurney.  Somehow, boarding passes for Guatemala and El Salvador never quite make it into that picture.  Nor do handcuffs, heavily-armed guards and midnight knocks on the door by la migra.

Perhaps substitution of the word “removal” for “deportation” is appropriate, as President Trump appears to be treating undocumented immigrants as dead tissue that must be excised to save the American body.  Like Kevin O’Leary on TV’s Shark Tank, it’s as if our president is telling our immigrants “you’re dead to me.”  He somehow wishes to purify us by eliminating from our midst those who risked their lives in a bid to escape to the land of the free.  And I venture to say that I’m not the only one who finds recent events disrespectful to those who didn’t survive the journey, who never made it to freedom.

The Bible speaks of the “uncleanness of death” (tu’med met in the Hebrew) that comes upon those who touch a corpse until such time as they sprinkle the water of purification upon themselves.  Num.  19:13. Does our president really believe that ridding ourselves of those who arrived here in desperation, “yearning to breathe free,” in the words of Emma Lazarus immortalized at the base of the Statue of Liberty, will serve as some sort of purification?  Is this particular brand of xenophobia some sort of Marseillaise under which we are fighting against an impure blood polluting our furrows?  The whole concept leaves me rather aghast.  I only hope that our president has a relationship with God and that he is reminded of the injunction of Leviticus 19:34, “But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.” (KJV)  Indeed, we were all immigrants once.

The immigration follies have been going on in one form or another for well over a century.  My grandfather, who arrived on our shores in 1923, held a passport from a nation in which he was not born, in which he never resided, and which, in fact, did not even exist.  This legal fiction allowed him to satisfy the quota for that year and that, apparently, was enough to get him through Ellis Island, where his sponsor picked him up.  Then, as now, laying it all on the line for a new life involved dancing into a gray area between what was legal and was humanly right.

Grandpa was a Polish Jew, which, in those days, essentially rendered him a stateless person.  Poland did not recognize the citizenship of Jews, although that did not stop its government from drafting Grandpa into its army.  And so, the “nationality” field on his passport reads “Israeli.”  My mother still has it, packed away in a box in the back of a closet. The fact that the modern nation of Israel did not come into existence for another quarter of a century did not seem to bother anyone at the time.

My grandfather, a tailor by trade, became a furrier in Manhattan’s garment district and began a long life as a resident of New York City.  When I was little, he lived three floors below us in our rent-controlled Bronx walk-up, and later, after my grandmother died, about a block away with his new wife.  He learned English, studied for the citizenship test, and became a naturalized American long before I was born.

Many years later, in his old age, he finally visited Israel, where he prayed at the Wailing Wall and relaxed on the beach at Netanya.  Having died in the year that Reagan took office, I have to wonder what he would think of the shenanigans of late.  I have no idea how Grandpa felt about Reagan, but I am hard pressed to imagine him voting for a Republican.  On a windy day this past May, during my first visit to New York in more than 20 years, I visited his gravesite in Queens.  I took photos for my mother, who wanted reassurance that her parents’ graves were being cared for.  I recalled childhood days of utter boredom, at this very spot, waiting endlessly for my mother to finish her visit, knowing nothing of her grief that years failed to erase.

My mother grew up in a one-bedroom apartment where she had the pleasure of sharing a pull-out bed in the living room with her older sister.  The girls were expected to speak English at home, and English was the only language that my grandparents used with their kids.  When it came to conversations with each other, however, my grandparents lapsed into a medley of eastern European languages. Mom recalls how, through the bedroom door at night, she and her sister could hear the murmured cadences of Russian, Yiddish, Polish, German. And she remembers how, even in their English conversations, they often spoke of something mysterious called “the HIAS” (pronounced “high ass”).

The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society provided food, clothing and shelter to Jews newly arrived on our shores after having escaped Russian pogroms and, later, genocide at the hands of the Nazis during the Holocaust.  They had a dormitory on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and a setup on Ellis Island, where they often lent indigent immigrants the $25 landing fee.  In looking up the history of the HIAS online, I was shocked to learn that they’re still in existence, fighting against the anti-immigration policies of our current administration.

It’s reassuring to know that there are still organizations out there speaking for those who have essentially been rendered voiceless and left for dead.  As for my grandpa, if he were alive today, I believe he’d be donating his time and money to support the HIAS and others who work to make an American life possible for those who find themselves in the same difficulties that he once faced.

 

 

 

Nine Days, or Wound Care for the Clueless

scrabble-cat

Sumi, my first Scrabble partner at last week’s tournament.  I think his name is supposed to sound Japanese, although to me it just sounds litigious.

Monday

It rained most of last night and it’s still raining.  The Cosumnes River is expected to overflow (again) by Wednesday if this keeps up.  The weather people say this will go on all week.

My second day out of work.  I am missing a big conference that I organized.  Tomorrow, I am supposed to train staff over in the Napa Valley, but I have sent a subordinate in my place.  I try not to think about work too much, instead concentrating on what I can do to help my wife.

It’s a lot easier not having to apply those bandages every couple of hours.  The disposable Depends are very convenient and I thank God for them.  Unfortunately, my wife’s feet are starting to swell.  I send an email to her doctor but receive no response.

My wife’s cousin comes to visit, bringing along larger pairs of Crocs and some slippers that make it more comfortable for my wife to walk around.  More importantly, however, she is going to help my wife learn to inject insulin.  At the hospital, they found that her diabetes is out of control and that this was the likely cause of her infection.  We’ve both been on oral blood sugar lowering medication for some time, but we had no idea it had gotten this bad.  I just had my own A1C read a few days ago and was still within a reasonable range.

Typically, my wife checks her blood sugar only once in a while.  I don’t do it at all.  Sharps of any kind freak me out.  I have had nightmares about syringes and needles since childhood.  So now we have two types of insulin on hand for my wife, slow acting for bedtime and fast acting for before meals.  Now she gets to check her blood sugar and inject insulin throughout the day.  I pinch myself but am unable to wake up from my nightmare.

While my wife is getting an injection lesson, I head out to do the errands.  Gas up the car, visit two supermarkets, pick up mail from the post office, return a large load of items to Walmart.  My nieces had gone shopping to pick up some supplies for my wife on the day she was discharged from the hospital.  Unfortunately, most of what they bought turned out to be unneeded or didn’t work for us.

The rain continues to fall and we wonder if the power will go out when the winds pick up.  Insulin, I have learned, must be refrigerated.

I drive around town with the wipers going, getting wet at every stop.  My wife usually does most of the driving, which suits me fine.  I have never enjoyed driving and have never been very good at it.  For decades, this was an embarrassment to my father, who had a long career as a driver education teacher.  My reluctance to drive was something of a family joke in my younger years.  Eventually, I got over it to some extent, even driving across country by myself on one occasion.  But when I think of the number of auto accidents I have had over the years, and the fact that my wife (who has been driving longer than I have) has never had an accident, I am glad that she does most of the driving.  So to head out in the rain, among drivers who are not used to inclement weather and are hydroplaning speed demons, is right on the very edge of my comfort zone.  My limited driving experience in the area inevitably results in a wrong turn that finds me in a part of town with which I am unfamiliar.  I turn around, stop and map every stop on my phone after that.

