Jury Duty Fake-Out

About a month ago, when we drove down to the main drag to pick up our mail, I plucked a surprise out of our post office box.  In large red letters, the envelope announced JURY SUMMONS.

My first thought was “oh, what a pain.”  I am so busy at work and this will interfere with my travels to southern California to conduct the training classes that I’ve been planning for months.  My second though was “it will be fun and interesting to serve on a jury again.”

What did not go through my mind was the thought that everyone else seems to have in such situations:  “How can I get out of it?”  My wife tells stories of how her late father wouldn’t vote for fear of being added to county lists of potential jurors.  Apparently, he was not alone.  These days, I hear they use DMV lists for this purpose.  Lots of people don’t vote but, at least in California, almost everyone drives.

I believe there is a reason it’s called “jury duty.”  Serving when called is a civic duty, not unlike the obligation to pay taxes.  In both cases, failure to fulfill one’s obligation to society can land you behind bars.

I remember the first time I was called for jury duty.  This was back in New York.  I was in my twenties and hadn’t much of a clue about the process.  Then, as now, summoned jurors were expected to call the day before and listen to a recording to hear whether the group number on the summons was called to report.  Sure enough, my number was up right away.  I reported to the courthouse, sat in the jury assembly room for a couple of hours and was eventually called to voir dire in a civil case.  The twelve jurors were selected, and I was up for one of the two alternate spots.  Now, I had no intention of sitting through a trial just to be sent home without the opportunity to sit in deliberation with the other jurors.  Being young and foolish, I viewed this as a waste of time instead of the integral part of the process that it is.  Fortunately for me, I knew one of the people on the witness list and hoped that mentioning this fact would get me excused.  When one of the attorneys asked if there was any reason I would be unable to serve as a fair and impartial juror, I got out exactly one word of my answer.  “Well,” I began, and was immediately cut off by the judge who asked me not to say anything further.  Excused!  I suppose they were concerned that I would say something that would prejudice the other jurors.

Years later, I finally did serve when I lived down in the Central Valley.  It was a criminal trial involving lots of drug charges and a group of people who had a nice little business running a meth lab out in the sticks.  I was so glad when we were able to convict those miscreants.

Last weekend, I dialed the number on the jury summons to see if my group had been called.  The message said to call back after five on Monday.  When I did so, my group number was up for Tuesday.  I texted my boss to let her know that duty called.

My wife dropped me off at the courthouse downtown, an impressive six-story edifice reached from the street by means of two flights of stairs and walking across a plaza.  For those of us who have mobility issues but are not in wheelchairs, this can be daunting.  As it is, the traffic was bad downtown and we had a heck of a time navigating the maze of one-way streets leading to the courthouse.  I was already late and we were not about to drive around some more looking for the correct one-way street that might lead to a side of the courthouse that would have a handicapped ramp.  Gripping the railings,  I slowly pulled myself up all those steps, carrying my little Whole Foods bag packed with enough food and water for the duration.

After being scanned through the metal detector, I headed for the elevator up to the jury assembly room.  Riding up with several others, one of my fellow occupants of the lift remarked that she smelled popcorn.  Another said that all we needed now was a movie.  A third assured us that we would indeed see a movie shortly.  I rolled my eyes.  Probably a little five-minute flag-waving video about the important part that jurors play in the judicial system and the democratic process generally.  I had no idea of what was to come.

Exiting the elevator, I was confronted with a mass of humanity.  A large open mezzanine with what seemed like hundreds of seats was completely full.  I learned where the start of the line was and was shocked.  The line snaked around and around the mezzanine, eventually turning into a hallway and then into the jury assembly room, where it again snaked around several corners.  I could not begin to estimate how many people were present.

Fortunately, the courthouse was a cool respite from the 100 degree plus heat outside.  However, I questioned whether I would be able to stand on my feet long enough to reach the end of the line.  I was pleasantly surprised by how quickly the line moved along.  In less than 15 minutes, I was able to collect my badge holder and show my summons to the clerk behind the window.  I was told to take a seat.

