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Industrial Tools in a Digital World: or what good is money to a cave man

I once found myself sitting at my desk with a magic check book. I could scrawl out numbers large or small to anyone (except myself) and those checks would clear. I was under the general charge to use those checks to help those in need, and records were to be strictly kept, but other than that, it was all up to me. I was the genie, I could grant wishes, and I really wanted to help. I wanted to do good, to tackle the troubles facing those within my reach and now I had the ultimate tool; a magic checkbook.phillysky

This office was right on North Broad Street in the heart of one of Philadelphia’s most blighted neighborhoods. I was positioned perfectly. I was right where help was needed, with all the money I could imagine, possessing more will to do good than I knew what to do with, and I have never felt more useless and impotent then I did during that time.

I didn’t even make a dent.

This isn’t to say I wasn’t able to do some good or help some folks here and there, nor am I fishing for support with self-deprecating comments. No. I really wasn’t able to fix a thing. I have never felt so utterly thwarted.IMG_0423

I wrote a lot of checks, but not as many as you might have thought. We did our best to be financially responsible by not replicating services available elsewhere and thanks to WIC, food stamps, section 8 and a plethora of slum lords I paid out a lot less on rent mortgages and food than others I have seen with similar check books. I paid for a refrigerator, a water heater, paid tuition, bought subway tokens, patched a hole on someone’s roof, and funded a lot of plumbers and electricians. I also paid for some mental health services. Those ones were tricky, not because the money or service was funny, but because I discovered that those who needed these services most were hard to track down. They kept going homeless and getting arrested or admitted to hospitals. I did pay for some phones. Those were probably the most useful things I wrote checks for.

There was one woman I knew who was battling Cancer. She was unable to work and didn’t own a car that ran. We used to sit in her living room, her reeling from the effects of chemo, me reeling from the stacks of unpaid bills that she kept incredibly organized in a stack next to the couch. She knew who she owed, when things were due, and how much she had, but what she couldn’t get was a straight answer from anyone on the phone. She would be in the ratty recliner queuing up the bill, I would make the phone call and use my best respectable white man voice to try to get some clue as to what number to put on my magic check. Mostly I was put on hold or lectured about financial responsibility or sternly warned about service interruptions.

There was this other retired woman whose inherited house was reassessed and she magically owed back taxes. Old age and epilepsy made getting a job a non-starter so she borrowed money from friends and family to scrape together taxes. Scraping included not paying her water or electricity. She had previously been on a payment plan for both, and these plans included the stipulation that should you ever miss a payment you would be required to pay all the fees that would have accrued had you not been on said plan. I wrote a check for $2,000 to get the water turned on and $1,700 for the electricity. She was incredibly grateful and as we flipped the switch and there was light, she stared off into space and asked, “What am I supposed to do when the tax comes due again next year?” The house wasn’t particularly nice.copandfire

There was the truck driver who was on a rent-to-own program to gain full ownership of his rig. He was forced to forfeit with two payments left because someone rear ended him at a stop light. There was guy in the carpenters union who was laid off for over a year and then billed for two years of apprentice school when he finally took a menial job outside the union. There was even a stripper who didn’t want to dance but was struggling to find a way to pay her bills when she had no other marketable skills. There were all sorts of stories and I wrote all sorts of checks, but what I was mostly unable to do was change anyone’s long term situation.

My endless checkbook’s funds were insufficient in the face of greater contexts.

In some respects, and to some extent in retrospect, the failure was mine. I was afraid of going big and swinging for the fence. Every month I would meet with approximately five other men who had similar checkbooks but with different jurisdictions. They were mostly suburban and they almost always spent more money than me. They were also older than me and more experienced. We would meet and talk about solutions, and principles of work, and the overall theme would be in wondering how we could write fewer checks or get people to stop asking for money. There was much ado about responsibility and self-sufficiency, both of which I was on board with, but as we talked each month they would bring up a small redundant set of scenarios, or even repeat certain family names again and again, and here I was talking about everyone and everything. They would repeat to me some principle about work having it sown value and that rather than handouts we needed to encourage people to take control of their own situation. I would talk about the woman with cancer, or the new taxes, or the carpenter, I didn’t share the stripper because that would have seemed salacious, and they would just repeat those principles. I found it very dissatisfying and I was branded a passionate young firebrand. Whether it was the branding or the caution toward frugality, I never did what I really wanted to do which was to just pay off all of these people’ bills with some sort of trust moving forward, freeing them from the crushing weight of the unpaid bill shuffle or the impending doom of bills yet to come. I wanted to just write some big numbers that would give these people more than just some wiggle room but the solid footing needed to build a skill or chase an opportunity. But I didn’t. No one told me directly not to do it, yet I remained afraid knowing full well how the others interpreted those principles and my magic was rendered impotent.IMG_2057

