The Sally

I had called ahead and was told to come in at 9 a.m. but we arrived early.  Here, there were no queues.  We sat in the car and awaited signs of life.

About a quarter of nine, the side door was flung open and three women proceeded to lounge in the doorway.  Cigarettes came out and smoke rose as they chatted.  Initially, I thought that perhaps they had come out to set up tables for the incoming hordes.  Apparently, however, they were just sharing a few butts before clocking in.

I noticed one man waiting near the front entrance, and at two minutes to nine, I joined him.  “Good morning,” I greeted him and was pleased to find him a friendly chap.  He perched on the edge of a planter and I leaned against the building’s stucco façade as he told me his story.

He’s had a bad month, he confessed as he lit up a cigarette.  He explained that he has cancer, is homeless and has been mired in the mess of red tape that is the benefits system.  I’m sorry to hear that, I responded.  I never know what to say when people tell me how things really are.  Expressing regret or offering sympathy somehow seems so lame in the face of troubles on such a huge scale that I cannot begin to imagine the feel of the experience.  Placed in such perspective, my own problems seem minuscule indeed by comparison.

Despite everything he is going through, this gentleman maintained a positive attitude.  (You’re trying to teach me a lesson today, Lord, now aren’t you?)  Things will improve on the first of July, my companion assured me, which is when he expects to receive his very first Social Security check.  Disability and widower’s benefits, he explained.

When checking up on one of our relatives the other day, she texted us back to say that she feels frustrated, confused, exhausted and alone, and that tomorrow promises only more of the same.  I think she needs to meet this man who I encountered at the door of the Salvation Army first thing on a Monday morning.

I asked the guy what kind of food he’s been able to get here.  Oh, peanut butter and jelly, he told me — bread, cans of beans and stuff.  Rice, although he has no means of cooking it.  I told him that I was glad about the bread.  “We need bread,” I told him, but before I could describe the debacle of picking up pounds of expired bread products and then having to give it all way when our freezer broke down, he stood up, tried the door and found that it had been unlocked.  He held the door open for me.

“Let me follow you,” I protested.  “I don’t know where I’m going.”

“Neither do I,” he called over his shoulder, barreling straight down the main corridor as if he had been here a hundred times.  I watched an employee take him into an office.  A second employee popped out of an office on the opposite side of the hall and asked how she could help me.  I explained that I had called in advance about the food distribution; she pointed to where I should wait.  I entered an empty conference room with a brochure rack containing a few leaflets about SNAP benefits, the Affordable Care Act.  Notices on the walls:  “We may refuse service to anyone!”  I sat down at a dirty table that appeared to have been marked up by countless crayons over the years.  Streaks of red, green, purple.  Ghosts of an endless stream of desperate mothers trying to keep their children occupied for a few minutes as they await the intake worker’s embarrassing questions and, eventually, their bag of peanut butter, jelly and bread.

An employee appeared in the doorway to retrieve me and I stepped into her office a few doors down.  It was a small office, neatly kept, with a blue carpet that must have been cleaned recently.  Faux wood grain desk, nearly empty but for a PC with a 17-inch monitor.  Not unlike the offices I occupied myself until not too long ago.

The worker was friendly, if a bit annoyed that I didn’t have my Social Security card with me.  I presented by driver’s license and my wife’s, recited our Social Security numbers.  She couldn’t verify them without Social Security cards, she informed me.  It’s okay for today, but if I ever come back, I needed to have our cards with me.  She handed me a Post-It note marked with the number 2 (food for two people) and sent me outside to the food pantry that opened onto the parking lot.  We probably could have obtained more food had I admitted that we are living with my mother-in-law, but I didn’t think it worth the effort.  After all, I didn’t have her Social Security card with me.

“Rice?” the employee asked me as he filled a paper bag with items from shelves in a closet-sized room while I stood in the doorway.

“Sure!” I said cheerily.  “We’ll be happy to eat whatever we get.”

“Oh, well, some people don’t like rice,” he said by way of explanation.  Yeah, I thought, and some are homeless and have no way of cooking it.

He thrust the full bag at me, loaf of Wonder Bread balanced on top, along with a list of area churches to which we could go for more food as we need it.  I thanked him and walked off to the car.  I really appreciated the list, particularly since the intake worker warned me that I am not to return to the Sally for at least four months.  My wife astutely quipped that four months is an awfully long time to go on one paper bag of groceries.

Running through the list, I noticed a church that I had not heard of and that appeared to be nearby.  We Googled directions and headed over there.