Um, where?  I did not see a single seat that was vacant.  I peeked into an adjoining room.  Also full.  I walked up and down the aisles until I found a seat that was occupied not by a person but by a cell phone and a bag.  “Is anyone sitting here?” I asked.  I figured that the owner of those belongings had probably run to the rest room and would be right back.  Luckily, I was wrong.  The occupant of the adjacent seat picked up the items and I was able to sit down.  Whew!

By then, I was the one who needed to use the rest room.  I was reluctant to abandon my seat, however, for fear that I would not find another.  I noticed that several people were standing, leaning against the walls.

The jury clerk welcomed us over a microphone that could be heard both in the jury assembly room and out in the mezzanine, where the snaking line continued to deliver more potential jurors to the window.  “We’re going to have a party!” the cheerful clerk announced.  Oh, brother.

The assistant presiding judge came in, took the mike and thanked us for participating in the judicial process.  There were 580 of us today, he announced.  He could just as well have said 5,080 and I would have believed.  Men, women, young ones, old ones, guys in T-shirts, guys in suits, women in jeans, women dressed to the nines.  People working on the jigsaw puzzles set out at four stations.  People talking on cell phones, reading the newspaper, texting, playing games on iPads, doing homework while balancing laptops and textbooks.  People staring off into space.  People chatting with each other.  People ignoring their neighbors.  People with their eyes closed, seemingly asleep.

I texted work, checked email and then put my phone away for fear that I’d run out of charge.  No outlets in which to plug a charging cord were in evidence.  The clerk announced that the courthouse plaza was being used in the evenings as a homeless encampment and that the court could not vouch for the cleanliness of the picnic tables and benches outside.  Then she told us she’d put on some movies, but that they were all rated PG.  Sounds about right for a courthouse.

There were two flat screen TVs in the jury assembly room, on which a steady stream of Blu-Ray movies were shown all day.  I wondered whether they showed the same movies over and over, day in and day out, and whether the clerks ever got bored with them.

The first movie was a kids’ flick with Billy Crystal and Bette Midler, Parental Guidance.  The premise involved a washed-up baseball announcer and his wife taking care of their spoiled rotten grandkids for a week.  I actually watched most of this unfunny comedy, at least until it became to stupid to bear.  Then came Zookeeper, which I think was supposed to be a romantic comedy, featuring a talking lion, giraffe, gorilla, monkey and other assorted members of a loquacious menagerie.  Appropriately, I suppose, Adam Sandler was the voice of the monkey.  I guess I made it through about half the film before I couldn’t take the stupidity.  That was followed by You Again and several others, by which time I had totally zoned out and stopped paying attention.

Every so often, the clerk would pause the movie to read off a list of names of those who were to report to a particular courtroom for jury selection.  She urged us to say “Here!” nice and loudly when our names were called so that she, or her counterpart with the hundreds out in the mezzanine, could be checked off the list.  She began to read the list.  With each name, I heard the cry of “Here!” either close by or faintly off in the distance.  As to the unseen masses sitting out in the mezzanine, we’d here a loud “Chirp!” to announce that the person called had acknowledged his or her presence out in the other room.  I assume that the chirp was issued by a handheld device used by the clerk working the mezzanine.

Three panels were called, but my name was not.  Then an hour and a half break for lunch.  Most of the crowd left, but I stayed tight and pulled out my sandwich, carrots, grapes and bottles of water.

Thanks to the lovely medications I take, I had to use the rest room several times throughout the day.  The first time, I waited as long as I possibly could until finally making a mad dash for the men’s room before my bladder burst.  Upon my return, to my surprise, my seat was still vacant.  Well, what do you know!  And I didn’t even have to yell “spot back!”

The second time I wasn’t so lucky, but managed to find a seat closer to the door and farther away from the squawking Blu-Ray movies.

After lunch, two more panels were called, but still my name was not heard.  Finally, about 3 pm, the clerk announced that the courtrooms had confirmed that no more jurors would be needed that day.  Those of us remaining would be excused in groups.  When our group number was called, we were to report to the window, turn in our badge holders and receive a slip acknowledging our service.  Under California’s “one day/one trial” rule, we were reassured that we would not be called again for at least 18 months.

I texted my wife to come retrieve me and went out to sit just inside the front door of the courthouse.  It was 105 degrees outside and I did not relish the thought of sitting on a step in the broiling sun while my wife navigated the downtown traffic.