I remember that check book any time I read policy debates about public school funding, government entitlements, or healthcare. Any time I hear the statement that problems cannot be solved by throwing money at them, I hear echoes of those monthly check writer’s meetings. They sound the same and that same feeling I had there rings and resonates inside me with the same feeling of helplessness and I know that this discussion will fall short. I know this because I am no longer a young firebrand but rather I am a little older and experienced. I know better now and were I to go back to my former self in those meetings and with that checkbook, and in the discussions of policy now, I would write those giant checks.

I would agree that the problems of a post-industrial world cannot be solved by just throwing money at them- then- I would add that any solution that doesn’t include throwing lots of money at it, is incomplete and wrong.

We live in a 1st world country with 1st world problems and those who have the means to become world traveled know this. They point out that the impoverished in America have so much more than almost everyone else in the world. I haven’t been to those places but I get it. I understand. I realize that in some countries people walk miles to get water from a well in bare feet and toil with seeds and soil to pull out rice or yams to eat in their tin roofed shacks with dirt floors. I am reminded of these things or these places when Americans look at our budget deficit or entitlements or failing public schools. We are rich and we are wasting it and we need to stop the bleeding and become more responsible. I get it.IMG_3343

But I cannot tell that retired woman that rather than asking for $2,000 to get her 1st world water turned back on, that she should get a bucket and walk to the well. Because there is no well.

I cannot tell the man from the carpenter’s union to stop wasting his money on rent and use his skills to build himself a tin roofed shack. We don’t allow that here.

I cannot tell that dancer to employ her health in planting and harvesting because she has no land, no seeds, and no time.

And the woman with cancer. Were she in one of those places the answer would be somewhat more direct. She would go untreated and die. Because that is what happens there.

Truth is that in America people need money. If someone has some money, they must spend their time in accruing more in order to keep up with the clock because in America time has a cost. If you happen to have an abundance of money you can buy time, and spend it as you choose. But if you start out with no money you will at some point need to borrow or beg because you cannot afford the cost of living that time demands while you are spending your time in the act of accumulation. And that initial cost of time is the rub.

Time is the rub because it is so much more expensive than we realize and our 1st world has completely adjusted to those who can already afford it. It has taken us quite some time to get here, but we have arrived and if we just deal with now, acknowledging how we got here but willing to deal with the present, we have a lot of work to do and it is going to be more expensive than we realize.

For instance, schools are not only expensive to run, but opening up charter schools and options for parents, is mostly only open to those who can already afford the costs of changing schools, including the cost of time in researching and applying. Retraining those displaced from industrial jobs due to mechanization is not just expensive as it relates to tuition or instruction, but the time it takes to learn and get re-hired. Who pays the bills in the meantime? It is as if any one who finds themselves at zero is being fooled by the goose egg. There is no such thing just as time never stands still. Zero lasts only a moment before it becomes a negative and as soon as you realize you have hit the bottom you are in negative numbers.

So as I remember back to those days where I had the magic check book but was too afraid to write a tectonic check I also remember that one of the reasons I did not, one of the reasons why I felt so helpless, a foundational contributing factor to my in effectiveness, was that money wasn’t and would never be, enough. I knew it then. I couldn’t stop time. I didn’t have enough extra hands, enough hours, enough extra bodies or opportunities, to throw at these people’s problems in addition to throwing money. Because it was instantly obvious that this is what was, and still is needed.

We cannot solve the problems of poverty by simply throwing money at them. Reality is that it takes money and then it takes more. Throwing money and throwing time.

Developed society has left behind the sweat of our brow and replaced it with allowances either purchased or granted. Because of this we cannot expect any progress within the lower half of society unless there is some sort of concession granted by those who control, or own resources. We will never solve poverty in the 1st world till more of those who can afford time, start spending it on helping those who can’t.