But I am in luck today.  My niece has called me for help in applying for a job online.  Cantaloupes are on sale for a dollar each at Sprouts.  I find a handicapped spot directly in front of the Walmart entrance, along with a conveniently located shopping cart to haul in all the returns.  I lean against the cart in the lobby, my jacket dripping, while the clerk takes forever to remove each item from the cart and then from their bags, scanning everything individually and issuing red stickers from his handheld point of sale device.  Then, of course, I still have to stand in line at the customer service counter and then wait while the clerk examines each item yet again.

Then it’s back out in the rain.

 

Sunday

8:30 am.  We wake up to the phone ringing.  It’s my wife’s doctor, calling a bit early.  We relate our woes, letting her know that we have only one bandage left, enough for one wound dressing change.  She suggests that we come into the clinic, open until 12:30 pm, no appointment necessary.  The nurse will check the incisions for signs of infection and will supply us with bandages.

Up and at ‘em.  Shower, clean and dry the incisions, apply the last bandage.  Out the door and head across town.  We’ve been to the clinic several times, as this is where I typically have my blood drawn.  We park in our usual place and start searching around for the clinic.  Most of the departments that we pass are dark and empty, befitting a Sunday morning.  We walk and walk, quite slowly, with my poor wife holding onto the wall.  We had no idea that we had parked at the wrong end of the complex.

We stop to rest on a bench, get a drink of water.  Elevator up to the third floor.  Walk some more.  We arrive at the clinic, check in, sit and wait.  Eventually, we are called, only to be told that we were supposed to have an appointment (despite what the doctor told us), that they have no supplies at that location and that there was no one to check the incisions.  Go to the emergency room, they tell us.

Understandably, my wife is angry.  We hoof it all the way back to the car.  We have a folded bedsheet in the car’s hatchback that we use as a liner.  I pull it out so that my wife has something soft to sit on.  I drive to the hospital.  Another car zips into the last available parking space in the emergency room lot.  A man relaxes in the car, cigarette dangling out of his month.  We wait for someone to leave so that we can park.  We spy a Staxi abandoned in the parking lot.  I grab it and give my wife a push across the lot and into the emergency room.  We wait in one line, then another line, then sit and wait to be called.  We contemplate a second emergency room copay in a week.

A nurse takes us in back, checks my wife’s blood pressure and send us back out to the waiting room until an exam room becomes available.  When we are finally called, I try not to be rattled by the moans and groans of the occupants of the other bays.  One woman yells out in pain every few minutes.  We are visited by a doctor, a nurse, a patient care technician.  They agree to hunt around for the bandage size we need.  Their initial search turns up empty, and they agree to check the fourth floor.  A few minutes later and, voilà, a tech shows up with a grand total of four bandages.  We could just purchase them online, we realize, at a price of $83 for eight bandages.  One such package would last us a day or so.

The nurse recounts how his wife had a similar incision and drainage due to an infection.  She used large size Depends rather than expensive bandages, he tells us.  Another alternative, he suggests, would be to use sterile gauze pads.  He asks me to glove up and try it out.  The first set of disposable gloves doesn’t begin to fit my distended hands.  He then exchanges them for a larger size that I am just barely able to pull on.  I soon realize that this exercise is for naught, as the nurse intends to apply the gauze himself.  To do so, he uses a large quantity of medical tape, crisscrossing the gauze in every direction.  This is going to be a doozy to remove later, I think, and I am right.  I found myself trying to release her from all that tape quickly when she needed to hit the toilet.  It was a painful experience for her, and I amazed that I managed to avoid pulling her skin off with the tape.

Next stop is Walgreen’s for a box of Depends.

 

Saturday night

9:30 on a Saturday night.  I’m calling around to the few pharmacies that are still open to try to find sterile bandages that are the right size to cover my wife’s surgical wound.  No one has heard of this type of bandage.  No one has another brand in this size.

At discharge this afternoon, the hospital gave my wife seven bandages to take home.  They did not tell us that this supply would not even get us through the night, never mind for the next couple of weeks.

Nor did they show me how to apply said bandages to my wife, nor did they explain how to clean the incisions.  I get to figure this out by myself.  Yay!

I call Kaiser for help, listen to inane recordings (I can now tell you quite a bit about their women’s hot flash and menopause clinic, as well as about their weight loss meal replacement program) and get transferred to three different people before I finally get disconnected while on hold.  I think:  Is this what socialized medicine is like in the rest of the world?

Kaiser calls back, apologizes for the disconnection.  Can we talk to your wife to make sure that we have permission to talk to you?  HIPAA (or “HIPAApotamus,” as one of the hospital nurses put it yesterday) has got to be one of the most annoying laws ever passed by Congress.  The nurse attempts to troubleshoot, seemingly aghast that, in all her years of service, she has never been asked such a question.  She suggests we return to the hospital floor from which my wife was discharged to ask for more.  (They had told us that we were given all the bandages they had.)  She suggests checking a medical supply store.  (On a Saturday night?)  We settle on a telephone appointment with a doctor in the morning.  By happy serendipity, it’s my wife’s regular doctor.

My wife points out that we have nothing to complain about, reminding me that we just talked to a health care professional on a Saturday night and will have a consultation with her doctor on a Sunday morning.  I step down from my high horse.

 

Thursday

My wife has been in the hospital all week.  I have been attending mandatory offsite training all week.  This turns out to be quite a combination.

I arrive at the training site across town an hour early to avoid traffic.  I dump my grits packets into my bowl and head to the break room to apply boiling hot water.  Then back to the training classroom, where I have some Earth Balance vegan margarine stashed in my bag for application to said grits.

I text a good morning to my wife.  She has had a bad night in the hospital, vomiting due to medication being pushed on her when she hadn’t eaten anything.  I can’t say that I blame her.  The so-called food there looks and smells positively disgusting.

When the trainer sends us on a break at 10:30, I check my phone and find that my wife has texted.  She has to have surgery tonight.  I try not to panic.  What kind of surgery??  She does not respond.

Lunchtime, I text my mother-in-law.  “Mom, are you coming???”  Yes, she says, along with my sister-in-law and my niece.  When class lets out at 4, I inform the trainer that I will not be present tomorrow for the last day of training due to my wife’s surgery.  She tells me I can make it up later.  I head straight for the hospital, where I learn the nature of the surgery and the plans to do it between 6 and 7 pm.  My wife’s family shows up, but when 8:00 arrives and still no surgery, they are ready to leave.  They have a 90-minute drive home and have to work tomorrow.  They disappear.  High-ho, the merry-o, the cheese stands alone.

The surgeon has been delayed, we are informed.  The previous procedure has taken much longer than expected.  The surgeon has to rest a little before performing the next one.

At 10 pm, orderlies arrive with a gurney to take my wife off to pre-op, all the way across in the other hospital building.  They walk fast and I can’t keep up with them.  It’s okay; I have a general idea of where I am going.  Turn right, turn left, turn right.  I am used to this part now.  Head outside.  Cross a bridge, then a roadway, then back inside near the emergency room.  Turn right, walk through a long ward, turn left, turn right.  Now I am lost and at the mercy of signs directing me to the appropriate elevator.  I make it to the surgical waiting room.  There is one other person there.  High overhead, near the ceiling, the TV is on.  I am unable to locate a remote to shut off the noise.