The place was a huge Catholic church and school that was comprised of multiple buildings.  We drove around through a couple of parking lots until we found someone to direct us.  The proper entrance turned out to require walking up a series of rickety metal ramps that appeared to have been installed for the benefit of wheelchair users.  As they clanged loudly with each step I took, I held the handrail and prayed that the ramp wouldn’t collapse beneath my feet.

There were forms to fill out.  There always are.  How much monthly income do you earn?  Zero.  How much monthly income does your wife earn?  Zero.  Who’s this other person you live with?  My mother-in-law.  And she has no income either?  She has Social Security.  Oh, well, that requires filling out another paper.  I had to text Pastor Mom for the specific information they wanted.

Two workers tag teamed me at the Catholic church food pantry.  Both of them had a bit of an attitude, but the woman was the worst of the two.  She spoke loudly and repeatedly interrupted me.  I wondered if she hailed from my native New York City.  “Hey, I’m from da Bronx, ya hee-yuh?” I wanted to say so badly.  But when you’re asking for charity, you keep your mouth shut.

Through an open door, I could see another worker unloading boxes of food onto already groaning shelves.  On the other side of the front counter were clothing bins marked for various sizes, stuffed with pants, shirts, blouses.  A long sign stretched across the wall behind the counter — a paraphrase of Matthew 25:35.  “For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was naked and you clothed me.”  The part about clothing was beginning to come loose from the wall, with one edge hanging off.

The Book of Matthew notwithstanding, we received no food from this church today.  Apparently, all the Catholic churches in the area are connected.  A quick phone call revealed that we had already received food from Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard earlier in the month.  We aren’t eligible again until July.

Ms. Loudmouth handed me a list of other food distribution points, boldly circling some items and underlining others three and four times by way of emphasis.  I explained that she is misinformed, that there is no food to be had at the food bank, that they are opening their warehouse to charitable organizations only, not to individuals.  Ms. L took offense that I contradicted her and had a staff member call the food bank immediately.  She returned triumphantly, indicating that her information had been confirmed.  “You’re saying the wrong thing!” she yelled.  “Don’t say ‘food.’  Say ‘brown bag!’  You have to say ‘brown bag!’”

My, my, apparently you have to know the secret password to obtain a bag of charity food these days.

Loudmouth suggested that I go to the Salvation Army.  I think she really wanted to tell me to go someplace else, but hey, there are some things you can’t say at a church.

I nearly told her that we had already been to the Sally today, but I stopped myself just in time.  I could see this was going nowhere.  Ms. L’s paper was now marked up to within an inch of its sorry life.  It looked like it had fallen into the hands of a maniacal toddler.  Her final sendoff was a recommendation that I go right back to the food bank and then head back to my own town where a church was offering a free lunch today.

We took the first part of Loudmouth’s advice and drove back over to the bi-county food bank.  I had called them on Friday for information after I heard rumors from my fellow queuers that there were churches where we can get food almost anytime.  This one does Mondays and Wednesdays!  That one does Tuesdays and Thursdays!

On the phone last week, the food bank volunteer confirmed that I could get no food there and suggested that I call the Salvation Army.  The Sally rebuffed me, suggesting that I call back the food bank.  “They’re the ones distributing the drought relief!”  I was informed.  “Anyone who’s affected by the drought can get food from them.  That’s all of us!  Look how the drought is raising the prices of food!”  I asked for a list of local churches distributing food.

We’re a church!” she informed me.  “Oh, I didn’t know,” I admitted.  “A lot of people don’t know,” she told me.

Considering that the Salvation Army is a church, I fully expected to have to sit through a church service this morning before I would be provided with any food.  Not at all.  I was in and out of there with a bag of food in just a few minutes.  The Catholic church is what took me forever and from whence I left empty-handed.

Back at the food bank, I was hoping that Barbara, the worker who helped me last time, would be around.  She wasn’t, and I ended up chatting with Shirley.  I told her that I needed a blue card so that I could attend the county and USDA food distributions.  They were still out of cards, she told me.  I then explained that I had been given a handwritten temporary card last time and that it had been confiscated at the “brown bag” food distribution.  Oh, don’t worry, she assured me, I’m on the list now.

The importance of being on “the list.”  The things you learn when you’re poor.

I ended up having a lengthy chat with Shirley, during which we discussed our respective families and she very kindly clued me in on the food programs for which my niece and her baby would be eligible.  Wednesday turns out to be the day to do this.  I promised to do my best to appear with my niece next Wednesday.  This Wednesday I have a job interview out of town, I explained.

Among the reasons that we need to do everything we can to stretch our remaining savings is the cost of traveling to job interviews.  Even if we take our own food, there is the cost of the hotel and goodness knows how many tanks of gas to get there and back.