I was a bit disappointed that I was not called to sit on a trial, but also a little relieved.  Now I could return to work to prepare for my upcoming trip down south.

But if summoned again in 2019 to do my civic duty, I plan to answer the call and once again show up at the courthouse to sit all day with masses of my fellow Sacramentans.  After all, I do appreciate the freedoms that we Americans enjoy, including the guarantee of a trial by a jury of our peers.  So, as I see it, it’s the least I can do.

 

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.”

 

 

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.

 

The Dead Place

Fort Lauderdale Cemetery

POMPANO BEACH, FLORIDA

I seem to have lost my bearings, both as to space and time.  Funny how traveling can do that.  Once you’re out of your regular routine, it can be hard to remember what day it is or where you are.  For me, this effect has been compounded by the fact that I developed flulike symptoms somewhere around the Carolinas.  Upon our arrival in Florida, I more or less collapsed in our hotel room bed, sending my wife off to visit the friend she came to see.  I slept most of the day while they took a day trip down to Key West.  Only in the cool breeze of the evening did I venture outside to sit on one of the deck chairs overlooking the hotel pool.

Everything is so white here:  The furniture, the cars, the blinding midday sun.  It’s a Florida thing, I’m told, everything is white to reflect the intense sunlight.

For years, Florida’s Gold Coast has struck me as “the dead place.”  If you believe in hell, the climate here will give you a preview of coming attractions.  Not long ago, my father reminded me of a book he read years ago, Dying in the Sun, about retirees who leave the Northeast and Midwest to live their golden years in South Florida, endure illnesses, and be buried there.

Dad loves gallows humor.  He tells me that the only topics of conversation when you run into a fellow geezer in South Florida are:

  • Where you went to eat and did you go “early bird”
  • What the doctor said
  • “You hear who died?”

After an absence of a quarter of a century, I again find myself in the land of the dead.

South Florida. U.S. 1, known locally as Federal Highway. Late night Denny’s run.

“Got any fresh decaf?” I ask the server before I even sit down.

“I can make you a fresh pot, honey,” she replies before waddling off to the kitchen.

My wife and I peruse the menu and I spy our server sitting side saddle at a booth a few feet across the room. “You ready yet?” she calls out to us, not making a move in our direction. The poor woman weighs about as much as I do. The place is nearly empty, so she must be taking an opportunity for a moment’s rest. I can see how it would be tough for her to stand on her feet for an entire shift. Still, my wife is appalled at what passes for customer service in this place.

We attempt to put together our orders.

“Got any soup?”

“Nope, we throw it out at 10:00.”

“I’ll have oatmeal…”

“Nope, we only have it until 2:00.”

“Grits?”

“Nope.”

“Well then I’ll have a toasted bagel.”

“Nope. Only in the mornings. You can have an English muffin.”

It seems that the Grand Slam has become the Grand Strike Out.

We are used to good service at Denny’s all over the country, so we are unpleasantly surprised. We soon learn that this is not an anomaly. A few nights later, in Grants, New Mexico, I order potatoes and get rice. I order broccoli that arrives so cold, it is obvious that it is just out of the freezer, having seen insufficient time in the microwave. Getting a refill on my coffee is next to impossible. It is clear that customer service is not a priority. Disgusted, we give the remainder of our gift card to an elderly couple on our way out.  Denny’s had been crossed off our list.

But tonight, something else is on my mind.  It could be the combination of being sick and the weird feeling of being in a strange environment that was once familiar, decades ago.  After visiting the graves of one set of grandparents in New York City earlier during this trip, we have now stopped at the graves of my other set of grandparents, my Dad’s folks, near Fort Lauderdale. I had been to the cemetery in Queens many times as a kid with my parents, had a horribly emotional experience at my grandfather’s funeral when I was 21, and last set foot in the place at his unveiling, some 35 years ago. Aside from the stone bench being moved, a curb being installed and the cemetery having become even more crowded than it used to be, I found that not much had changed in the intervening decades. Back in the sixties and seventies, my parents would drag us out there a couple of times each year. I’d bring a siddur (prayer book) and read the Kaddish in the original Aramaic while my mother cleared the graves of loose greenery and then just sat there while my sisters, my father and myself grew increasingly restless and impatient. I was too young to appreciate Mom’s grief over her mother’s loss.