I check my phone periodically, but leave it off as much as possible, as it is quickly running out of charge.  I do not want to have a dead phone if I have to contact someone fast.  I should have had the forethought to take my niece’s phone charger, left back in the other hospital building, plugged into my wife’s IV pole.

Midnight.  I don’t know what to do with myself.  I have been up since 5:00 this morning and try not to fall asleep.  I try to ignore the idiotic drivel on the TV.  I walk down the hall, walk back.  I flip through the magazines.  TimeNational Geographic.  Most of them about a year old.

There is a cart full of books and I peruse the titles.  Mostly Reader’s Digest condensed novels (which I refuse to read as a matter of principle) and paperback romances.  I settle for one of the few other items, a legal thriller by Brad Meltzer, The First Counsel.  I move to the other side of the room and read the first couple of chapters.  Some guy is dating the president’s daughter and they go tearing up D.C. on a Saturday night in an ultimately successful effort to shake the Secret Service detail.  A lot of reckless (but not wreckless) driving is involved.  Also a visit to a gay bar and a drop-off of a big stack of cash in a manila envelope out in a remote area.  Poorly written and boring, I think.  I set the book aside.

About the time that Jimmy Kimmel appears on the tube, the phone rings at the deserted information desk in the corner of the surgery waiting room.  My sole companion rushes to pick it up.  He listens for a moment, then starts yelling.  Something about that he should have been informed earlier that they were going to transfer his wife elsewhere.  He slams down the receiver and storms off toward the elevators.

Now I am alone.  Just me and the year-old mags and the romance novels and Jimmy.  At one in the morning, I get the bright idea to use the info desk phone to call the recovery room and see if I can find out anything about what’s become of my wife.  After all, the phone number is right there, laminated for all to see.  Sure enough, they tell me my wife is in recovery and that I can come down.  They give me directions, which are either lamentably poor, or perhaps I am just a dunderhead who can’t follow directions.  I try several wrong doors and hallways before I find the right place and knock on the big double doors.  A staff member comes out to get me.  I ask why they hadn’t called the surgical waiting room and I am told that my wife just came out of surgery a few minutes before.  She looks pretty good for just having been cut, I think.  The anesthesia has not made her sick.  A doctor comes by and gives me the rundown.  My wife asks for water, and it is a while before I can get anyone to bring some.  We are told that she can be wheeled back to her hospital room in about half an hour.  It is now two in the morning and I have been up for 21 hours.  My wife tells me to go home and get some sleep.

I head back out the surgery area and down the elevator, only to realize that I am in an unfamiliar location, likely way on the opposite side of the hospital from where I am parked.  I find a hospital map that appears to confirm my suspicions.  I sit down on a bench for a few minutes before I begin my hike.

After navigating a number of corridors, I regain my bearings.  I sit down by a deserted Starbucks coffee station and call my parents.  Mom said to call and let her know how the surgery went, regardless of the hour.  I tell her all about it.  I confess that I hope I can keep my eyes open long enough to get home.

When I arrive at the final door out to the parking lot, it will not open.  “Oh, come on,” I mutter to myself.  This is supposed to be an automatic door.  Who am I going to be able to find to help me at 2 a.m.?  I notice a sign:  “In emergency, push to open.”  Oh, man, I don’t want to do that, I think.  Alarms and crap are going to go off.

But they cooperate.  I am shocked when the doors fly apart and I am outside in the damp, night air, just a few feet from my waiting vehicle.

 

Wednesday

This is my wife’s second hospital stay of our married life.  Last time was nine years ago, when we lived in Fresno and she landed at St. Agnes Hospital (referred to locally as “St. Agony” or “St. Anguish”) after contracting a virulent strain of flu.  They stuck her in the quarantine ward, fearing that it was the dreaded H1N1, which it turned out not to be.  I’m hoping that the script is more or less the same this time, complete with a prompt discharge, some pills to take home and a rapid recovery.  But I know that this time is different.  I can feel it.

The quarantine ward at Saint A’s was annoying for visitors, who were required to don a gown, hat and gloves (an outfit you can really sweat in).  For the patient, however, it was nice and quiet.  The 1 West building at Kaiser Hospital in Sacramento could be described as the diametric opposite.  Daytime and nighttime blend into a haze of 24-hour alarms, beeping IVs, patients yelling, nurses and patient care technicians coming and going.  Always someone talking and some machine going off, demanding attention.

Across the hall, a homeless man with apparent mental issues is giving every staff member a hard time.  He raises his voice, argues with everyone, complains about everything and uses the F-word in place of every comma and period.  Tonight, he is griping vociferously that the staff had promised to put a second dinner tray, cornbread chicken, aside for him.  Now he’s hungry again and he wants it.  Unfortunately, the staff can’t seem to locate it.  He makes his anger known repeatedly and loudly.  It is past dinnertime and the staff attempt to placate him by offering whatever leftover trays they can find.  No chicken, but he can have fish.  Oh, but he doesn’t want fish.  After ten minutes of arguing, he tells them to just bring him everything they have.  When his food arrives, he wants salt.  He’s not supposed to have salt.  He starts yelling, finally accepts some Mrs. Dash.  My wife informs me that, earlier in the day, he had become violent, throwing an applesauce so hard that it caromed across the corridor and into her room.

Days later, after my wife comes home and I find myself struggling to clean the incisions and apply bandages, she asks me if I’d rather that she return to the hospital.  I stutter, not knowing how to respond.  No, I do not want you to still be in that hellhole where it’s impossible to get a moment’s peace and quiet, not to mention a few hours of sleep.  Yes, I want you to go back to the hospital where there are people who know what the hell they are doing.  I am so afraid of the incisions getting infected due to my incompetence.  Maybe I’m selfish because I’m lonely here without you and I’m so glad you’re home.  Maybe I’m selfish because this is so much work and I’d rather someone else do it.  Either way, I’m a terrible husband.

Eventually, hospital staff and the home health nurse tell me I’m doing a fine job.  Talk about dumb luck.

Tuesday

The trainer starts today’s class with an ice breaker.  Everyone is supposed to stand up and tell one thing that’s happened within the past 24 hours for which he or she is grateful.  We hear stories of good news at work, good grades reported by grandchildren, sports victories.  When it’s my turn, I say “I don’t usually drive, so I’m grateful that I was able to find this place today with only one wrong turn.”

I expected that my wife was going to give me a ride all week.  I did not expect that she would end up sick in the hospital.

I leave the house at a quarter after six, having mapped the location on my phone.  I try to remember my landmarks.  Go past the 80 freeway, past Grand Avenue and turn left on Arcade.  Get on the Capitol City Expressway and stay in the far right lane.  Get off at the 160 freeway and then off again at Canterbury.  Turn right on Leisure Lane, right on Slobe, left on Commercial, right on Lathrop.  Yes, I am grateful for having found this place without getting lost.

After class, I head back to the hospital.  I have mapped it, but I find myself in the wrong lane by the mall and have to find a place to turn around.  I won’t make that mistake again, I think.

I know from yesterday’s experience that there is no place to park anywhere near the out building where my wife’s hospital bed is located.  I also know that I don’t want to have to do that big outdoor walk over the bridge again.  So I park near the medical office building, which is connected to the main hospital, but not to the building where my wife is.  It’s got to be the better part of a mile walk over there, I think.  I’ll just have to walk slowly and do the best I can.  Follow the signs.  Too bad Google Maps won’t help me with the inside of hospitals.