Today, I received an email regarding a job I had applied for some time ago.  I had passed the initial screening, I was informed, and have been invited to come to Denver to sit for a two-hour written examination.  Those who score highest on the test will be invited back for interviews.  Well, we cannot afford to make the 2,200 mile round-trip to Denver even once, much less twice.  So I had to cross that job off my list, my hope for a phone interview dashed.

So tomorrow we head for a job interview in Oregon.  Although only 250 miles away, it’s still going to be an expensive trip.  But it’s a necessary expense.  After all, I’d much rather be working than standing in endless food lines.

A Tale of Two Homeless Guys

Life in the parsonage, Wednesday morning edition:  My wife is gone for three days to visit her friend in the Bay Area.  Luckily for me, there is still homemade vegetable soup left over from Monday.  As great as it is hot and fresh off the stove, it is always better the second or third day, eaten cold with lots of black pepper and garlic, like a spicy gazpacho.

I am eating lunch at the kitchen table when Pastor Mom walks in with Homeless Guy #1.  I have to number them now, because we currently have two.  They are brothers-in-law.

Let’s see, how can I explain this?  Homeless Guy #2 is an excellent handyman who can do carpentry, plumbing, painting, gardening and just about anything else you can think of.  Furthermore, he is an awesome songwriter and guitarist.  The problem is that he is an alcoholic and drug user, hangs out with a bad crowd and has been in and out of jail.  Also, he has anger issues.  We recently sold him my trusty old car that my niece wrecked a couple of months ago.  The engine is good and you can still drive it, but the front end is all smashed in, it needs headlights and a new radiator, and the dashboard was blown out when the air bags went off.  Not surprisingly, #2 didn’t have any money to buy the car.  However, a charitable member of the church paid for it and #2 is satisfying the debt by working on the guy’s house and yard.  As it turned out, #2 wanted the car to live in.  I hear he parks it behind a friend’s house at night.  I see him driving it around, though.  That dude is going to be slapped with some serious tickets when he gets stopped by the Highway Patrol, as he will sooner or later.

Homeless Guy #1 had made himself scarce for a couple of weeks, but lately he’s been hanging around again.  Monday, he knocked on the door 10:30 at night and asked to use the rest room.  “I haven’t seen you in a while,” he told me.  “Where you been, workin’?”  I reminded him that I have been unemployed for nearly eight months and that I am always here.  My wife says I’m rude to him, and she’s right.  As much as I’ve tried to help the guy, he rubs me the wrong way and I tend to be snippy with him.

Last night, I heard a familiar knock about 10 pm.  Guess who?  #1 asked for Pastor Mom, but I told him that she had already gone to bed.  Then he asked me for a drink and I offered him a bottle of water.  What he really wanted, he confessed, was something sweet before he went to bed.  Would we happen to have some candy?  My wife dug around in the cupboard and found a couple of mini candy bars left over from what we had passed out in church on Mothers’ Day.  He thanked us and promised to share the bounty from the vegetable garden he is growing — radishes, cantaloupes and giant tomatoes.  Hope those bite-size 100 Grand bars give you sweet dreams.  Now get to bed — er, I mean get to tent.

#1 resides in a tent with his dog, a sleeping bag and a Coleman stove.  Said tent is set up in the back corner of his mother’s yard.  Mother won’t allow him to stay with her or even to come in the house to use the bathroom, supposedly because he uses too much toilet paper.  She does occasionally invite him in for a meal, however.  Mother says that he must contribute to the water bill because he uses a water faucet outside the house to drink from and wash his hands.  He doesn’t comply with this requirement, however, because he has no money, only Food Stamps.  So far, Mother hasn’t kicked him off the property despite the fact that the cops are over there all the time.

#2 was, until recently, living indoors — with his wife and mother-in-law, the latter being #1’s Mom (although arguably not a #1 Mom).  #2 and his wife are both tattooed from here to tomorrow, which may or may not have anything to do with their lives of alcohol, drugs and jail.  The fights over there were legendary and the sheriffs were regular visitors when the shrieking got out of hand.  I hear that a recent bloody argument concerned whether #2 had the right to open his bedroom window when Mom wanted it closed.  No longer an issue, of course, as #2 has since separated from his wife and lives in his (formerly my) car.

As the U.S. Post Office does not deliver mail to backyard tents, #1 continues to receive mail at his mother’s house.  Apparently, he had received a letter from the IRS indicating that he may be entitled to the refund of some money that had been deducted from a paycheck by an employer years ago.  #1 showed up while I was eating my soup today to ask for help in contacting the IRS.  He started out by using Pastor Mom’s cell phone, then tried to use her desktop computer to log on to the IRS website, but didn’t have much luck with either method.