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Where the Streets Have No Names: Joshua Tree

A good friend of mine took a trip down to our neck of the woods to visit two Disneylands; the one in Anaheim for his kids, and the one in Joshua Tree for him.

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He climbs both cliffs and mountains. He climbs so much he built a climbing wall in his house. I also climb the walls of my home but only in a figurative suburban stagnation sort of way.IMG_0755

I do well when right in the middle of everything, or the middle of nowhere. It is those in between places that cause me trouble. Maybe it is because my mind and heart spend so much time in the middle ground that my body wants to be in a place my ideology refuses to go.

Joshua Tree National Park is beautifully nowhere.IMG_0719
Being nowhere doesn’t mean you do nothing. You always have to do something.

Maybe that is why the in between spaces give me trouble. Nothing there feels like you are really doing anything. It is all relative. When in New York, there is so much going on everywhere that you can just coast right along. Everything everywhere is something. The first time I saw Paris I unexpectedly fell in love because everywhere I looked was something. Not just something but something recognizable, something fantastic, something other places (Vegas) try to imitate. Something to see and do is everywhere.IMG_0796

When you are nowhere, doing anything, even just walking, becomes something in relation to your surroundings. The Bonneville Salt Flats, a giant stretch of flat nothingness, makes even the most insignificant person feel like a focal point; because while there, you are the focal point. There is nothing else.

In between, where strip malls live, nothing feels like anything. You have to get in your car and drive to go anywhere, and when you get there, you don’t feel like you have really travelled. If you don’t drive anywhere and decide to stay at home, or just in one place, there will be things all around you and still, nothing will happen.

 

Hence volition.

When in between one must do what none of us, at least not I, want to do. We must summon our own motivation, an inner compulsion. Like a rocket. A boat in a river doesn’t need someone to paddle; it will easily go with the current. A Rose in the desert doesn’t need to outshine anyone. It is the only thing shinning. A Rocket must have some inner propulsion to launch itself from a sedentary position into space and that is hard to do. Rocket scientists are a cliché for a reason.IMG_0716

While in Joshua Tree I did not launch into orbit but I did climb up a rock. I didn’t climb very far, but climbing at all was more than I had done the week before. I think my friend was the key. In fact maybe friends, or at least other people, are the key to volition. He called and invited me. I probably wouldn’t have gone otherwise. Even if I had gone I wouldn’t have climbed. You see I don’t have the equipment or the know-how.  Thanks to him calling I was able to do.

I wonder how many other things work that way?IMG_0707

 

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Maybe I am Poor, Thanks For Noticing.

I think it was the car.IMG_1987

I drive not only an ugly, but a busted, car. We have two cars, one that looks almost passable but doesn’t run well, the other looks broken but runs reliably. I suppose we could spend a little money to fix the ugly car up, like paint the hood so that it matches the rest of the car, repair the dented bumper, and replace the missing headlight. But those repairs would cost more than the value of the whole vehicle and besides, it runs just fine. The other car looks almost normal but has a knock in the engine and leaks coolant. It will die soon but until it does, we will drive it.

These cars are a choice. Now some of that choice is dictated by money, if we had more we might just buy new cars, but we don’t have more money and consequentially we drive what we have. We could get a loan and buy a new car, my credit is good. But I don’t want a shiny new car enough to have a shiny new car payment.  So I choose to drive that ugly thing.IMG_6564

It must have been the car. It couldn’t be our apartment.

Most of my money goes toward rent. I pay too much in rent. We chose to live where we do, despite it being overpriced, because we wanted our kids to go to a specific school. We wanted this school because it was the best school within close proximity to my job. It was the cheapest place to live that was still on the right side of the street. It is cheap compared to the neighborhood yet remains ridiculously expensive.

Maybe it’s the clothes my kids wear.

I think they look fine. Sometimes the outfits they choose aren’t in line with my taste, but for the most part I let them choose, and they don’t choose crazy things. We don’t spend a lot on their clothes. They grow so fast and don’t have real strong opinions about brands, so I will admit; most of what they have is second hand. Macklemore said this is cool. I don’t really trust him but I hear others do.woody

It had to be something.