And then:  Just as I get out of my car, I hear my name called.  It’s the husband of my wife’s cousin.  Cousin is visiting and hubby decided to take a walk and figure out whether there’s a faster way to get from the car to my wife’s hospital room.  I tell him I need to try to walk inside as much as possible and that I was hoping to find a staff member who would give me a push over there in one of the hospital’s personal transport chairs, known as a Staxi.  “I’ll push you,” he immediately tells me.  “God is good,” I mumble.  We walk to the information desk, he installs me in a Staxi, and in five minutes he has pushed me all the way over to my wife’s room on the other side of the complex.

Late at night, when I leave my wife’s side, I am not so lucky.  There is no cousin’s husband and no staff member to help me.  I get to hoof it solo, slow and steady like the tortoise.

 

Monday

It’s my first day of a pain-in-the-neck weeklong mandatory training class.  You’re supposed to take this class as soon as you’re promoted to manager.  After two years as a manager here (and a couple of decades elsewhere), someone finally figured out that I hadn’t had the class yet.  Busted.

Actually, this is only the first half of a two-week training class.  I am scheduled for the other half at the end of the month.  To make matters worse, we have a statewide conference on the very day that I return to work.  Fortunately, I have set it all up in advance.  Then there are deadlines that I must meet and training trips that I have to take.  The timing is very bad indeed.

I don’t do much driving around town and have no idea how to get to the out-of-the-way neighborhood where the training center is located.  My wife has not been feeling too well, but she is familiar with the lay of the land (having grown up here) and drives me over.  She seemed to be feeling a bit better on Saturday, when we had a big family gathering at a restaurant in honor of my birthday.  Yesterday, she seemed tired, although she woke up with me and cooked some food for me to take to the Scrabble tournament in Berkeley.  This morning, she was upset that I had not woken up early enough and that I might be late to my first day of training due to the traffic.  We just make it in time.

Since my wife was upset with me, I paid attention to how she zigzagged from one side road and freeway to the next to get to the training center.  You know, just in case she were to decide she didn’t want to drive me anymore.  I had no idea how important this would end up being.  I had no idea that she’d be in the hospital for the next week.

When the trainer sends us on our first break of the day, my wife texts to let me know that she was able to schedule an 11 a.m. appointment with her doctor.  Same-day appointments are hard to come by, and even more so with one’s own doctor.  She asks me whether she should go.  Yes, please go, I tell her.  I’ve been telling her that the boil that’s come up on her skin looks infected and needs to be checked.

At lunch, I call her.  She tells me she vomited in the exam room and the doctor said she had a fever and needed to go to the emergency room.  She was on her way there.  I wonder to myself whether she’ll be admitted.

When I don’t hear from her for the rest of the day and she doesn’t show to pick me up, I know what has happened.  I call the hospital, endure the inevitable transfers from person to person, and eventually reach someone in the emergency room who informs me that she is still there.  “She’s on the sicker side,” I’m told, and will be admitted.  Problem:  I am in a distant part of the city with no transportation.  As bad as I am with anything technological, I manage to figure out how to download Uber on my phone.  Soon, a ride to the hospital is headed in my direction.

The driver is very kind, driving around the emergency room parking lot until I find our car.  He even helps me load my belongings into the trunk.  I give him a tip out of the few dollars in cash that I have on me.

I check in with security, receive a stick-on badge and am pointed in the direction of the bay where I find my wife.  Due to the fever and infection, she has been admitted.  They are just about to wheel her over to a hospital room in another building.  “We’re going outside,” the orderly tells her.  “Are you going to be warm enough, or do you need another blanket?”  Outside??!!  You mean these buildings are not connected?  What the heck do they do when it’s pouring down rain?  “This is California,” I’m told when I ask.  “We love the fresh air.”

“Idiots,” I think.  “This would never happen back in New York.”

I can’t keep up with the gurney, despite the fact that the orderly stops several times when I fall way behind.  This is quite a walk.  Head outside.  Down a little path, across a bridge, then into another building to wind around more corridors.  About 30 minutes later, my mother-in-law shows up with her daughter, granddaughter and little great-granddaughter.  My wife is hooked up to an IV, on heavy-duty antibiotics, fluids, insulin.  The family tells me to go home and sleep, they have it under control.

Sleep sounds good to me, but it means that I have to find my way back to the car.  I hadn’t the forethought to leave a trail of bread crumbs, Hansel and Gretl style.  I’m told that I have to go outside and walk over a big bridge to reach the emergency room parking lot where our car is.  Now, I don’t do well walking outdoors.  If there is the slightest bit of wind, I can’t breathe.  My agoraphobia kicks in and I panic.  How the heck am I going to do this???

You have to do it, kid, I tell myself.  You need to be an adult and take care of your sick wife, not make a scene.  “What’s the worst that can happen?” I think.  After all, I’m at a hospital.

I head up over the tall bridge, trying not to hyperventilate.  There’s barely a hint of a breeze, which is very much in my favor.  On the other side, I see the emergency room entrance and a large parking lot.  I wonder whether this is where the Uber driver dropped me off.  And I wonder whether I should go sit in the emergency room for a while to fortify myself for the remainder of this outdoor walk.  No, I tell myself, I must be almost there.  I see the edge of a building, and as I come around the corner, there’s the car.  I made it.

 

Sunday

Berkeley is about 80 miles west of Sacramento via Interstate 80.  Eighty on 80.  This will be my second Scrabble tournament there, my first having been just recently, on New Year’s Day.  I performed very poorly on that occasion, having lost every game.  But I’m a glutton for punishment and I’m back for more.

To me, competitive Scrabble is a lot like playing the video poker machines in Reno, another pastime I enjoy.  It’s not about winning or losing.  It’s about playing the game.

Although I’m not a very good driver and am not good with directions, this is one trip even I can pull off successfully.  The tournament is at the director’s house.  Our homes are each about a mile from the freeway.  Only the long stretch of I-80 stands between me and a good fight over a Scrabble board.

Last time, I had to lug two heavy bags up the host’s steep stairway.  One bag carries my Scrabble board and equipment, the other my food.  There is always plenty of food at a house tournament.  When you’re vegan, however (and gluten-free to boot), you know to bring your own.  I had a hard time pulling those bags up, one at a time, step by step.

I didn’t really know what to expect.  I found out about the New Year’s tournament from a bare mention in an email sent out by another director.  It was our host’s first time directing, and she didn’t publish the particulars in advance.

Now, however, she’s learned by experience.  An email went out to participants with all the details.  Last time, there were an odd number of competitors, and most of us had to have a “bye” (sit out a round).  During my bye, I made the mistake of sitting on my host’s sofa in her living room.  I sunk in and couldn’t get up.  Fortunately, our host is a personal trainer who is strong and extremely physically fit.  She grabbed my arm and pulled with all her might.  She nearly fell over backward, but she got me up.

This time, as soon as I entered, our host informed me that she had set up a playing room downstairs in addition to the upstairs tables.  Would I perhaps like to stay downstairs?  Hmm, and avoid lugging everything up that flight of stairs?  Oh, yes!