#2 had been working on the church all morning, doing some repair and plumbing work.  The church pays him for whatever he does.  We also pay #1 for any odd jobs he does for us, which doesn’t happen very often.  In fact, #1 came by a few days ago to complain that we had allowed #2 to water the rose bushes when #1 said he wanted to be paid for doing this task.  We explained that we had allowed #2 to take care of it because the roses were wilting in the 100° heat and it was noon and #1 still hadn’t shown up.  Among the many reasons that #1 is unemployable is that he has absolutely no concept of time.

#2 comes in the parsonage to clean up real quickly because he has to high tail it up the freeway to get to his appointment with his probation officer.  #2 doesn’t have a valid driver’s license anymore, but #1 helpfully mentioned that he has one.

It seems that they are a perfect pair:  #1 has a license but no car, while #2 has a car but no license.


Toward the Alleviation of Suffering

When I was heading out the door to a doctor appointment yesterday, I stepped into the living room to find one of our elderly neighbors sitting in a chair and being tended to by Pastor Mom.  The poor woman had gashed her hand on a protruding nail.  Applying peroxide with a cotton ball, Pastor Mom urged her to go get a tetanus shot.

We have a very tiny congregation and I don’t recall ever seeing this woman in attendance.  But that doesn’t matter.  Pastor, doctor, mother, friend — the minister does it all, churchgoer or not, no questions asked.  Not only that, but she’s always on duty.  And I do mean 24/7.

Case in point:  A few nights ago, my wife and I were awakened from a sound sleep by someone walking around the perimeter of the parsonage, banging on the outside of the building as he went along and yelling “Pastor!  Pastor!”  It was just past two o’clock in the morning.

Apparently, the guy didn’t want to ring the doorbell and wake everyone in the house.  Needless to say, that little plan did not work.

Next thing I knew, one of our former neighbors (he recently separated from his wife and moved in with some friends in another neighborhood in town) was sitting in the kitchen.  He is an ex-con whom I first met in November when he completed his most recent stint in jail.  Apparently, he had gotten drunk with a bunch of his cronies and woke up in a ditch, soaked to the skin.  We gave him one of my shirts to wear while my wife and Pastor Mom got dressed and drove him home.

Thus is life in the parsonage:  Never a dull moment.  The reason, of course, is that there is never any shortage of suffering, misfortune, poverty and hurting people desperate for even the tiniest bit of succor derived from any source available.  And the church is a symbol of help, from God as well as from man.

I ended up briefly discussing this subject with my doctor in the examining room yesterday.  He told me that nearly all the doctors in this particular clinic had been there for more than twenty years, and likely would make thirty years before they retired.  Nurses and receptionists come and go, he said, but the doctors remain forever.  The reason for this, he told me, is their dedication, the fact that they take the Hippocratic Oath seriously.  He must have been referring to the portion of the oath that states “in every house where I come, I will enter only for the good of my patients.”  We agreed that the need for affordable health care in our community is enormous and that the doctors of this clinic go along way toward filling that need.

While at the clinic, I took time to thank the nurse for the friendliness and efficiency with which he has treated us during our first two visits to the clinic.  I shouldn’t have been surprised when he immediately credited everything he does to the help of God.

I will say this:  If you ever feel down about your own problems, just sit in a doctor’s office for a couple of hours.  What you will gain is known as “perspective.”  The suffering you are likely to witness will help you to realize how trivial your own troubles are by comparison.  Yesterday, I sat inches from a man younger than myself whose left leg had blown up to four or five times normal size and was wound in bandages from ankle to calf.  Prayers of thanks to God just came pouring out of me.

And then there are the questions that the clinic staff has to ask you.  Embarrassing questions like whether your spouse is beating you up and whether your living situation places you in danger of physical or sexual abuse.  I’m sure there are laws requiring them to do this, but the fact remains that too many of our neighbors are silently suffering from these very things, just outside our vision, day after day.

Stepping on the scale, I was so pleased that I had lost weight for my second consecutive doctor visit.  When I expressed to my doctor how happy I was about this, he asked me whether I was experiencing starvation.  Initially shocked, I quickly realized that he has to ask such follow-up questions because there are too many in the community in desperate poverty who quietly suffer from constant hunger.

Which brings me to our latest project.  In conjunction with our church family, I hope to take a lead role in providing a meal, free of charge, once a week in our church fellowship hall.  Anyone who wishes to eat with us would be welcome.  We see ourselves as preparing hot soup from leftover food items donated to us by merchants.  And we will likely be making a whole lot of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

And who knows?  Perhaps if we are truly fortunate, and have enough volunteers, we might be able to do this more than once each week.  But helping to alleviate suffering in the community requires the participation of the whole community.  Despite our good intentions, we cannot do this alone.