But here in Florida, this was different. For one thing, I did not attend either funeral and had never been to the graves before. For another, this was a mausoleum rather than a traditional six-feet-under burial site (although there were plenty of those on the grounds, too). I expected the graves to be indoors, in a building, but they were not. I knew the bodies had been cemented into a wall, but I did not expect the wall to be outdoors!

The elderly, chatty clerk at the desk in the tiny super air conditioned office of our hotel in Deerfield Beach insisted on drawing me a map of how to get to the cemetery.  It was not as if he was intimately familiar with the place; it’s just that he tried to map it on Google and couldn’t get his printer to cooperate when I informed him that I had to go because my wife was impatiently waiting for me in the car.  Not wanting to let me escape without assistance (a reflection of his kindness, as I could have mapped the route on my phone in a fraction of the time), he settled for a low-tech solution by consulting the map on his computer screen and hand drawing a facsimile therefrom.  His directions turned out to be perfect.

When my wife pulled up to the curb near an open door to the cemetery office, I stepped inside only to find that this was the location of a funeral.  I was sent around to the other side of the building.  There, we were told to pull into the rabbi’s space to wait for an employee who could assist us.  A woman emerged a few minutes later, spoke with us through the car window and then went back inside to retrieve a form.  I was to write down the names of the deceased.  The employee left and returned a few minutes later, stating that there were multiple people buried there with the same names.  She asked me for my grandparents’ dates of birth or death.  I wasn’t sure about my grandparents’ DOB, but I knew my grandfather had died in 1996.  When she next returned with a map of the property, the employee informed me that I had erred, that Grandpa had actually died in 1992.  This came as a surprise to me, as he and I had one of our best conversations in 1993, when my grandparents traveled to New York to be with my father during his surgery.  The depth of incompetence possible in customer service never ceases to amaze me.

Following the map, we drove as close as we could get to the block section where my grandparents’ remains are entombed.  I still had a little way to go on foot, negotiating the block numbers in the blazing South Florida midday heat, remaining in the shade as much as possible.  My grandparents’ marker was located on the top row of a mausoleum block stacked six high.  I found a nearby bench from which I could crane my head to read the writing high above me.  The marker (matzevah, as we call it in Hebrew) was unremarkable.  It contained my grandparents’ years of birth and death, not even full dates.  Not a word of Hebrew was in evidence, not even their Jewish names.  As disappointing as I found this, I suppose it reflects the reality of the situation:  Neither one had a religious bone in their bodies.  (And Grandpa, in fact, openly disdained and ridiculed religion of any type.)  There were two standard icons in the corners, a Star of David and a menorah, just like on hundreds of other nearby stones.  A cookie cutter memorial.  Except, I noted, for some brief descriptive information.  Grandpa was etched in stone as “a loyal friend” (Note to self:  Ask Dad about this.  This is a side of Grandpa with which I am totally unfamiliar.) and Grandma was “a beautiful, gracious lady.”  Gag.  As if this weren’t bad enough, the lower edge of the stone read “in love forever.”  While I initially found the sappiness intolerably saccharine, thinking about this for a few days left me with a sense of veritas.  My grandparents remained quite solicitous of each other into their elder years and, I had to admit, did indeed remain in love with each other all their lives.

And I am pleased to report that, cemetery office weirdos notwithstanding, the stone did indeed list the correct year of my grandfather’s death, 1996.  It’s hard to believe that twenty years have already elapsed since then.

Summer, 1996.  I am out of work (again) and living with my sister’s family in Boston.  I have developed a serious internet addiction that involves volunteering for AOL, staying online all night and sleeping during the day.  I am on a 14.4K dialup connection, due to which my family can’t get through to us late at night with the news of my grandfather’s death.  My brother-in-law in California IMs me to have my sister call our parents at once.  Mom and Dad offer to pay for a plane ticket for me to fly to Florida for the funeral, but I decline.  The thought of flying makes me incredibly anxious, exacerbating my panic disorder.  If I just stay here in Boston and don’t think about it, I’ll be alright, I tell myself.  I don’t feel emotionally stable enough to travel to a funeral 1,500 miles away.  I will crumple, I know, perhaps have one of my hyperventilation episodes like I did at my other grandfather’s funeral in 1980, and just make it worse for everyone.  I don’t think about how I might feel 20 years later.