It had to be something because today the Church of Christ called my wife. They said they got our number from our children’s elementary school and that we had been referred to them as a family who might need a free turkey for Thanksgiving. My wife was a little surprised and politely declined. The person followed up by explaining that they were prepared to help us buy Christmas presents for our kids. Again my wife politely declined. Having turned down the caller’s generosity, they ended the call.

Should we be flattered that someone thought to do something nice for us? It didn’t feel flattering. Maybe it didn’t feel flattering because it was obvious that whoever referred us didn’t really know us, they simply judged us. I could be wrong. I want to be wrong. This feels wrong.

It feels wrong because I am not really poor. I know what poor is and while I surely don’t have what I would like, I know full well I have more than I need. It feels wrong because someone tried to do something nice and I don’t feel nice about it. It feels wrong because we invite people into our home to eat almost once a week and someone thought that we couldn’t afford enough food to feed our kids. Why would they think that? Because of our car? Because of our clothes? Are those things that important?IMG_3346

I don’t know who thinks we have fallen on hard times and maybe that’s what bothers me. It bothers me because I don’t think they know me either. Do they want to know me?

We all make assumptions about all sorts of things. It is natural and it is easy. We assume things for just those reasons; because it is easier than investigating and learning. It is easier and faster than asking questions. It is easier than caring. This does not feel like caring. This does not feel like help. It actually hurt.

It hurt because someone just looked at me, at us, and decided we couldn’t handle things. Someone looked at us and just decided we needed their help, and the help they were willing to give was a turkey. Just last week my wife and I discussed with each other our plans to hedge against our children’s holiday materialism and then the help someone thought we needed was another toy to go in our children’s already full toy bin? No.IMG_3163

Make no mistake this is not my pride speaking; I am not above help. I would love some help. I would love a promotion at work, I would love for one of my paintings to sell, I would even love a new headlight. I would love a Jeep Wrangler, I would love to see Istanbul, I would love for my daughter to have her ballet lessons scholarshipped. Give me any one of those things and I will grovel at your feet. I will sing your praises and write a post in your honor.

But no. Now when I pull up by the curb and idle my bucket in that long line of cars and kids I know you aren’t thinking, “Oh there’s Dalyn and the kids.” You are thinking, “look at those poor people.”

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I Remembered Rose a Little too Late

I remember Rose. I wish I could do more than remember but I don’t have a choice.
Rose was the perfect name for her.cfiles6499
I have no idea how old she was but she looked about ninety. She was just like any elderly black woman you might see in a movie; toothless, sappy sweet, with just a little touch of sass. She was once a nurse; had been for forty years. She was never married and had no children. She lived with her nephew and an assortment of other characters that I could never keep straight. Cousins, nieces, grand cousins, play cousins, but they all looked older than fifty and none of them spoke to me unless I addressed them directly.

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I met Rose when some missionaries asked me to come along for a discussion. She lived in a row house in North Philadelphia. It was the grand kind of place I would have loved to have seen when it was new, but that would have been about 1850 and it had long since been subdivided into apartments and I doubt many had loved to see it for at least fifty years. There were two short sets of stairs leading up to her front porch which was a large cement slab surrounded by a crooked railing.
She spent her days sitting in the living room, sharing the space with an old TV, a ratty couch, and an upturned coffee can filled with cigarette butts. She never went anywhere. She never left the room. She didn’t wander because she only had one foot. She lost it to diabetes some years before and so now she sat in her wheelchair on the ground floor of a three-story apartment. The others in the house seemed to go up and down, in and out, passing Rose the same way they passed the ratty couch and the old TV. The coffee can wasn’t hers. She didn’t smoke.”Naw honey. Gave that up years ago. T’aint good for ya and I gots enough problems as it is. That can’s for everybody else in this house. I wished they’d smoke ’em out on the porch but I guess its cold out there. Anyways, at least when they’s smokin’ in here I can talk to ’em a little.”
Rose found the missionaries when they knocked on her door and she hollered for them to come inside. Maybe she just wanted someone to talk to. Maybe she had been sitting there waiting for them. Whatever it was, they found each other and they called me to come along. “Miss Rose has lots of questions and has been reading quite a bit,” the Elder’s informed me. “Today we will be talking about church and baptism.” Now I knew why they really asked me to come along; my minivan.