The hardest problem we face is getting businesses to agree to give us any food items that they would otherwise discard.  I refer to goods that are about to expire and fruit and vegetables that are starting to turn brown or that have soft spots or that otherwise are no longer pretty enough to display and sell.  We have already secured commitments from several people to chop vegetables and cook.  But from whence will the food come?

Being unemployed, I have little but my time and labor to contribute.  I pray that, if God is with us, He will soften the hearts of our local grocers sufficiently to allow us to feed the hungry with items that typically feed the dumpster.  There is so much food waste going on in the United States, while at the same time there are millions who go hungry every day.  Please pray with us that we will be able to bring the two ends together and make a difference in the lives of local families suffering from perpetually empty stomachs.

This past Christmas, as we do every Christmas, we prepared food boxes for some of our poorest local households, many of whom share living quarters with extended family, including scores of  children.  These are people would otherwise have no Christmas dinner.  Some of the food was donated by kind volunteers, but much of it was purchased with church funds or money out of our own pockets.  As I was helping to sort the bags of pasta and rice and potatoes and the cans of beans and pumpkin and applesauce and soup, I could not help but wonder how these families would eat on the day after Christmas.  And it was then that I decided that I could not in good conscience leave these desperate neighbors to their own devices the other 364 days of the year.

We realized that, before we could even think of starting anything, some basic infrastructure had to be taken care of.  We needed to get electricity, air conditioning and heat installed in the fellowship hall, for example.  We needed to get our leaky gas line repaired.  By dint of volunteer efforts and timely donations, those expensive operations are nearly at the point of completion.  Then, by chance, while I was in a job interview in downtown Sacramento recently, my wife found a grocery store selling ten-pound bags of potatoes for three dollars.  Slowly, many things seem to be falling into place.

It may be little more than a dream, but, with God’s blessings, we hope to begin ladling soup and passing out sandwiches sometime in July or August.  This would be one small step toward alleviating the needless suffering all around us that we can no longer ignore.  Whether this turns out to be a dream fulfilled or a dream deferred will depend on the support of our local merchants and volunteers.

Please pray for us.

The Day After Christmas


My niece and nephew picked out a lovely tree.

It’s definitely Christmas.

I know this because my mother-in-law has already baked a peach cobbler and a fruitcake today and also made up food boxes to provide Christmas dinner to two local families who are desperately poor, one with three children and the other with seven.

Pastor Mom had already purchased turkeys and made up food boxes for two other needy families.  But then this morning, the needs of two more families who are unfamiliar to us came to our attention.  My wife and mother-in-law took off on a moment’s notice for an unplanned Wal-Mart run.  We need a couple more turkeys and ten pound bags of potatoes.  Must get more oatmeal packets and cookies.

One of them reportedly had nothing in the house for the kids to eat.  We know that their Christmas dinner will come early and that they will have to work on finding additional food for the big day on Wednesday.

And I thought I had problems.

Funny how Christmas has a way of putting things into perspective.

I think it’s wonderful how Christmas is known as “the season of giving.”  We all wish to be wise like the three kings of Orient and offer the finest things we have to those in the humblest of circumstances.

Okay, some of us forget.  In the hustle and bustle of the days leading up to Santa’s arrival, we may focus on getting the perfect gifts for our loved ones wrapped and under the tree, or on beginning preparations for the perfect holiday meal.  I suggest that we ought to pause in our exertions long enough to think of those who have nothing.  Those who don’t have to worry about what’s under the tree because they have no tree and wouldn’t have money for gifts even if they did.  Those who, in another time, may have had the pleasure of bedding down with the animals, or say, enjoying yet another packet of Top Ramen for dinner.

I know.  It’s easy to become jaded.  We are subject to too many requests for handouts.  They come to the door, wheedle for contributions at work, ring annoying bells in front of Target.  We don’t have enough to even make the kind of Christmas we really wish we could for our own families, and now every time we turn around we have to deal with people trying to make us feel guilty enough to fork over what little we have.

We’re already under enough stress as it is, and we wish the beggars would just stop already.  Don’t they know we’re doing what we can?

Oh, and don’t even get started on the scruffy characters who stand with tattered signs at the end of the freeway off-ramps where they have a captive audience waiting for the light to turn green.  Half of them have bicycles or dogs or even jackets, for heaven’s sake, so you know they’re fakers who aren’t really homeless.  They hang out in the same spots all year, lying in wait outside the fast food restaurants, but then comes the holidays and they write Merry Christmas Please Help on their signs.  What do they think we are, idiots?  We know blatant guilt-tripping when see it.  They’re not interested in food anyway.  All they want is a 40 and a blunt.  Don’t waste your money on that heap of trash.  Look straight ahead and keep driving.  Society’s detritus spread out before us like some kind of freak show when all we’re trying to do is earn a living and get to school in time to pick up the kids.