I bid adieu to my grandparents’ graves, pick myself up off the bench and walk back to the air conditioned shelter of our car as quickly as I can.  I do not know how people manage to live in such a hellacious climate.  The sweat pours off my face and neck and I know I need a drink of cold water immediately.  As I open the car door, the blast of refrigerated air is as welcome relief as a man could ask for.

We’re done here.  Let’s go home to California.

 

 

Just Google It: An Essay on Self-Reliance

As I’ve mentioned before in this space, among my favorite words in the French language is la débrouillardisme and its adjective form, débroubillard(e).  While I do not believe that there is any English word that exactly captures the nuances of the term, the closest translation that I’ve encountered is “resourcefulness.”  The word also has a certain patina of what, back in my college days, was termed “gettin’ over on the man” and what (even earlier, as a kid) adults called “pulling a fast one.”  The implication is one of knowing how to get things done, particularly in terms of which back channels must be traversed and whose palms must be greased.  But the French word also contains an element of the concept of “cleverness,” somewhere between knowing how to spin straw into gold and knowing how to trick people into doing what you want.  It’s no wonder that “il/elle est très débrouillard(e)” is among the highest of compliments that a French person can bestow.

I also think of the term as bearing elements of “self-reliance,” as in “he can take care of himself.”  That presents a fine line between the admirable trait (in terms of the Protestant work ethic, anyway) of not needing to depend on anyone else and the (arguably) more questionable trait of “being a sharpie” who obtains advantages for him/herself at the expense of others.

I thought about this concept today because of Google, and because of the U.S. presidential debates that I’ve been watching on TV recently.

Painted with the broadest of brush strokes, I’ve heard it expressed that the Republicans are the party of laissez-faire economics and rugged individualism.  The Horatio Alger “rags to riches” myth (and its closely associated phrase “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps”), with its implication that “any kid can grow up to be president, just look at old Abe Lincoln who was born in a log cabin,” is alive and well in America.  The GOP has a reputation as being “the party of business” that rewards the rich with tax breaks that aid them in retaining their wealth.  The party also has a reputation of favoring a reduced role of government, with the underlying philosophy that most of us have deep wells of fortitude upon which one can draw to reach the nirvana that is self-reliance.  Don’t mess around with the economy and things will find their own level as people make decisions based on self-interest.  Coddling Americans with government largesse encourages sloth and leads to every type of weakness, from the personal to the national.

The Democratic Party philosophy appears to embody a decidedly different world view that includes awareness of society’s troubles, from poverty to mental illness to drugs (what I like to term “the three Hs”:  homelessness, Haldol and heroin).  My fellow Democrats like to be proactive rather than reactive.  Rather than closing the barn door after the horse has escaped, we believe in spending money on things like education, social justice and prevention rather than prisons, hospitals and cemeteries.  We believe that those who “can” have a duty to society to give their all.  But we also know that there will always be those who “cannot” and must be supported rather than left to be trampled on by the herd, to suffer and to die in desperation.  “There will always be poor people in the land.  Therefore I command you to be openhanded.”  Deut. 15:11  We may admire self-reliance, but it is wrong to disrespect those who, for whatever reason, lack that ability.  It takes all kinds to make a well-rounded society, and everyone has something to contribute.  We all agree on the need to care for the children, but too many of us fail to see that there are those among us who will always be children and must be taken care of regardless of their chronological age.

The stresses of modern American life put the lie to the ideal of self-reliance and expose the Horatio Alger myth for what it is.  I think of Donald Trump, whom I believe is rightly admired for his many successes, but who may not have been able to achieve them had he not been preceded by his millionaire real estate developer father, Fred.  While Trump may see himself as a modern-day Lincoln (I suspect that The Donald is a legend in his own mind), he was definitely not born in a one-room log cabin in Kentucky.  Nor was he raised in a rent-controlled apartment in Brooklyn, as Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders was.

