Story#52:  The End

It came without fanfare, as most endings do.  There was no big party, no celebration or toast. It simply came and went, and that was the end of it. And in fact, it was all but forgotten within a week or two.  All but by him of course.  The one who created it.  To him, it would never leave his mind.  It was the result of a year’s work.  A significant piece of his life.  A good bit of his soul.  And in the years to come, he would sometimes wonder if it had touched anyone in any way.  But such thoughts are best not to dwell on.  Most often he liked to think of it as a beginning, because beginnings can hold the promise of hope and possibility.  At least, that is what he liked to believe.

And so, there is only one thing left to say.

The End.

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Story#50: 1st Grade

Halfway through my first grade year and around my seventh birthday, we moved thirty miles away from everything and everyone I knew. We started in a rental home, because our actual house was still being built from the ground up. The rental house had an odd, mildewy smell, but at least my older brother had his own room which meant I had more space of my own. In the face of these changes, my younger brother and I clung to each other. We became close as we only had each other to play with. We created whole whole worlds with our stuffed animals. My older brother started to pay more attention to us as well. He wrote stories about our stuffed animals which portrayed them as super heroes. When I was younger, I had to have my tonsils removed. In the hospital, I had been particularly attached to a plush Pillsbury Doughboy doll that I found in the play area. So much so, that the nurses allowed me to take it into the operating room with me. My mom and dad saw how attached I was and bought me one of my own. It was one of my most treasured possessions. My older brother made him the main super hero who had obtained his powers one day when he ate a roll of radioactive Charmin bathroom tissue turning him into Super Sharmey.

 
For the first time, we were living close to both sets of our grandparents. My mom’s parents and my dad’s parents could not be more different. My dad’s parents gave unconditional love to the point of hugs and kisses whenever we walked in the door, lavishing us with homemade cookies and cakes and snacks, and handing us twenty dollar bills. My mom’s parents gave us the feeling that we were a burden by constantly telling us the things we were doing wrong. The holidays we spent with my dad’s parents were filled with joy. We anticipated our time spent with them, drawing them homemade greeting cards as a way of showing our affection which our grandmother tucked away in a special drawer for years and years. We loved dragging out the box of knick knacks filled with odd and wonderful vintage toys that our grandfather joined us in playing with. We would bring over our newest stuffed animals for him to name. Two of the most memorable where a little stuffed penguin and owl which he christened Elmo and Bevo. Those names stuck for decades, and I even drew a comic strip based on those characters. Conversely, we often dreaded the time spent with my mom’s parents who were from Texas and used antiquated racist language like “wet backs” and “chinks”. Even from a young age, we knew there was something very wrong about the way they talked. But we knew better than to disagree with them. There ire was not something we wanted to see. My mom told me stories about how she was beaten by her mother and verbally accused by her father in whose eyes she could do nothing right. Then there was their son, my mom’s younger brother, my uncle. He never worked a day in his life, smoked pot like a chimney and drank beer like a fish. He called us “rugrats”, and was basically inexplicably entitled. But to my mom’s parents, he could do no wrong. He was given everything on a silver plater including a boat which he chose to live in.

 
Across the street lived an enthusiastic boy named Jose. He showed my younger brother and I around the neighborhood. He introduced us to the local fruit trees including a small yellow orange fruit that became a favorite. I would later learn they were called kumquats but Jose called them quints. He bragged about knowing kung fu, and let us watch Johnny and the Giant Robot with him. He had a Star Trek Enterprise bridge play set complete with Spock, Kirk and McCoy. Although it would become a favorite to me in my teenage years, at the time the show was a bit of an enigma. Shows like Star Trek, Outer Limits, and Twilight Zone were still too scary to watch. As for Jose, I would meet him again a few years later when we attended the same school. For some reason, he harbored resentment toward me and threatened to beat me up with his kung fu. And one day, he did just that. It was the first and only fight I would ever be in. It lasted less than a minute with me on the ground. I wasn’t even sure how he had done it, but clearly kung fu was somehow involved.