Truly, we’re doing the best we can.  But people just don’t get it.  Talk about living in an acquisitive America with Christmas marred by commercialism.  Everyone wants more, more, more, even the filthy drunks and transients.

As for those truly in need, aren’t there programs out there to help them?  Where are the food banks and the churches?  Let them do their jobs.  Most of the beggars are addicts or mentally ill or the product of their own bad decisions, so they are beyond help anyway.  There’s really nothing we can do for them, so don’t waste your time and money.

Yes, the charitable organizations are running at full tilt.  The bi-county food bank is having a big giveaway tomorrow.  There will also be a free meal on the church lawn on Saturday (along with toys for all local kids who show up).  We’ll make sure that the members of our little community in need have a decent Christmas on Wednesday.

But it’s not Wednesday that concerns me.

It’s Thursday.

The day after Christmas.


A Bathroom and a Pair of Shoes

bath shoes

I don’t know what our homeless friend is going to do now.

I haven’t seen him in a couple of days.

Rain has been in the weather forecast, so we placed the meager belongings he left behind in a large black trash bag last week.  At some point, he picked it up.

But it’s November, which is the start of winter here in northern California.  It gets cold at night and we typically experience quite a bit of rain.  They’re talking about flash flood warnings on the TV news.  It’s time to start thinking about sand bags again.

Although we don’t have feet of snow and below zero temperatures like our friends in the Midwest, Northeast and Canada do, it’s not the type of weather that inspires camping out-of-doors.

Our homeless friend mentioned that he needs a tent.  His mother still won’t allow him to sleep in her house, although she allows him in for the occasional meal.  So far, he’s been able to make camp in the grass on the corner of her property.  But I’m not optimistic that even that concession will last long, as he continues to be unable to meet his mother’s demand to contribute to the water bill.

And then there is the matter of his shoes.  Word is that they were falling apart when his mother generously purchased him a new pair.  He wore them for only a short time before he gave them away.  To another homeless friend.  An older guy with physical disabilities who was desperate.  Our friend told us that the recipient needed the shoes more than he did.

So what do we have here?  A homeless man with a heart of gold.  Someone who has nothing, not a roof over his head, his few possessions in a plastic bag.  And what does he do?  He thinks first of others in greater need than himself.

We found out about his shoes late last week when he stopped by and had some breakfast with us.  He was here to water our rose bushes.  And he asked if he could please wash our cars.  Not for money; just to say thanks for our kindness.

My wife had a package of shoe inserts.  She offered to give him a set since he walks so much.  He took off his shoes, she checked the size and began cutting down the Odor Eaters to fit.  She was nearly bowled over by the horrible smell.

While our friend would have a bit more walking comfort for a while, we knew that what he needed was a new pair of shoes to replace his filthy, worn-out ones.  We thought he deserved a second chance.  Since he forfeited his last opportunity to a charitable impulse.

We made a Wal-Mart run the next day and purchased shoes for him along with our regular shopping haul.  He tried them on and pronounced them a good fit.  He expressed his gratitude over and over.

It is no surprise that our friend complains of being cold at night.  Nor is it a surprise that he has sought the shelter of last resort:  Sleeping in the church bathroom.

The bathroom has no entrance into the church, just a door to the outside.  So we have left it unlocked for just this purpose.  Even though we fear that addicts will find out and start using the bathroom to shoot up.

Yes, it’s a risk.  But it makes sense.  You see, Pastor Mom is deeply committed to the well-being of her flock, the community and the homeless among us.  I think we need more like her.  But I’m prejudiced.

Then came Saturday night.

The mercury hung in the low 40s, the sky clouded over and the wind began to blow.  In the afternoon, we had allowed our homeless friend to run his few clothes through our washer and dryer.  He came to pick them up just after sunset and I asked him to sit down for a few minutes.  I asked if he was hungry.  He said no, he had eaten two tacos that he was able to get at a fast food place for a dollar and change.  And he was headed to his mother’s to have chicken and dumplings for dinner.

After dinner, his mother required him to leave her house.  Out in the cold again.  So he did the only thing he knew to do.  He sought refuge in the church bathroom.

But then came Sunday morning.

Pastor Mom and my wife were out of town, at a hospital ministering to the dying daughter of a friend.  An assistant handled the church service for the day.

While the Spanish congregation held its service in the chapel, the family Sunday school took place in the social hall.  At 11 a.m., the English speaking congregation headed over to the chapel.

It was inevitable.  Someone needed to use the men’s rest room.  But it was locked.  Someone was in there.