I find a supreme irony in the fact that both Trump and Sanders are native New Yorkers, the former from Queens and the latter from Brooklyn.  One was born with a silver spoon in his mouth while the other was born to impoverished immigrants who sought a better life in America.  I suppose it’s no wonder that Sanders seems to have an appreciation for the suffering and hope of those who risk everything to escape death in places like Syria, while Trump wants to build a wall on the Mexican border and keep Muslims out of the country.  I think it’s clear that we have two different world views going on here, each propounded by a man who achieved success through his own vision of “resourcefulness” and “self-reliance,” la débrouillardisme.

This is where I have to mention Google.  It seems that hardly a day goes by that I don’t hear someone say “Why don’t you Google it?”  After hearing this phrase roll off the tongue of coworkers, my wife and my teenage niece, the profoundness of its ubiquity struck me when I heard it from my octogenarian father not too long ago.  The essence is that if you don’t know, it’s no big deal.  You can just Google it.

Over the centuries, the United States has progressed from an agrarian economy to an industrial economy and, finally, to an information economy.  Despite the importance of information, however, no one much cares what we have stored up in our brains anymore.  Why commit anything to memory when you can just Google it?

Among the arguments in favor of search engines is that they are capable of storing exponentially more information than any person could ever hope to know.  I imagine that today’s grade school students must find it insufferable to have to memorize anything (from multiplication facts to state capitals to spelling words) when you can just Google it.

Is this what has come of self-reliance?  Have we truly moved on from Nike’s age of “just do it” to the age of “just Google it?”  One could argue that we no longer rely on the self, but instead rely on computer databases (and hope to God that they are accurate).  Speaking of accuracy, I suppose there is no comparison.  The human mind is subject to the vagaries of recollection and the ravages of time, but zeroes and ones (like diamonds) are forever.

There are those who argue that the knowledge economy transcends the memorization of yesterday.  Computers spew and vomit out data nonstop; the value-added individual is he or she who can interpret what it all means.  How important is it really that a presidential candidate at a debate botches the name of a world leader, a quotation or a statistic?  We all know that CNN, Fox News and the New York Times will be fact checking every statement.  So there really isn’t any need for a dog to bark at the lies and misstatements of the candidates, as so colorfully recounted by Hillary Clinton recently.  We have the news media to do the barking for us.  And think of all the money we save on vet bills!

In his famous essay, “Self Reliance,” Ralph Waldo Emerson suggested that we are obligated to decide things for ourselves rather than rely on the views and opinions of others.  He praises nonconformity, at least in the sense it shouldn’t matter what anyone else thinks.  After all, who’s to say that we’re not right and everyone else is wrong?

I suppose Emerson’s ideals could be said to have influenced the self-reliant types who head off into the Alaskan wilderness to live the life of a resourceful hermit.  And yet, the French ideal of la débrouillardisme is not about separating ourselves from our fellow man, but learning to succeed in spite of him.  It’s all about being Dickens’ Artful Dodger, knowing how to turn the tricks of the trade to your advantage, how to smooth talk others into giving you what you want, how to execute what Trump refers to as “the art of the deal.”

While it’s fine to admire the clever among us, and to refine our methods of dreaming and scheming, it would be well to remember that we are not dealing with a level playing field here.  Many of us are disadvantaged right out of the gate, including African-Americans and recent immigrants, who face every variety of subtle and not-so-subtle discrimination, and including those with mental and physical disabilities, and including those who were raised in abject poverty that weighs one down with a gravitational force that precludes pulling one’s self up by even the strongest of bootstraps.

While those of us who “can” pursue our self-reliant ways, we must never forget to proffer the assistance needed by those who “might” with the aid of additional resources, and we must never forget to provide for those who “cannot” under any circumstances.

So I say to all the presidential candidates of both parties:  Know this for certain, that the day will come when you will require an answer that neither Google nor Siri can provide.  For as King David taught us centuries ago, in time even the mighty shall fall.  And it is then that those of former greatness shall gain personal knowledge of what it is like for those of us who live without help and without hope.

 

My Inner Millennial

Sunday morning.

My wife got up early, got ready and headed over to IHOP to meet her cousin and the cousin’s husband along with her elderly aunt for breakfast.  It was her aunt’s 87th birthday.