The host had warned attendees in advance that she has cats, but that they stay downstairs.  One of her feline friends, an amiable orange tabby, took a liking to me as soon as I sat down and set up my Scrabble board.  After the obligatory scratch of the belly and behind the ears, he decided that I’d do just fine as a Scrabble partner.

And so I started off the tournament with a smile, and even managed to win one game this time around.  I enjoyed munching on the soy meat and potatoes that my wife had prepared that morning.  Happy birthday to me!

I had no idea that I’d spend the rest of the week going back and forth to the hospital.

 

Breakfast of Road Warriors

riverside-marriott-lobby

Lobby of the Marriott Convention Center, Riverside, California

RIVERSIDE

Vegan on the Road

A perpetual concern of travelers everywhere is what to do for breakfast.  Lack of planning on the part of the traveler is common, and the quality of the traveler’s experience is thus largely in the hands of one’s innkeeper.  Unless you’re staying at a “bed and breakfast,” chances are better than average that you will be in for something inadequate, disgusting or, if you’re particularly unfortunate, both.

About the time you open your eyes and realize that you are not at home in the comfort of your own bed, but in a hotel room in a strange city, you will hear your stomach rumbling and you will begin to wonder where sustenance is to be had.  If, at check-in, you spied a sign at the front desk indicating “morning coffee available in lobby,” you know you are at the mercy of what’s available nearby.  This is when one’s stomach expresses the fervent wish that the local amenities extend beyond microwaving a pre-packaged burrito from 7-11.

We road warriors are dedicated to the truth that there is much work to be done and that such work must be fueled by some form of morning sustenance beyond mere caffeine.

My employer has informed me that I am not permitted to seek reimbursement for the cost of my morning meal if breakfast comes free with the room, even if it is a “continental breakfast” consisting of coffee and donuts.  The fact that I am unable to partake of either of the aforementioned delicacies does not appear to sway company policy in my direction.  Thus, I am better off staying the night in accommodations that blithely ignore their guests’ need for food in the A.M.

One way to assure morning prandial satisfaction is to bring one’s own food.  This is an attractive option for those with special needs, such as my fellow vegan and gluten-free eaters.  The success of such plan, however, is largely dependent on the presence of a refrigerator and microwave in one’s hotel room.  While such amenities are common these days (at least in North America), they are by no means universal.  In fact, may I suggest that the likelihood of finding food storage and preparation facilities located in one’s guest room is inversely proportional to the quality of the hotel?  One is more likely to find a micro and fridge in Room 108 at Motel 6 than in a 20th floor suite at the Hilton.  Then again, who wants to bring one’s own food when local culinary delights await?

Lesson learned:  When making reservations for business travel, be sure to order a refrigerator and microwave rather than waiting until check-in and hoping for the best.  That is, unless you want to end up like me, with a bagful of hard potatoes that you can’t cook.

I do have certain gluten-free vegan coping mechanisms that I use on the road.  Everywhere I go, I search for Thai restaurants.  This is not because I’m crazy about Asian food, but because most Thai restaurants offer at least a few dishes that can be prepared both vegan and gluten-free.  Pad se ew, please.  No meat, just tofu, no egg, no fish sauce, no soy sauce.  Those are real, gluten-free rice noodles, right?  Not so hot that I turn into a fire-breathing dragon, please.

As it is not my habit to eat Thai food for breakfast, however (even if there were any Thai restaurants open at that hour), I generally look for a place where I can find some fruit.  Now, my habitual breakfast at home is either coconut milk yogurt with banana and raisins or a “protein bowl” (garbanzos and tofu).  But I challenge you to find an American restaurant serving such delights at seven in the morning.  I frequently end up throwing a banana, a slice of gluten-free millet bread and a bottle of water into a bag as I hurry out the hotel door to an early meeting.  I hope to cadge a cup of tea at the meeting venue, but I am seldom so lucky in this coffee-devoted nation of ours.

As a case in point, a few days ago I was in Los Angeles.  After a night in a motel in a seedy area of town marked by the repetitive wailing of car alarms and sirens, I walked into a meeting and was surprised by a breakfast spread just waiting for the participants to dig in.  The viands consisted of turkey, ham, cheeses and rolls to make sandwiches, assorted muffins and, of course, coffee.  (Query:  Who the heck eats such crap at eight o’clock in the blessed morning?  When I asked this of my mother, she replied: “A farmer.”). Honestly, it’s such a ray of sunshine to be presented with all the lovely comestibles that a gluten-free vegan would be delighted to encounter.  And, of course, not a cup of tea in sight.  I sighed and dug in my bag for my banana and millet bread.

Here at the Marriott Convention Center in Riverside, California, one evening I wistfully reviewed the room service breakfast menu and its checkboxes and found the usual variety of egg dishes, meat and cereal.  When completed and hung on the door knob, a hot breakfast would appear, as if by magic, during the 15-minute interval of the guest’s choice (6 to 11 am).  And, just as magically, $15 to $18 per person would be added to the guest’s hotel bill.  Perhaps, I wondered, if I closed my eyes, recited an incantation and wished upon a star, the menu would magically be altered to include berries with almond milk or a breakfast sandwich of soy cheese and grilled tomatoes on rice bread.  Sigh.  In some alternate universe, perhaps.

Then a funny thing happened. While I leafed through the hotel’s amenities brochure and noticed the availability of a breakfast buffet in the lobby restaurant for the princely price of $19 per person, my wife attempted in vain to get the flat screen TV to work.  Not being wealthy, I couldn’t imagine spending nearly $40 (plus tip) for my wife and I to have breakfast.  After all, my employer allows me to expense the grand sum of seven dollars for my morning meal.  Perhaps I do inhabit an alternate universe after all.

I phoned the front desk to report that the telly was on the fritz.  The staff member on duty apologized and sent up a technician.  He messed around with the thing but had no more success than we did.  After he went off to contact the hotel’s internet service provider, my wife called the front desk again to ask about checkout time.  The same chirpy staff lady asked whether our TV had been repaired.  When we assured her that it had not been, she offered to have us change rooms.  No need, said my wife.  We were heading off to sleep anyway.  Apologizing once more, the desk clerk offered us two free breakfast buffets for our trouble.  Hallelujah!  Perhaps my awkward abracadabras worked the right spell after all.

Visiting Riverside is always a slightly strange experience for me, tinged with more than a bit of déjà vu.  My former employer was based in Riverside and, even though my work location was a three-hour drive east, out in the desert, I had to come into town two or three times each year for meetings.  Ironically, now that I work in northern California, I find myself still doing the same (although it’s a six-hour drive each way from Sacramento).

My former employer always put me up a few blocks away at the Mission Inn, deemed by many to be a premiere accommodation due to its historic setting and the ghosts of the past that some say continue to inhabit its walkways and guest rooms.  Personally, I never cared for it, finding the atmosphere dark, drafty and just a wee bit pretentious, as might be expected of some English countryside manor with a 17th or 18th century pedigree.