 

In a field near the back of the rental house, my brothers and I found a couple of large trees that became our club houses. One was a smaller three that had a large piece of plywood as a floor. You could stand or sit in the center of it and not be seen. The second was an enormous one that was untrimmed. The branches hung low to the ground and created a large covered area like an enormous tent. We would take our dog Charlie Brown with us to the hide out to keep guard over us until something happened to him. Being a hunting dog, he was an excitable and made of pure muscle. Once he was running through the house and he smacked his head into a dresser. He hit it so hard his head swelled up to the point his eye was shut. He was taken to the vet where they had to cut open the lump to drain the puss. He came back with big gnarly yellow stitches. And he came back a different dog. He was unpredictable and no longer able to connect with people in general. We had an odd pattern with dogs in our family. Our first dog was Sloppy Joe who was best buddies with our cat Linus. Sloppy Joe and Linus would lay together and Sloppy Joe would lick Linus while Linus would suck on Sloppy Joe’s fur. Sloppy Joe was a great dog with kids, but unfortunately had one bad day. He came back from the vet where he was given shots. My dad gave him a bone as a treat to help him feel better, but my younger brother pulled the bone out of his mouth. Uncharacteristically, perhaps do to his earlier traumatic experience, Sloppy Joe bit my brother. My brother was taken to the hospital where he was given bandaids for his puncture wounds. Sloppy Joe was taken to the vet to be put to sleep, or as we were told he was taken to a farm. Charlie Brown eventually followed in his paw prints. My younger brother was pulling his food bowl away from him and Charlie Brown bit him. This time, instead of being put to sleep, he was taken to live with my mom’s parents where he eventually ran away.

 
Around this time, I joined the cub scouts which would become a big part of my life. My performance in grade school would get worse with every past year because of my lack of motivation and self-esteem. Cub Scouts was the one place where I was making progress through badges and achievements. I eagerly earned the bobcat, wolf and bear badges. Then I moved onto webelos to earn pins for things like art, fitness, astronomy, and forestry. My webelos leader was a supportive man who praised everything I did, especially the art project which was a pastel drawing of a barn owl. My parents never complemented me on my artwork, but when the webelos leader made a point of telling my mother how good he thought my drawing was my mom went out of her way to put it into a frame. Sometimes it seemed like the only time my parents could see something good about me was when someone else saw it first.

 

Despite the shock of moving, there were some good times as well. Our family almost never went on outings, but during this time we packed up the VW van for a few trips. A camping trip near a river was especially exciting. We hiked the side of a hill where we saw a horny toad. We walked around a golf course where we found old golf balls and torn them open to watch the long rubber bands unravel to reveal small rubber balls. Then we played in the river, teasing crayfish with rocks and sticks. My younger brother and older brother took off on a walk by themselves that ended up leading to disaster. My younger brother threw a rock at a cat in someone’s backyard and a lady came out to yell at them. My parents caught wind of what happened and my dad was especially upset. My dad was not a man you wanted to make angry. He was a man of few words and in fact would hardly ever talk to me when I was growing up. When he was angry, you knew it. It often ended with painful smacks. Another adventure in the van was a trip to a drive in movie to see Rocky. My parents loaded an ice chest full of various flavors of Crush soda, grape, orange, pineapple, fruit punch. We had a ball rolling around in the back of the van, but I ended the night with a horrible belly ache.

 
I was introduced to my new Catholic school and my new first grade teacher, Sister Lois. The nuns at the school wore full robes and cowls. You could only see their faces and hands. When you did something they didn’t like, they would slap your knuckles with a ruler. If you continued to misbehavior, you were taken to the head nun would pull out her paddle. I had only once been sent to the principal. She took out the paddle and held it up for me to see. “Do you want to be paddled,” she said rather than asked. I was so terrified, I could not say anything. Fortunately I left without being hit. Sister Lois divided us into reading groups named after Disney characters like Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Goofy. She had us draw a little book of the stations of the cross that she hung up around the room for family night. Another assignment was to draw ourselves as adults and what we wanted to do when we grew up. I was torn between being a father and being a priest, so I drew a picture of each. The art projects were always my favorite in school, and I was always intent to do it my way. A Valentine’s Day project had us coloring in a lady’s heart colored dress. We were supposed to listen to Sister Lois’s step by step instructions on what colors to use, but I dove right in. I started to color the dress pink until sister Lois said: “Take our your red crayon.” I froze with pink crayon in hand. “Hold it up and look at the word RED. Now color in the dress with your red crayon.” Embarrassed, I put the pink away and tried my best to cover up what I had done with the red crayon.

 

Grade school in general was a difficult time for me.