Meanwhile, I slept in after having stayed up late last night playing games online.  When my wife got home a bit after noon, it was my turn to go out for breakfast.  I headed to my favorite local buffet place, where even a vegan can pig out on steamed vegetables, potatoes, salad, fruit, roasted jalapeños and spaghetti with marinara sauce.

On Saturday, my wife and I ran around doing errands in the morning, then picked up our niece and made the long drive up to Chico to spend the evening with extended family at a church event.

My wife and I have been married for nearly 17 years.  Among the many joys of our married life is the fact that we do some things together and others alone.  It’s a nice balance.  We also spend a lot of time sitting just a few feet away from each other, both of us on our laptops, she with the TV on and me listening to music over headphones, she on our landlord’s mini-couch and me at the kitchen table in our tiny rental cottage.

The logistics of maintaining this balance has become more interesting in the last few years.  Before that, we could each have separate plans and execute them simultaneously.  On a Saturday morning, for example, I might head off to synagogue while my wife went shopping or met a friend.

All that changed when we moved from the desert on the California/Arizona border to northern California two years ago.  Having been laid off, I was out of work and didn’t need a car to commute.  So we loaned one of our cars to our niece to make it easy for her to get to community college in the mornings.  She promptly wrecked it, and we’ve been a one-car family ever since.

In some respects, this has been a good thing.  In addition to having fewer car expenses (things like oil changes and other maintenance, insurance and annual registration), there is the togetherness factor.  When you live out in the country as we do, it is no surprise that having only one car makes for a tendency to go more places together.

When we each “do our own thing,” however, it is of necessity on a sequential rather than a simultaneous basis.  When you have one car between you, you have to take turns.  This might not be the case in a more urban location, but out here there is nothing in walking distance and not much in the way of transportation.  I get a kick out of watching the neighbor’s roosters pecking around, photographing the wild peacocks and visiting with our landlord’s cat.  But that only goes so far.  If you’re desperate, you can always call a taxi to take you downtown or to Wal-Mart, but that can fairly quickly run into some serious money.  So the fact of the matter is that when one of us is out and about alone, the other is stuck at home, also alone.

Then there is the little matter of getting to work.  My place of employment is about twelve miles away, meaning that either my wife has to get up early and make two round-trips downtown each day to haul me in and home, or she gets to sit at home with no car all day.

Circumstances have happily converged to make this situation work well most of the time.  My wife works from home, so it’s possible for her to be without a car.  However, I am uncomfortable knowing that she can’t get out of here if she needs to do so.  Being stuck at home also means that she can’t run any errands, which definitely puts a crimp in smooth household operation.  Plus, I would have to leave the house at oh-dark-thirty if I am to have any chance of finding a parking space near my place of employment downtown.  I am delighted that, 95% of the time, my wife takes me to work, picks me up in the evening and has the car at her disposal all day.

In its old age, our second car was given to us by my parents when they purchased a newer model some years ago.  Throughout our marriage, they have generously provided us with their old vehicles rather than trading them in.  This has been a huge advantage for us, as we’ve never been able to afford more than one car payment.  Now that we’ve been down to one car for a couple of years, we’ve started to think about buying another.  Our current vehicle has been paid off for a while now, but after struggling through a year of unemployment, I get a bit panicky at the thought of having a monthly car payment again.

There are a number of options out there.  We could pay cash to buy an old beater just to drive around town, but who knows what’s going to go wrong with it and how much money we’ll end up having to pour into it for repairs.  And even old, high mileage vehicles don’t come cheap anymore.

Speaking of old, high mileage vehicles, our current car fits that category nicely.  We have been fortunate that, so far, most of the required repairs have not broken the bank.  But it’s not going to last forever.  Pretty soon, the piece-of-crap car that I envision taking to work, to Wal-Mart or out for brunch is going to be the very vehicle we now own.  Hopefully, we’ll be able to wring another 100,000 miles out of it, but really, it’s the luck of the draw.  I would happily bite the bullet and sign for a car payment on a new vehicle for my wife to drive around while I used our current car.  However, I know that, sooner or later, our trusty is going to sputter its last and repair to that great junkyard in the sky.  At that point, we’ll be right back to square one, only with the albatross of a car payment around our necks.  You can see why it’s tempting to stick with just one vehicle for as long as possible, despite the attendant inconveniences.