While the quaintness, antiques and Spanish architecture of Mission Inn appeal to many, I much prefer the modern amenities offered by the Marriott.  While the venue levies separate charges for most of these, those in the know are able to take advantage of the broad leeway given staff to satisfy guests.  In other words, many of the fees can be waived if you just ask (particularly if you mention that you’ve stayed with them before and that your employer has certain expectations in regard to costs).  Not only did we have $25 in wifi connection charges waived (“we still have to work, you know”), we also obtained free parking and an upgrade that allowed us access to the 12th floor concierge lounge (where we watched the Cubs and Indians duke it out on a big screen TV back in September).  Oh, and about that concierge lounge:  They serve juice and pastries in the morning and appetizers in the evening.  Appetizers?  Try sushi, curry, salad and desserts.  Who needs dinner?  As a vegan GFer, I could chow down on raw veggies, hummus and fresh fruit.

Riverside Buffet.JPG

Breakfast buffet at the Riverside Marriott

Which brings me to the $40 breakfast buffet for two that we were comped.  Although it was a weekday, a cook was preparing omelettes to order.  There were scrambled eggs, boiled brown eggs and several of my wife’s favorite breakfast items, including bacon, sausage, yogurt and bread and English muffins for toasting.  GF vegan?  I chowed down on oatmeal with raisins, potatoes and fresh fruit (cantaloupe, honeydew, pineapple and watermelon).  They even had almond milk on hand for my tea, a rarity on the road.  The staff was so accommodating that I wonder whether they would have sent out to Whole Foods or Sprouts had I asked for gluten-free millet bread.

My fellow breakfasters ranged from men discussing football and billion-dollar deals to an older couple traveling with a squirming three year old who was Face Timing the folks back home.  “Behave,” I heard her mom warn from halfway across the room (and, likely as not, from halfway across the country). “Don’t cause Grandma any trouble.”

 

 

Truck Stop Music

Vegan on the Road

santa-nella-music

A fairly ordinary truck stop at the edge of the interstate gets a musical makeover.

SANTA NELLA

Among the first things I notice in a restaurant or other retail establishment is the quality (or lack thereof) of the recorded background music piped in through the speakers tucked into the ceilings.  At the TA Truckstop on Highway 33 at the I-5 exit here in Merced County, central California, the vibe is decidedly 1970s, presumably to appeal to aging baby boomers such as myself.  Represented were Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, Mungo Jerry, Bad Company, Roberta Flack, Billy Joel, B.J. Stevenson, Chicago, Styx, Al Stewart, Abba, Linda Ronstadt, Steely Dan and, of course, the Pauls (McCartney and Simon). We were in there about an hour and a half, my wife working on her Thinkpad and me messing around on my phone, and we never heard the same song twice.  This was a little different than our last truck stop experience, in Reno, where we made only a short visit and still managed to hear Vanessa Carlton’s “I’m Only Happy When It Rains” four times.

The kitschy music theme of the dining room seemed like it belonged in Gatlinburg or Branson or somewhere.  There were fake guitar sculptures and framed photos of recording artists on the walls, giant G clef and music notes above the salad bar and plaques in the booths featuring large type lyrics of a smorgasbord of eras, including songs made famous by Louis Armstrong, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Righteous Brothers, Judy Garland, the Andrews Sisters and Hank Williams.  Snowflake mobiles dangling from the ceiling were probably meant to evoke wintertime, but still seemed like bedraggled refugees from some tacky Christmas display.  I suppose this should come as no surprise, considering that the truck stop Christmas tree was still up in the lobby, repurposed for the remainder of the winter season by the addition of red paper hearts along the fronds and a large Love sign at the top, where the star of Bethlehem or an angel blowing alleluias on a trumpet should be.

The last time I was here was more than three years ago, when I had a go-round with an impatient cleaning lady.  Neither of us spoke the other’s language very well.  I wasn’t yet aware that I am gluten intolerant, and it may have been a good thing for both of us that I didn’t know how to say “diarrhea” in Spanish.

Santa Nella is a convenient rest stop between northern and southern California, but we usually patronize Pea Soup Andersen’s, the faux-Danish overpriced tourist trap with the windmill, just across the road.  However, when we last made this trip, about four months ago, I was inadvertently glutened by a seemingly safe food item I consumed over there.  The opportunity to avoid that and the overpriced tourist schlock led us to try our luck with the truckers.

Even a gluten-free vegan can be relatively happy at a truck stop, particularly if you’re willing to “fudge” a bit, as I tend to do when I’m on the road.  These days, I find that I can tolerate a small amount of dairy or egg that may be hidden in restaurant food a lot better than even a little bit of wheat.  My body is still revolting from an uncharacteristically stupid food decision I made a few days ago. Let’s just say that it MIGHT have had something to do with a birthday and a chocolate cake. Pain!

When I’m on the road, a salad bar is a sight for sore eyes.  In San José last week, we walked into a tiny Italian restaurant that looked and smelled just like one of the mouth wateringly wonderful family-run holes in the wall on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx.  Finding no gluten-free pasta or pizza crust, we walked right out and headed across the street to a steak house where, my wife assured me via a visit to its website on her phone, a salad bar awaited my delectation.

Disappointment greeted me.  No salad bar!

It sounds like the opening of a bad joke.  “A vegan walks into a steak house…”  But as every vegan traveler knows, steak houses do have one good thing going for them (if you can grit your teeth and overlook the bloody cow carcasses):  Baked potatoes.  So there we were at dinnertime in a steak house, with my wife choosing a French toast breakfast and me settling for a dish of salad and a baked potato.  We are a strange pair.

santa-nella-salad-bar

Salad bar at the Santa Nella truck stop

Here at the truck stop, it is still early in the day and everything on the salad bar looks fresh, even the melons and pineapple.  I load up on beans for protein and grab some taters from the breakfast buffet.  Lucky me showed up just as the staff was switching over to the lunch buffet, which provided me with carrots, squash and rice.  I ate my fill, then headed out to the car and reclined the seat in preparation for an hour’s nap.

It was my wife’s turn to drive.

 

 

A Warm Bed Tonight

We ran into Roy today, wandering around the supermarket parking lot as usual.  We hadn’t seen him in a week or two, but we drove through a fast food place for a soda on the way downtown and there he was, stumbling about.  There was no doubt that he had gotten hold of his drink or three earlier in the day.  I have no idea whether alcoholism drove him into homelessness or homelessness drove him to the solace of alcohol.  Maybe he’ll tell me all about it one of these days.

My wife has given Roy spare change on a number of occasions when he was hanging about the supermarket entrance, hoping for a few coins.  Today, however, we gave him five dollars.  The subtle grin on his face told me everything I wanted to know.  My wife pointed out that it has probably been a long time since he has seen a fiver.

I have to wonder where Roy curls up to sleep at night.  A warming center has recently opened at the church across the street from the shopping center, but something tells me that he has never seen the inside of the place.  With the rain, wind and cold that we have been experiencing lately, I just hope he makes it through the winter.

One of my favorite bloggers, Dennis Cardiff, recently pointed out that the Homeless Memorial Project has documented 740 deaths among the homeless of Toronto since 1985, 72 such deaths in 2005 alone.

The New York Times recently cited statistics that show that, nationally, homelessness has been reduced by 12.9% over the last seven years.  You wouldn’t know it in Washington, D.C., however, where there are 124 homeless people for every 10,000 residents, more than twice the national average.

Wikipedia claims that in Seattle, another place known for its cold, wet winters, each night at least 2,942 people have no roof over their heads.  About this time last year, a PIT (point in time) survey found a 67% percent increase in the homeless population.  A homeless camp known as The Jungle, situated under a freeway, has become infamous for incidents of violence.