Our homeless friend.

Not all of the facts are particularly clear.  Apparently, our friend was using the last few minutes left on his mobile phone when people started banging on the door.  He was ordered to leave.  He refused.  He just wanted everyone to go away and leave him alone.

Voices were raised.  Threats were made.  The incident escalated and, through the door, our friend was told that the cops had been called.

And when he finally opened the door, he was told that he’d better run, the sheriffs were on their way.  Except that they weren’t.  It was a lie.

I have no idea what really happened.  My guess is that our homeless friend forgot that it was Sunday and that the bathroom would therefore be needed.  Regardless, however, we humans do require shelter from the cold and wind.  Even on Sunday.  You know, the day we pray to God to look kindly upon us?  The day that we praise the Lord for the many blessings he has bestowed upon us?  The day that we pass the offering plate and give of our bounty to help the less fortunate?  Yeah, that day.

Later, I heard that our homeless friend apologized for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  And for initially refusing to leave the premises.

The door to the church bathroom stays locked at night now.  The church higher-ups let us know that this is necessary due to insurance considerations and to preserve the church’s tax exempt status.

We gave our homeless friend a thermal blanket liner to place inside his sleeping bag.  But I have no idea where he is sleeping now.  I haven’t seen him around.

Update: As we were getting ready to go to bed tonight, there was a bang on our door. It was our homeless friend. He was hungry, and we fed him. His sister is allowing him to sleep in her car temporarily. He says he will be obtaining a tent tomorrow.

NaBloPoMo November 2013

Extended Family 101


Yesterday, I shared our daily bathroom follies with you.  But this is just one part of the paradigm shift associated with transitioning from a child-free nuclear family to an extended family living arrangement.  In the parsonage.  Right next to the church.  This has been a true learning experience.  The following describes just a few of the lessons in which I’ve been schooled of late.

Just because you hear the crunch of tires on gravel does not mean you have visitors.

200 years ago, Jane Austen wrote that the sound of coach wheels on gravel meant the party’s over and it’s time for everyone to go home.  And just like in the old days back in Hertfordshire, vehicles approaching our humble abode are announced by the crunching of gravel in the lot between the church and the parsonage.  Don’t get too excited about having company, though.  Likely as not, it’s just a couple of CalTrans workers on their lunch break snagging some quesadillas at the taqueria across the street.  We really need to erect a sign that reads:



                                       – GOD

No matter how thirsty or hungry you are, do not walk to the kitchen in your undies.

Why?  Because you never know who you’re going to run into.  I haven’t had so many people coming in and out of my living quarters since I resided in a college dormitory in the 1970s.  That’s right, welcome to Grand Central Station, where everybody knows your name (and they’re always glad you came, tra-la-la).  Even if you make it through the living room unscathed, and even though it’s three in the morning, there’s a good chance that yours truly is sitting silently in the kitchen, just waiting to scare the living daylights out of you when you come around the corner.  And just because the house sounds quiet doesn’t mean that a parishioner, one of your niece’s friends or the homeless guy who hangs out across the fence will not show up at the door at exactly the wrong moment.  Surprise!

It’s important to learn the names of the regulars.

I’m getting tired of mouthing to my wife “What’s her name again?” to avoid embarrassing myself.  Personally, I think too much Baby TV is making me soft in the head.  But, alas, my wife is probably right, I just don’t pay attention.

For example, my niece has two young friends, sisters close in age, who show up here on a regular basis.  Both of their given names begin with M, so my wife and I have taken to referring to them as M&M.  I’ve suggested calling them Plain & Peanut, but one of them heard me say that and now she knows what a buffoon I really am.  But I think I’ve got it straightened out now.  One has dark hair and braces and the other is a blonde with none.  Got it.

When you’re used to sleeping in a king-sized bed, and then you move and have to switch to a queen, be thankful that your wife doesn’t fling you out of bed on your head.

Let me start with a disclaimer here.  My wife has never flung me out of our bed onto my head or any other bodily part.  Okay, now that we have that straight, let’s move on to a picture of the realities of the situation.  My wife tends to luxuriate in our soft, comfy bed by spreading all the way out as if to say “aaaahhhh!”  Then she places a pillow under her right arm.  My wife refers to this state of affairs as “taking my half out of the middle.”

With my wife and that blasted pillow taking up most of the bed, I am left with about an inch and a half of space to curl up in.  One false move and gravity will have its way with me.  More than once I have clutched the side of the bed just in time to avoid going kerplop.  Oh, and by the way, I have learned the true meaning of the phrase “stick it in your ear.”  That’s right, with my wife’s arms spread out, her index finger is generally about 0.2 centimeters from probing my Eustachian tubes.  At least bring a Q-Tip, will ya?