Story#49: My Childhood

I was born in the city of Los Angeles in the year 1970, a year of disillusionment following a time of idealism.  It was the year of the My Lai massacre which lead to nation-wide protest for the war in Vietnam and the ultimate end of the war.  It was the year the Beatles broke up, never again to perform together, their loss irrevocably changing music forever.  It was the year Apollo 13 nearly saw unspeakable disaster preventing any subsequent moon landing to date.  It was the year of the Kent state shootings, the first incident of its kind opening the flood gates to future such atrocities.  It was the year the Ford Pinto was introduced eventually to be recalled because of engine fires marking this the first large scale failure of the great American automaker.  It was the year Congress gave President Nixon authorization to sell arms to Israel thus solidifying America’s perspective in the gulf and leading to decades of conflict which continues to this day.  It was the year Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix died, both of drug overdose, both at age 27, putting a taint on the once exuberant and youthful counterculture of the previous decade.  To say the least, it was an inauspicious year to begin one’s life.

My family was as topsy turvy as the times.  We were not necessarily poor but we definitely struggled, making do with hand me down clothes, thrift store finds, and discarded furniture.  We ate the same meals week after week:  frozen fish sticks, canned chop suey, spaghetti with tomato sauce, grilled cheese sandwiches, and sloppy joes.  My parents, especially my mother, had to be creative in order to get the things they wanted.  She found a highly regarded pre-school she wanted to send us to but of course did not have the extra money to pay for it.  So she worked there in exchange for my younger brother and I to attend.  My father was inventive in his own way, finding old lumber to construct a club house and to cut pieces into the shape of a machine gun.

My two brothers and I shared a small room taken up mostly by our beds, two of them being bunk beds.  From an early age, I was prone to nightmares.  In one inspired by the little orange worm in Sesame Street, I dreamed that a thousand such worms were wiggling under the bottom bunk, trying to get at me.  From then on, I was unable to sleep in that bottom bunk.  Another nightmare saw me fighting for my life in a brackish pool of black water filled with mysterious tentacles.  I ran weeping to my mother’s side.  She wearily brought me back to bed and turned on the closet light so that I would go back to sleep.

This was the time before cable TV and video game consoles.  What little TV we watched had a specialness to it.  We looked forward with anticipation to a handful of shows that came on every afternoon or sometimes only once a week.  Speed Racer was on during weekday afternoons and was our childhood source of adventure and romance.  Meanwhile The Wonderful World of Disney came on Sunday nights and was not to be missed.  In fact, one of my strongest childhood memories was of one time I missed the show.  It was Old Yeller, and a few hours before it started I stuck a chocolate chip up my nose.  My mother panicked and rushed me to the emergency room only to be told when we finally saw that doctor that it had most likely melted hours ago.  All I could think about was the fact that I had missed Old Yeller.

What little toys we had were given to us at Christmas time which, besides our birthdays, was the one grand day of the year.  Our dad would buy the largest tree he could afford and cover it with a hodge-podge of ornaments and countless blinking lights.  On Christmas morning, my brothers and I awoke to piles of presents.  In old super 8 films, you can practically feel our joy as we tear into each present, hold them up for out parents to see, and then happy play with them.  A favorite of such films was one where my older brother receives a set of dinosaurs and pre-historic plants.  He meticulous created his scene complete with brown plastic stones.  Once he had it just right, he picked up a dinosaur and made it dance around the trees and rocks.  Another notable Christmas memory was the day Santa’s reindeer came to town.  They were housed in large stable which had been set up in the Sears parking lot.  “Where’s Rudolf?” I remember asking my dad.  He pointed to one whose nose had been painted a bright, shiny red.  It was enough for my three year old mind to confirm that the story of Santa was absolutely real.

To add to the ambiguity of my childhood, I was a bit of an odd child.  At three years old I had odd thoughts about things in general, and ruminated on ideas that most children did not like death.  As if in physical proof that I was usual, I was born with an amblyopic eye or what is most commonly referred to as a crossed eye.  My mom always insisted that she could not see it, but whenever I looked in the mirror it was extremely apparent to me.  The doctors I worked with referred to it as a lazy eye.  Both terms added to my perception of myself as inadequate and inferior to other people, a feeling I harbored for over half my life.  Kids did not often make fun of me because when it came down to it it was not that easy to notice.  But when they occasionally did make fun of me, it stung badly.  Being called things like “retard” and “weird” would reek havoc on anyone’s self-esteem, especially that of an impressionable child with a “crossed” eye.

The doctors tried all kinds of therapies to get my eye to turn to “normal”.  When I was younger, one doctor had my parents force me to wear a patch over my eye.  I can still feel the itch of the adhesive when I recall the memory of that patch.  And for many many years I had an aversion to the smell of bandaids which would immediate bring back the memory of the eye patch.  While wearing the patch, I was made to sit at the coffee to trace dot-to-dot pictures.  A universal symbol of childhood fun turned into a harsh punishment as I struggled to see the dots.  My lack of success usually left me in tears.  The doctor eventually gave up when I saw no progress in changing my eye.