Much has been written about law enforcement clearing snowy Denver’s homeless camps in the name of enforcing laws against “urban camping,” causing some to display buttons reading “Move Along to Where?”

In Sacramento County, California, where I reside, 79 homeless people have died in the past year.  This tops the 78 homeless deaths that occurred here in the previous year.  Not all of these deaths are from exposure (some are the result of overdoses, violence or illness), but it is likely that the cold and wet contributed to the demise of these neighbors of ours.

If you have a warm bed to sleep in tonight as I do, be grateful and remember Roy and the thousands of others of Americans who do not.

Almost Home

He had plastic bags wrapped around his shoes
He was covered with the evening news
Had a pair of old wool socks on his hands
The bank sign was flashing “5 below”
It was freezing rain and spittin’ snow
He was curled up behind some garbage cans
I was afraid that he was dead
I gave him a gentle shake
When he opened up his eyes I said “Old man, are you okay?”

— Craig Morgan, “Almost Home”

For obvious reasons, homelessness is particularly jarring to the eye in the wintertime.  The cold, wet and windy weather we have been experiencing in northern California for the past month or so leaves me running from house to car and from car to office as quickly as possible.  I try to avoid spending more than a minute or two outdoors at all costs.  And I find myself saying a silent prayer for those who lack a roof over their heads.

Tuesday of this past week was particularly bad.  We had to drive well over 100 miles to visit a client’s location to deliver a staff training program.  About five minutes into the trip, the heavens opened up and it proceeded to pour down rain, causing cars to creep along the freeway in an effort to see what was right in front of them and avoid hydroplaning or spinning out.  But first, I had to get from my office to the car, a distance of perhaps 100 feet or so.  The wind was gusting so hard that I had to walk backward through the puddles, as facing the wind would have left me unable to breathe.  My wonderful wife had come to pick me up and, seeing me struggle, braved the elements herself to relieve me of my bag so that I might have some chance of actually making it to the car.

And, through all of this, we have neighbors huddled up in sleeping bags or blankets, some curled up in corners under awnings, others sleeping right out in the open on the sidewalk downtown.

We live near a tiny stream known as Dry Creek, an irony not lost on any of us here in recent days.  Playing the mouse that roared, the little trickle became a raging river that rapidly overflowed its banks, leaving some of the streets in this area under enough feet of water that only the tops of Stop signs stuck out to remind us that a road is there.  The larger rivers in this area, such as the American and the Cosumnes, have been running so high, it’s scary.  On the news every night are stories about saving levees by opening floodgates that have been closed for years.  Out west of town, in the Davis and Dixon area, the fields have been inundated by brown water that goes on for miles.

About the only thing we haven’t had here is snow, which is somewhat surprising considering that the temperature has dipped well below freezing on several nights.  Having spent the first 35 years of my life in New York, I never imagined that such weather would be in store for me in California.  What happened to the land of perpetual sunshine, Hollywood and Mickey Mouse?  It’s not LA or San Diego up here, folks.

Years ago, an acquaintance told me that if she were ever homeless, she would simply move to Florida, even if she had to walk to get there.  I am certain that quite a few of our neighbors who sleep outdoors would be more than happy to move to Florida or to San Diego, if only their physical and mental disabilities would allow them to walk there.  Meanwhile, San Diego has enough problems of its own with people arriving from other parts of the country in the belief that, even if they hit rock bottom, they can always survive in the sunshine on the beach.  Each year, charitable agencies down there end up purchasing a lot of bus fares and plane tickets home for those who are sadly disillusioned after ending up broke, arrested and, often, victims of crime and abuse.

Which still leaves us with thousands of people who have no family or friends to take them in, no hometown to which they can return.  All they have is the here and now, fighting the wind and rain and the biting cold as they struggle to make it through another day, exposed to the elements.

Homelessness tends to make the news a lot more often in the winter than it does during the rest of the year.  We hear about warming centers being opened temporarily to prevent hypothermia among at least some of our local people who are living on the street or in cars.  We hear about the insufficient number of shelter beds, the poor conditions in shelters that leave people preferring to take their chances outdoors rather than become victims of crime indoors, and those to whom shelters do not apply because they cannot or will not adhere to the rules.

The rules.  Basic things like no drinking, no drugging, no fighting, no yelling, no exposing yourself, no relieving yourself outside of the bathroom.  The kinds of things that most of us take for granted.

Some would be thrown out of a shelter in a hot minute due to inability to adhere to these rules.  Others stay away due to addictions that make it near to impossible for them to comply with such rules.  And then there are those who are simply freedom lovers, who don’t like to be told what to do and believe that rules do not apply to them.  Is that really a serious enough offense to warrant a death sentence?

There is not a lot of sympathy out there for those who fall into this last category.  Many of us don’t care what happens to them, justifying their position with the belief that whatever disaster befalls them is of their own doing.

Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother, Abel?”  “I don’t know,” he replied.  “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  Genesis 4:9 (NIV)

Homeless in the Rain

It’s raining.

For the past two nights, and now all day long, we listen to the tap tap tap against our bedroom window.  Several of the local roads in this area have already been closed to traffic due to flooded intersections.

And it’s only supposed to get worse.  Some weather reports indicate that we may be in for eight straight days of rain.  The meteorologists speak of an “atmospheric river” whooshing in from the Pacific Ocean, pouring down buckets of water upon us and, as if that weren’t enough, raising the temperature sufficiently to cause the Sierra snowpack to melt.  Local governments are handing out sandbags to help homeowners fend off rising floodwaters that are expected to cause local creeks and rivers to crest within the next few days.

Perhaps California’s seven-year drought will finally come to an end (if we don’t all drown first).

Still, we have it better than some parts of the state that are only a few hours’ drive away.  Interstate 80 was shut down yesterday due to snow, ice and plenty of spun-out vehicles between Sacramento and Reno.

Yesterday, I spoke on the phone with a few of my professional contacts on the edges of the state.  In Alpine County, I was told, the snow was coming down apace.  And in Modoc County, in the northeastern corner of the state, tucked beside the Oregon and Nevada borders, I was told that the temperature had plummeted to thirty degrees below zero.  In California, of all places.  At work, we worry about the elderly who may not have sufficient heat to ride out such conditions, and who may face the very real possibility of freezing to death in their own homes.  I dare not mention the homeless, although on most days you can look out the windows of our downtown skyscraper and see them on the street, invisible in plain sight.

Then there was the evening a few days ago when I was barely able to leave my workplace due to winds that were gusting above 40 miles per hour.  Did I mention that a good gust of wind takes my breath away and sets off a panic attack?

I can’t imagine what hell our local homeless population must be going through during this horrible weather.  Hardly a day goes by that we don’t see those without a roof over their heads huddled in sleeping bags or blankets on sidewalks, in parking lots, in any nook or corner where they have half a chance of being left alone and maybe catching a few hours of sleep.

Last week in this space, I mentioned the Housing First initiative, the concept that the homeless should be provided with permanent housing, no questions asked.  The idea is that the intractable problems that come along with homelessness, including alcoholism, drug addiction and a variety of mental and physical illnesses, can be more effectively addressed when one has a warm, safe place to call home, complete with a bed and food in the refrigerator.  It seems so obvious to me:  What the homelessness need are homes.  After all, how are you supposed to get sober when you’re cold, wet, hungry and an easy target for crimes large and small?  How are you supposed to chase away your demons when you’re forced to live every minute of your life subject to the reprovingly judgmental/pitying/disgusted gaze of the public?  When the urgent need to urinate can land you in jail?  How are you supposed to benefit from any 12-step program, counseling or medical care when the lingua franca of the streets is alcohol and drugs?  It just doesn’t seem like a very realistic expectation.