I’m guessing that we’re in the minority, having attained the status of seniors and being a one-car family who has always lived in rentals and never owned a home.  I recently read an article in The Atlantic indicating that this type of consumer behavior is a lot more common than it used to be, although not so much among those who’ve attained my age.  In “The Cheaptest Generation,” Thompson and Weissmann point out that sales of new cars and homes are way down, and that this phenomenon seems to be more than just a product of the recessionary economy.  Indeed, the popularity of carless lifestyle choices has increased among millennials, the driving force behind the popularity of Zipcar, Uber and Airbnb.  Many young adults seem to prefer living closer to the urban core, where the action is.  Live music, restaurants, bars and shops within walking or biking distance have become more appealing to twentysomethings in recent years.

When describing millennials, one would be remiss in failing to mention the matter of extended adolescence.  Young adults struggling under crushing burdens of student loan debt often choose to live with their parents for a decade or more beyond their college days.  I should know.  I went that route myself, and not just because of student loans.  I liked having all that disposable income to eat out every day, see Broadway shows, spend weekends in Atlantic City and go on trips to places like California, where I eventually settled.  It really isn’t very appealing for a recent college graduate earning grunt wages to have to spend every penny on the rent and the car.  And, assuming the American dream is not dead (I know, don’t laugh), sponging off one’s parents for as long as possible makes it a lot easier to save for a down payment on a home.

I graduated from college in 1980, took one more semester of courses toward a teaching certificate that I never completed, then moved back home with my parents and worked the night shift in a chemical plant for seven years before heading off to graduate school in Massachusetts.  There, I lived off my parents’ dime for another two years before taking out student loans to pay for my last year due to circumstances too complex to get into here.  Twenty-five years later, I’m still paying on those student loans.  And that was for one year, friends.  I can’t imagine the debt facing those of us who had to borrow for their entire college educations.  The real irony is that I then spent decades working at jobs that didn’t require college.  Most of my bosses didn’t even have a degree.  I was in my late forties before I snagged a job that nominally required college.

I should mention that life was no financial picnic after graduate school.  Even with two degrees, I still ended up working for ten dollars an hour and living back with my parents for another 2½ years.  When I finally moved out, to take a similarly crappy job in a neighboring state, I rented a tiny bedroom that had been an unheated, uninsulated enclosed porch, where I froze all winter.  When it was thirty below zero out, I dressed in layers, including a parka and mittens, sleeping under piles of covers.

When I finally moved to California, I found myself earning ten dollars an hour and only working part-time.  Silicon Valley was not kind to me.  I lived with each of my sisters for several months, until my parents retired and built a house in the Central Valley.  I lived with them for nine months before getting out for good at the ripe old age of 37.

I know I will never own a home, and that’s okay.  Although my current job is far from secure, I no longer earn ten dollars an hour.  I know that my graduate degree played a part in my landing this position.  My wife and I have paid off all our debts other than my ever-present student loans, and we hope to clear even those out in another two or three years.

True, my wife and I have only one car between us and we rent a tiny mother-in-law cottage out among the goats, horses and chickens of the exurbs.  We may not attend Broadway shows or travel to Hawaii, but with both of us working, we are able to eat out when we want to, buy Christmas presents for all the nephews and nieces, and go to Reno when the urge hits.  I even get to play in expensive Scrabble tournaments several times each year.

We may not have “created wealth” by purchasing a home and living in it, but without children of our own, leaving an inheritance isn’t much of a priority.  I am aware that my parents think it is a disgrace that I haven’t done as well as they did.  Each generation is supposed to surpass the previous, or so goes traditional wisdom.  “Shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations,” my mother likes to mock.

Ultimately, however, it’s all relative.  Having lived a year with my wife’s family after I was laid off, complete with the joys of standing in line at food banks when my unemployment checks ran out, I appreciate what we do have so much more than I did before.  It’s nice to be alone in our cozy little rental.  And having just one car between us doesn’t seem so bad after all.

You might say I’m channeling my inner millennial.