When I was in my teens, another doctor insisted on take a crack at curing me.  He would have me draw shapes with my good eye covered.  He gave me a contact lense which blurred the vision in my good eye.  I was told to wear it during the day time, and even remember wearing it to Knott’s Berry Farm.  Dutifully I wore it day after day, but again nothing changed.

The truth of the matter was I did have one good eye.  With this eye I could see with 20/20 vision.  I was told by every doctor I had poor depth perception, but I could never understand what the problem was because I had never seen the world in any other way.  People would ask me to describe what was different about the way I see.  I would say “I don’t know what’s different” or “Tell me what’s different about the way you see and maybe I can understand what’s different about the way I see”.  Then of course there was the internal question “Are you cross eyed?” I came up with the stock answer: “In one eye”.  In retrospect I believe I was trying to say:  “Yes my eye is crossed and I know that makes me look strange, but it’s only a part of me and not all of me.”

The pre-school my younger brother and I attended was progressive and even a bit enlightened.  We participated in a number of impressive field trips, including a trip to a honey factory and another trip to a silk factory.  Reading time was a particularly impressionable time for me.  I was entirely enthralled by any story that they teachers presented:  The Hungry Caterpillar, Green Eggs and Ham, Harold and the Purple Crayon, Curious George, Are You My Mother?, and best of all, Where the Wild Things Are.  The teachers turned any opportunity they could into a chance to learn.  When I found a little pink dead baby bird under a tree one day, the teachers decided that we would hold a funeral.  A small hole was dug.  The baby bird was placed in a box.  I was allowed to place it in the hole.  A teacher covered it with dirt.  Some of the children placed tiny flowers around the grave.  A prayer was said.  It was my first real experience with death.

I had an innocent crush on one of the teachers.  She had long straight blonde hair and wore bug eyed glass and silk scarves.  Best of all, she had a brand new shiny green Ford Pinto with metallic brown vinyl seats.  I got to sit up front with her once on the way to a field trip.  I felt like the coolest kid in pre-school that day.

Despite my occasional odd thoughts, I always managed to have a lot of friends.  There was the Chinese boy who liked to dress in a skeleton costume even when it wasn’t Halloween.  There was the Hispanic boy across the street who called himself my best friend but was most memorable for once showing me a large dump his dad had left in the toilet.  There were the brothers up the street who always seemed to have the best toys and got to do things that were forbidden in our family like drink Coca Cola.

Then there was Adam, the love child of a couple of young hippie parents.  My mom once left me at their house for an afternoon.  It was a large Victorian style home where several families communed together.  Adam showed me his treehouse in the backyard which was his private sanctuary away from the crowded house.  He had a Snoopy snow cone machine but had long ago run out of syrup.  So we ground ice and ate our tasteless snow cones in bliss.  Then his father called us into the front yard where he said he had something to show us.  With a big smile on his face, he set a small gosling on the ground.  It peeped loudly, presumably searching for its mother.  I couldn’t help but feel sad for it.  At lunch time, Adam’s mother gave us a bowl of mushy brown liquid.  Adam dug eagerly into his bowl, asking for more.  Turns out they were vegetarians, or what we now call vegans, and they had given me a bean and lentil stew.  When it was clear I would not be eating the mush, the mom began to look worried.  At her urging, Adam’s dad took us to a nearby deli where they bought me a tuna salad sandwich, the lesser of evils in their eyes.  I picked at it and ate as much as my small stomach could hold.  I remember being hungry and enjoying the taste.  To this day, tuna salad is a favorite.

Like anyone’s childhood, mine was littered with occasional mishaps.  Around the corner from our house was a dime store, a magic place filled with every imaginable candy including chewy ribbons of red and black licorice for one cent a piece.  My older brother once had a couple of nickels and a notion to share a some licorice whips with his two younger brothers.  The three of us piled onto his bike.  My older brother of course took the driver’s seat.  My younger brother sat on the handle bars while I stood on the bolts of the back wheel.  Off we went, until somehow my foot slipped and caught in the spokes of the wheel.  Down went the bike and all three of us.  I screamed in pain and fright.  My ankle was twisted and several of the spokes were bent.  My brother untangled my foot and hefted me up tto carry me a few hundred yards back home.  My mom ran out to see what was going on, ready to tell my brother off.  My brother was in tears, and could barely say what had happened.  My mom took me inside and put my foot into a pan with ice water.  I remember complaining about the cold, but doing my best to bare it.  After a while, it definitely felt better than the pain.  A friend of my mom’s came over to take a look at my ankle and told my mom she thought it should be checked by a doctor.  So once again I was whisked to the emergency room.  After an x-ray, they proclaimed it was not broken.  My older brother came in to give me a candy bracelet he had bought with my dad at the dime store.  Many years later when we would talk about this incident, he would share his feelings of guilt for having hurt me.  I never saw it that way.  Even at the age of four I knew it was an accident.  In my memory, I saw him as the hero.  He had carried me home, which was not easy.  And when all was said and done, he had given me a candy bracelet.