Seriously, my wife is really a good egg.  She tells me to just wake her up and tell her to move.  I sure appreciate this, but let’s just say that waking up my wife is unwise.  But if I begin snoring too loudly or making any of the other weird noises I am prone to when in a somnolent state, I fully expect a poke in the ribs and a request to please turn over.

No problem, my dear.  And, uh, sweet dreams.

Now can I have my king-size bed back?

Be thankful and express your gratitude at all times.

In an extended family, there is never a lack of entertainment.  There are more people to cook, more people to shop, more people to babysit, more people to keep you company.  Every day is truly a gift.  No matter how much you buy, there is never enough milk, bread or potatoes, and just because you’ve already been to Wal-Mart once today doesn’t mean that you won’t have to go again.  Enjoy the warm fuzzies, and don’t forget to express your appreciation early and often.

So thank you, Pastor Mom, for making me spaghetti with fresh zucchini and mushroom sauce, and for the vegetarian stew and for the homemade beans and for the Sprite cake and for the chocolate pie . . .

Thank you, dear wife, for putting up with me while I am “between jobs.”  (I know I messed up when I blurted out that remark about vegetarian chili in Target the other day and I am truly sorry.)  Note to self:  Learn to control the mouth, dude.

And thank you, dear nieces, nephews, baby grandniece and assorted relatives, friends, neighbors and countrymen, for making me feel like a kid again and for reminding me what family really is for.

God bless you one and all.


What I Learned This Week

TGIF!  Happy weekend to all those who worked all week and now have a chance to relax.  Now two weeks unemployed, every day is the weekend for me!  Not to rub it in or anything.

What I Learned This Week:

  • WinCo Foods may have decent prices, but they are not very community oriented.  They expect local residents to spend their money there, but they refuse to allow local churches to conduct a holiday canned food drive outside their store on Saturday mornings.  A manager told me that this is easier than choosing who to say yes to and who to turn down.  She also told me that their attorneys won’t allow it.  I wonder what would happen if the community were to turn WinCo down the way they turn down the community?  Lucky thing there are so many other supermarkets in the area.  Wonder if they all feel the same way?
  • We have a population of resident frogs on the property between the church and the parsonage.  And I don’t mean the little things that hop out of the bushes at night at my parents’ house.  No, these guys are big suckers.  The kind of grenouilles whose cuisses show up drenched in garlic butter at French restaurants.  The kind that end up pickled in formaldehyde and dissected in biology classrooms.  The kind of tz’fardeah that jumped out of the Nile en masse and took up residence in the mixing bowls of the Egyptians and in Pharaoh’s bed chamber and in his bed.  I don’t know what these guys are feeding on, but they are obviously happy amphibians.  Ribbit!
  • Tower Mart’s deli counter closes promptly at 7 pm.  So if you get a hankering for some potato wedges in the evening, forget it!
  • My niece has acquired a one-piece PJ outfit that is all red and white stripes with pictures of the Sock Monkey on the pocket and on the footies.  Adorable!
  • The way Highway 70 in Marysville is being chopped to pieces by construction crews, it is very difficult to get over to Yuba City, particularly if you are new to the area and haven’t a clue about where you’re going.
  • When you buy a book for a penny on eBay, do not be surprised if it has been written in, marked up and highlighted to within an inch of its life by a maniacal college student.
  • Marie Callender’s sells frozen pie crusts in the supermarket, and they are both vegetarian and kosher.  Big smiles!
  • If I clap my hands, my little grandniece will copy me and start clapping, too.  If only I could figure out who or what we are applauding.
  • If Starbucks messes up your drink, they will not only remake it for you, but will also give you a coupon for a free drink next time.  Woot!
  • My mother-in-law’s coconut crème pies are a huge hit with all of our family and friends.  Three cheers for Aunt Jackie pie!
  • Technology has always confuzzled me, but I am a bigger technodork than even I imagined.  I have just barely figured out how to use Spotify, but Twitter is making me frustrated!  Sign me “caught somewhere between the @ sign and the hash tag.”

Blogs I discovered and enjoyed this week:

  • Piglove – The adventures of Bacon, the pot-bellied pig!
  • Must Be This Tall to Ride – Dad shares custody of his five year old son while maintaining his sanity and his job as a writer.  Funny, funny stuff.  No typos, please!

Blog posts that most moved me this week:


Twilight outside our new digs.  In silhouette are my nephew and niece.  After spending hours digging a trench to try to fix the gas line to the social hall, my nephew had to drive back over here to help my niece when her car wouldn’t start.  If you listen very closely, you can hear my grandniece in her car seat screaming her fool head off — just because she can.