On my way home from work, I call 911 to report a woman with her belongings in a shopping cart who is blocking traffic, standing on the light rail tracks, yelling and waving objects at passers-by.  I fear that she will be run over by the train or by the rush of commuter traffic.  Mea culpa.

The above remarks notwithstanding, I never cease to be amazed by the way that keeping an open mind when you think you know something can teach you just how little you really do know about a subject.  In this case, what hit me right between the eyes was a pair of articles I read this week about the downside of Housing First initiatives.  I shake my head as I once again witness how easy it is to become so hung up on the beauty of a rock that you never take time to lift it and see what horrors are crawling on the underside thereof.

Both articles are about the Fort Lyon rehab facility, located in Bent County, in the remote Arkansas Valley of eastern Colorado.  It is a ready-made place of refuge, I read, a bucolic paradise, the anti-California.  This is a place where homeless alcoholics and drug addicts from the streets of places like Denver, Colorado Springs and Pueblo can voluntarily go for up to two years to work on staying sober, to rewrite the addiction scripts to which their brains are committed and to work on re-creating a life that they may not have had for decades, if ever.  There are very few requirements of residents, other than attending a community gathering three mornings each week.  Residents can attend recovery meetings or not, can take community college classes or not, can walk the extensive grounds at will, or can pretty much lay low and do nothing.  What they cannot do is drink or do drugs, both offenses that yield the consequence of “catching the 105,” the van back to Denver.  The idea is that graduates of the program will have enough months or years of sobriety to prepare them either to reenter the workforce or, at the very least, to benefit from supportive housing without killing themselves in the process.

In his Pacific Standard article, “A Sober Utopia,” journalist Will McGrath quotes Fort Lyon rehab center director and co-founder James Ginsburg, on the subject of what can happen to long-term homeless substance abusers who finally get into their own housing.  Rather than using the opportunity to get sober and stay clean, many of them take advantage of their comfort and solitude to get high in peace, often dying in the process.  “Having run Housing First, the thing that really motivated me to open this place was walking in on people dead in their housing,” he said.  McGrath paints us quite a picture of what Ginsburg was talking about.  “These were people who had moved into apartments through his programs.  He found one man with a needle still in his arm.  Another was slumped backwards in a recliner, a lethal cocktail of rubbing alcohol and orange juice at his side.”

Furthermore, among those who do get clean once taken off the streets and placed in housing, the rate of recidivism is high.  So what looks shiny on the outside might be rotten on the inside.  “There’s a little bit of a dirty secret about Housing First,” says Ginsburg, “and that is the addiction part of it.  Housing First will always claim a high retention rate.  That’s after one year.  But if you look, every year it drops, and, after five years, it’s maybe half of what it was.”

But the other article I read about Fort Lyon, written by Alan Prendergast in Westword, points out that even those who agree to enter such a program may suffer the same fate as those who go directly into supportive housing, particularly as months and years go by following “graduation.”   The article quotes Colorado Senator Pat Steadman on the issue:  “One of the big challenges is that nobody has agreed upon the definition of success for Fort Lyon.  What they’ve been giving us is these metrics about how many people met their goals.  Well, what are their goals?  If they met a goal of two months’ sobriety, are they better off today?”

Both articles describe how the staff of Fort Lyon supports residents in their projects and life goals that extend beyond merely staying sober.  Former addicts have opened a bicycle repair shop, started a business making and selling kaleidoscopes or one collecting scrap metal while residents at For Lyon.  There is plenty of art and music for those inclined to express themselves in that manner, including murals painted onsite and at the elementary school in town and a hard rockin’ house band.  Indeed, there are those who argue that programs like Fort Lyon work due to the provision of support that isn’t found on the street and because of the sense of community that is forged independent of drinking, drugs and day-to-day survival.  It’s the kind of support that we routinely provide to our kids as they grow up — support that many of the homeless never received at that time in their lives (or ever).  The Housing First skeptics point out that no one obtains such support by sitting alone in a rent-free apartment and attending a counseling session or a 12-step meeting once a week or so.  The lack of community leaves one to his or her own devices.  Too often, those involve falling back into destructive patterns that are participants’ sources of familiarity and comfort.  Those who work with addicts often speak of the need for rewiring the brain, which is hard work that can’t be accomplished merely by providing a roof over one’s head and a bed to crawl into.

So which came first, the chicken or the egg?  Is the Housing First initiative correct in its assertions that the homeless need the safety and security of homes before they can begin to work on their underlying problems?  Or is the rehabilitative model championed at places like Fort Lyon correct in the idea that those who have been on the streets for decades need a couple of years of sobriety, clean living and support before they are ready to be provided with their own housing?

The answer, I think, lies somewhere in the middle.  I suggest this not to be noncommittal, but because I don’t believe that there is a “one size fits all” solution.  Everyone is different, a premise that is honored by the currently popular “person-centered” focus of public assistance.  Some homeless individuals may thrive in independent housing, while others require a heavily supportive gradual reintegration into the broader society.  It is true that what the homeless need are homes, but that isn’t all that they need.

When I was a kid growing up in New York City, I constantly heard adults speak of “the projects” (and the residents thereof) with open disdain.  While some of this attitude was undoubtedly rooted in racism, the fact remains that many of the grand experiments consisting of high-rise basic housing units constructed in places like New York and Paris during the 1960s and 1970s were utter failures, eventually bulldozed following decades of crime, drugs, rats, roaches and (dare I say it) a plethora of fatherless babies.  Charges of “warehousing” persist in my native New York, where housing is a right, even if it may consist of a decrepit motel room, far from access to employment and adequate services, on the edges of the city out by the Kennedy Airport remote parking structures.  The drugs, crime and filth persist, and periodically, the inherent inadequacy of such facilities comes to the fore such as the day a few weeks before Christmas when two toddlers, sisters, were splashed all over the front pages of newspapers throughout the country after a steam valve blew off in their temporary housing and they were both burned to death.

I have held conversations with those who believe that no one has any incentive to take care of what is given to them.  The idea, as I understand it, is that those who put their blood, sweat and hard-earned money into something are going to take care of it, but that something that costs nothing is worth nothing.  By extension, this leads to the argument that the homeless don’t “deserve” homes because they don’t appreciate them.  The converse of this argument, of course, asks how on earth someone is supposed to appreciate a home when he or she has never had one?  The survival mechanisms that many of us look down upon with such distaste may be all that some of our brethren have ever known, or may at least be patterns deeply ingrained from decades of playing the same internal song over and over on an endless loop.

There are still a lot of us who treat the homeless not as our fellow man, deserving of compassion, deserving of being treated as we would be treated ourselves, but as non-humans, animals who belong out in the wild, exposed to the elements and the law of the jungle.

And yet it rains.  And I wonder where Roy from the Food Source parking lot is holing up tonight and whether he is managing to stay dry in the current deluge.

I have some nickels and dimes for him.