Much to his detriment, my older brother was caught in the midst of the school integration movement.  He was forced to take the bus daily to school where he was merciless teased by an older boy.  One day, he snapped and hit the boy.  He was pulled into the principal’s office where both he and the boy where punished.  After all he had been through at the hands of this bully, it stuck my brother as a severe injustice that he received the same punishment.  To my parent’s credit, they decided to remove him from public school and to place him in a private Catholic school.  A year or so later, this is where I went for the early part of the first grade.

The structured school day was a bit of culture shock for me.  Kindergarten and pre-school had been all about play and discovery.  In the first grade, we were expected to sit still for extended periods of time and to do the work that was assigned to us.  There was no time for free thinking, no time for creativity, no time for play.  In truth, I never quite adapted to grade school and struggled throughout my early years in school.  It didn’t help that we made a major move halfway through my first grade year.  It also didn’t help that I would attend no less than four grade schools during that time.  Every time I seemed to get settled somewhere, we would up and move.  Relentless change was one of the major themes of my childhood.

Story#48: Homeless Outreach

It started out as a good day.  The Program Manager had called in sick, and everyone was in a upbeat mood.  The PM was not well liked and any excuse for his absence, which was rare, was welcomed by the entire team.  I was his second in command so it was my job that day to run the morning meeting.  The team enjoyed when I ran the meeting because I had a strong connection with each and every one of them.  I usually spent the last part of the meeting given them positive feedback for their work.  The PM always did the opposite, shaming them for not doing things they way he wanted them done.

We were a homeless outreach team based out of Hollywood in California.  Our job was to scour the streets of Hollywood to find the most vulnerable individuals in the massive homeless population.  We were looking for people with serious mental illness who may or may not been addicted to drugs or alcohol, and/or suffering from debilitating chronic physical illness.  These people were not hard to find.  They were virtually everywhere.  Our job was to enroll them in our program which worked to find them housing while providing desperately needed supportive services.

We had case managers to help them get their IDs, apply for social security, and bus cards; a housing specialist who accompanied them to the Housing Authority to fill out the endless forms for housing vouchers; a substance abuse specialist who provided them opportunities to figure out ways of reducing drug and alcohol use; a program administrator whose job it was to keep, among a thousand other duties, client files and client appointments; a psychiatrist who evaluated them for medication services; licensed vocational nurses who dispensed these medications some times directly on the street; a nurse practitioner who worked to link them to medical care; social workers who were assigned case loads of clients and were responsible for coordinating all of their care including mental health, medical, substance treatment, and housing; and there was me.  I had my own case load.  I was often given the most difficult clients, the ones who would not respond to others on the team.  Besides taking over for the PM in his absence, it was my job to fill in where ever and whenever the PM decided he wanted me to.  Perhaps most of all, I was the shield for the team.  I absorbed the bulk of his ire, and this more than anything made my job very difficult.

Melody, a younger social worker, was particularly happy the PM was gone.  She was a constant target of his inappropriate sarcasm, and I found myself often sitting with her to sooth her much warranted tears.  “It’s like a weight is off my shoulders!” she laughed as others nodded in agreement.  She began the meeting as we went around the table to report on the condition of various clients to make plans on who would be seen that day.

“B and B are at it again,” Melody shook her head.  They were a tumultuous young couple who had been arrested several times on the street for fighting.  “Rollin around like two feral cats.”  They were also avid marijuana and meth users who had a reputation on the streets and with local businesses.  There was some talk about the things that had been tried.  A sense of helplessness blanketed the table, a feeling that often came with difficult cases or situations that had reached a standstill.

“Brenda, when’s the last time you meet with them?”  Brenda was a spirited peer counselor who had graduated to case manager by her hard work and dedication to clients.  Having been homeless herself, she had a no nonsense sensibility about her.  She also had a heart of gold and would never give up on even the most challenging of people.

“I’ll give it go,” she smiled and wrote something in her notebook.  She loved her affirmations, catchy little saying that gave her inspiration.  She especially loved sharing them with other people.  No doubt she had thought of one to give to B and B.

“Okay, who else?” I asked the table.

“Albert’s been clean for two weeks!” Bob an older social worker said.  Albert was a man in his 50s who had lived most of his life on the street.  He used whatever drugs he could get his hands on, but after being placed in his own studio apartment he was making a concerted effort to stop.  Two weeks sober was a life time for a man who had been high for most of 50 years.

“Fantastic!” even the smallest triumph deserved recognition.  “Make sure you praise him and encourage him to continue.”

“I’ll talking to him about a few meetings close to his place,” Manny the substance abuse counselor said.  “Maybe I’ll even take him to one later.”  It had been over a year since the team started working together.  We started out with half a dozen and grown to about twelve.  We worked well together, supported each other, complemented each other, trusted each other.  Manny was an especially powerful team player who had a knack for stepping in when he was needed most.

“Sounds good Manny,” I agreed.  “Good luck.”

“David,” a familiar voice interrupted the meeting.  It was Jenna the program administration, the heart of the program, standing at the doorway with an urgent look on her face.  “Phone for you.  It’s Billy.  Sounds important.”  Billy was one of our most difficult clients.  He was a small mouthy man prone to uncontrollable tantrums where he threatened any and everyone within earshot.  Having been recently housed in a large apartment building, his antics had caused him a broken nose from a punch in the face as well as several broken ribs from being knocked down and mercilessly kicked.  The meeting was quickly dismissed as I made my way to my desk.

“This is David,” I said into the receiver.

“Mmh suh mun tunha wah!!!” Billy’s voice was muffled and loud on the other end.  I held the phone away from my ear to let him finish his rant.  A minute or so later when he seemed to be done, I brought the phone back.

“You need to calm yourself down Billy, I can’t understand-“

“This fucking fucking ridiculous!” he shouted then devolved into his wordless diatribe.  It went on for at least another five minutes.

“Billy, I don’t know what you’re trying to tell me,” I said in a soft even voice.  “I need you to take a few deep breaths-“

“Fuck that shit!” Billy yelled.  “I need you to get your ass over here NOW!!  Some crazy fucker is threatening to kill me.  If you don’t do something about it, I’m gonna slit my throat right now!”  Then he hung up.  It was clear to me I would be doing a home visit with Billy that day.

I immediately went to Jenna to get the keys to the van.  Billy’s apartment was about ten miles away from the office, a trip that took nearly a half hour on the busy streets of Hollywood.  Jenna handed me the keys and the mileage sheet.

“Whatever you do,” she said in a serious tone.  “Don’t go alone.”  Although she was not educated academically in psychology, Jenna had a lot of experience working with people with mental health problems.  Over the last year, she had become my right hand.  I often used her as a sounding board for my own gripes because she was reasonable and smart.  Her advice was almost always dead on, and anyway she was right.  We were told over and over again for good reason not to go alone to see clients especially if they were in crisis.

By this time, most everyone had left to make their own home visits.  Only Brenda remained as she was checking her emails before heading out.  Brenda was not my first choice for this kind of situation.  She had never faced a crisis before, and although she was generally good with the clients she could sometimes become reactionary when things were volatile.

“I need you to go with me Brenda,” I told her matter-of-factly.  “Billy is on a rampage, and I don’t think I should go alone.”  So off Brenda and I went in the van.

About a half hour later, we pulled up to the complex.  I parked on the street, and we walked around the back to knock on Billy’s door.

“Get the fuck in here!” he squealed, ushering us into his small living room.

“What’s going on Billy?” I said standing at the door way with Brenda beside me.

“You gotta calm yourself down Billy,” Brenda added.  “Just talk to us and tell us what’s wrong.”

“The lady upstairs is a crazy fucking whore!” he said his hands waving about spasmodically.  “I’m just minding my own business when she comes down here and starts threatening me.  I don’t feel safe here, and I won’t to get the fuck out of here and move somewhere else.”

“Billy,” I tried.  “If you don’t feel safe, we’ll take you to a shelter-“

“Fuck that!” he spat in my face.  “I’m not going to a fucking shelter.  I’m not going fucking any where.”

“If you’re feeling threatened,” Brenda said.  “Then let’s call the police.”

“Fuck the police!” Billy screamed.  “They just make things worse.  They can go kiss my ass!!”

“Billy I need you to calm down,” I said as quietly as I could.  “Have a seat on your bed and let’s-“

“No! I don’t wanna be here!  I want to leave!  I don’t feel safe!!”

“Okay,” I agreed.  “Let’s get you to a hotel for a few days so we can figure things out.”

“I need my wallet,” he said.  “I need my goddamn wallet.  Where’s my wallet?”  He frantically searched his room, throwing things about.  He tossed the blankets and sheets off his bed, and kicked a few ashtrays across his room.

“I can’t fucking find it!  I can’t fucking find my goddamn wallet!”  His body was nearly convulsing and his voice raised to a fevered pitched.  He was running around his apartment tearing things apart.

“Somebody stole it!  Somebody stole it!”

“Billy!” I tried to get his attention.

“I’m gonna fucking kill myself!  I’m gonna fucking kill myself!”  Then he bolted into the kitchen and pulled open a drawer.  He yanked out a long kitchen knife and held it to his throat.  His eyes were bulging as he titled his head back.

“Oh my God!” Brenda said before exiting the building.

I closed his door and quickly joined her.  I was already holding my cellphone to dial 911.

“911, what’s the emergency,” said the wary voice on the other end.

“Yes, I’m a counselor with a homeless outreach group in Hollywood, and one of my clients is holding a knife to his throat.”

“Is the person bleeding?  Does he need an ambulance?”

“I don’t know.  I left the apartment so I can call 911.”

“The police are on their way sir.”

“Thank you,” it was all I could think of to say.

Brenda and I made our way to the front of the building so that we could meet the police when they arrived.  Brenda was a bit shaky, and I was doing my best to not let the situation get a hold of me.  I had experienced crisis before, but never had it nearly fallen into my lap.  I was five steps away from Billy when he had the knife to his throat.  He could have just as easily turned the blade on me.

Within a few minutes, several police cars pulled up to the driveway.  A half dozens officers shuffled out.  I approached them and told them I was the one that made the call.  One of the largest men stepped aside to get some more information from us.  I told him about the knife, and about Billy being volatile and unpredictable.

“Where is he now?” the large officer asked.

“In his apartment,” my voice faltered a little.  “It’s in the very back of the building.”

“We’ll take care of it,” he said before rejoining the group.  Brenda and I watched in horror as all six men drew their weapons.  Two of them held large shot guns.  They folded into some sort of formation and started slowly making their way down the drive way to the back of the building.

“He’s not going to hurt you,” I said meekly.  “This seems unnecessary.”

“We’ll decide what’s necessary,” the big officer shot back.

Suddenly I was reminded of an early adventure where the police had to be called.  B, the male in the couple I had mentioned earlier, was making threats against his girlfriend B to the nurse practitioner on the team.  Somehow I had gotten embroiled in the mess.  I had to make a call to the police based on Tarasoff, a California law which says if you know the intended victim you must make reasonable attempts to keep them from harm which includes notifying them of the threat and/or calling the police.  The police had shown up in force that time as well.  Eight of them came walking briskly up to the clinic.  I greeted them at the door telling them, “You don’t need this many officers.  He’s unarmed and not dangerous.”  They nearly pushed me aside when they said something similar, “That’s for us to determine.”  Sure enough, they all left within a few minutes having “determined” that B was not a threat.  Or “just talking out of his ass” one officer angrily said.

Both incidents seemed to confirm a constant complaint by many of the people we met on the street.  By most homeless people, police were generally considered a danger to be avoided.  I could not help but consider these complaints as I watched six heavily armed men searching for one of my clients.  I could not help feeling that if he ran out the door holding that knife he would be gunned down before he had a chance to speak and it would be all my fault.  Just as I was trying to formulate a plan to warn him or to stop the men from killing him, Billy came prancing out the front of the building.  He walked towards us.  Fortunately he no longer had the knife.

“He’s here!” I called the police.  “And he doesn’t have the knife!”  The police turned to walk back.  “Put your hands up Billy!” I added.  I tried to help him along by putting my own hands in the air.  Brenda quickly joined me.

“Billy put your hands in the air!” she shouted.  Bewildered Billy lifted his hands in the air just as the police rounded the corner, and they took him into custody without a problem.  They talked to him for a few minutes during which Billy was remarkable calm.  Then they handcuffed him and placed them into the back of police car.  Brenda and I did not speak for a long time as we watched Billy be driven off.  We occupied ourselves by taking care of a few more clients before returning to the office to call it a day.

As I drove home that evening, I was forced to wonder what exactly had brought me to this place of dealing with some of the most needy people in this country.  From a young age, whenever I saw someone begging on the street I had always thought about helping the homeless without ever really imagining how I would go about doing so.  In my thirties, I studied to be a therapist and malingered in a career where I found little fulfillment.  Then the great recession came and my life take an unexpected turn.  I experienced my own personal homeless story, and had to work my way up from the bottom.  Helping the homeless had become a personal mission for me, but I had no idea what I was in for, what I would learn, and what I would see.

Story#47:  The Battle of Feastings Day

Tom held up his spear as he lifted his head toward the approaching dawn.  A chill passed through him causing his feathers to shift with an audible ruffle.  He glanced across the enormous empty field before him and thought back to where this all began.

In the early days Farmer Ben had seemed like a good man.  He gave Tom and his family and friends a safe place to rest at night and dutifully supplied them with meals of delicious hearty grain. During that time, Tom was a first year and not yet fully grown.  He watched as the larger of flock scrambled to get the most grain, slowly growing larger and fatter.  Around about Fall the food became even more plentiful, so that everyone was able to gorge themselves.  And just as life began to seem sweet beyond imagining, Farmer Ben turned on them.  He and his men began to forcefully grab the largest of the flock and string them up by their legs.  Then they took up large blades and the slaughter began…

It was a horrifying imagine that never seemed to leave Tom’s mind. It was why he learned to fashion and use weapons, why he had taught the few that remained of his family and friends how to use them too.  And why now a year later he was standing in the field with his family and friends fully armed, waiting for Farmer Ben to appear, waiting to take his revenge.  

Story#46: When My Son Was Born

It happened in the evening, when we were watching TV.  My wife stood up to go to the bathroom and a gush of water hit the floor.  Her water broke, as they say.

It was a couple of weeks before her due date and a suitcase was not yet packed.  I quickly packed one as she called the doctor to let him know.

“He told me to meet him at the hospital,” she said nervously.  So we did.

The hospital was surprisingly warm in both appearance and atmosphere.  My wife and I arrived somewhat excited.  Soon we would be seeing and holding our son.

As the routine of pushing continued into the night and drugs were given to cause contractions to help her along, things began to grow slightly dimmer.  Not just in lighting but in tone.  After many long hours, there was no real progress.

Talk of a C-section began, the one thing we had worked so hard to avoid.  We had taken Bradley courses to learn about what she should be eating.  We had diligently counted grams of protein.  We had basically done everything the instructor had told us to do.  Despite this, she had developed extremely high blood pressure and had been ordered by the doctor to stay in bed for nearly a month.  Now in spite of all our efforts, we were being told that a C-section was inevitable.

Quickly she was whisked away to the operating room where she was prepped for the procedure.  I was brought in near the end in order to help keep her calm.  My son was removed with very little fanfare.  When I saw him, he was bright pink and healthy looking.  Someone weighed him and measured him.  Someone else asked me if I wanted to cut the umbilical cord.  It was a bit like scissoring through hard rubber.

Then the chaos began.

As they carried my son away and wheeled my wife into another room, it became clear to me that she was unsettled.  She was asking where the baby was with marked distress in her eyes.  “She’s not going to clam down until she sees the baby,” I told a nurse, which seemed the most natural conclusion in the world once I had voiced it out loud.  She rushed him to her, and she saw her baby for the first time.

“He’s so beautiful,” she wept.

Then he was gone again, and she was being moved to yet another room.  She started to moan and writhe.  I was standing out of the way as several nurses worked to get her settled.  Suddenly an older nurse reached over to press her abdomen.  A gush of blood poured out of her.  I was one of the most frightening things I had ever seen.

Immediately she was rushed to the ER, and i was directed to the ER waiting room where I spent an agonizing hour thinking the worst, and worrying about my newborn son who was not with his family.

Word finally came that she was stabilized, and I next saw her in the ICU where she was in a worser state than ever.  She was clutching a bed pan, her eyes rolling back in her head.  I did my best to calm her down, and implored the nurse to help her somehow.  The nurse told me she was on a lot of anesthesia.  “She’ll be fine when it wears off,” she said.

Then, knowing there was not much more I could do for her at that moment, I left to go visit our son.

At first, they were not going to let me see him.  According to the rules, we had to have a room to take him to and my wife was still in the ICU.  The charge nurse must’ve seen the disappointment and anguish in my eyes.  She took me into the nursery and sat me in a backroom where I could hold my son.  And feed him his bottle.  And learn to change him when I heard him unleash his first poop.  The total feeling of love and devotion was immediate and overwhelming.  “Don’t worry,” I said to him quietly.  “I’ll always be here for you.”

The next few days are a blur of the joy of being with and taking care of my son, and helping my wife to recover from traumatic surgery.  Soon we were packing him into his car seat for the first time to take him home with a little bit of fear and much happiness.