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I was happy to offer my services to help Rose attend church that upcoming Sunday. She was the only one in the house who had any interest in the gospel but it didn’t matter because none of them owned a car. “You sure that aint a problem? You sure you don’t mind coming all out your way to get me?” she asked. I did not mind at all. 8:30 that next Sunday Rose was waiting for me right on the other side of the screen door. She would have been on the porch but couldn’t get herself up over the door jamb. I wheeled her around backwards and we bump, bump, bumped our way down those two small sets of stairs and then I gallantly lifted her out of her chair and set her in the passenger seat of the van. “Hi Rose,” my daughter and wife called out to her. “Hello everybody,” she replied and we drove off to the chapel.

This became our regular Sunday pattern up through her baptism and a month or so after as well. But then my responsibilities changed and I was no longer available Sunday mornings. I couldn’t call to tell Rose because she had no phone. I stopped by on a Wednesday to tell her I couldn’t be there on Sunday and she apologized to me. She was sorry to be any trouble. I promised I would try to find someone else.

The only person I could find was Brother Berry.

I hadn’t really thought this through very well. Brother Berry was perhaps the only person I knew who was older than Rose. Despite his age Brother Berry would volunteer for anything and they were the only other people we knew with a van. That Sunday morning the Berry’s showed up without Rose. Sister Berry marched up to me and launched into some high decibel diatribe about Brother Berry’s back and stairs and wheelchairs, heart attacks, and another thing coming. I pled forgiveness. Looking back I guess it was my fault. I had assumed that Brother Berry had a plan or was simply more capable than I thought. He was not capable, just willing. After church I drove over to visit Rose and she apologized to me again.

After five months of asking for volunteers and organizing Rose had still never made it back to church. I refused to accept that I was the only solution. Besides, I had other things to worry about than just Rose. So I continued to try to find her rides and would swing by to visit her on weekdays as often as I could. I felt guilty I wasn’t able to be her taxi and was inspired by the addition of a blue book with gold print as the newest piece of living room furniture. It didn’t take long for that blue book to look as used and ratty as the sofa it sat next too.

Before too long our ward welcomed a set of senior missionaries. They weren’t all that old, they were full time, and best of all they had a car. I asked them to please go get Rose. And they did.
I was so happy when this good Elder wheeled Rose into the chapel. She reached out to give me a big hug repeatedly asking, “Where’s the baby?” till my two year old was eventually produced to be hugged as well. It was a great day till about four o’clock.

At four I got a phone call from this Elder’s wife telling me all about her husband’s back problems, his age, and the challenges of getting Rose back up those stinking stairs. I apologized. I often find myself in situations where this is appropriate. This senior Elder spent a day and a half resting hs back but had the bright idea of a deal moving forward. If I couldn’t be there to pick her up, and he couldn’t get her home, maybe we should work together. He would go get her if I would take her home.

Deal.

That next Sunday the senior missionaries showed up without Rose. When they arrived at her home one of the others in the house told us she was in the hospital. Something about her diabetes and surgery. No one there seemed willing or able to tell us anything more than that. After church the senior couple began calling hospitals eventually tracking her down. That Tuesday I paid her a visit.
There she was, smiling her toothless grin. She had lost her other foot but not her smile. She chuckled and waved me into the room past an extra bed that looked to hold a large pile of pillows and sheets. “That’s Clara”, she said pointing to the other bed. “She upset because they won’t let her smoke and I keeps reading the Book of Mormon out loud.” With that she winked at me and pulled open a side drawer to show me her dog eared scriptures. I love that she had her scriptures and loved even more that she winked at me. How could anyone not like Rose?IMG_9088

The senior couple continued to visit Rose till she was moved to a convalescent home nearby. We all talked about how it would soon be time to start arranging for her to get rides to church again, there was some discussion about maybe perhaps bringing her the sacrament, but no one felt any urgency. Things were just moving along. It all began to feel quite normal. That is the right word for it; normal.

It was now normal for me to drive right past the home where Rose was staying as I went to and from wherever doing this and that. I would drive by on my way to pick up one of the youth for an activity, look over, and think to myself, “I should go visit Rose.” But I was on my way somewhere else, somewhere worthwhile, so I would vow to visit Rose later. I would pass by Rose’s center on my way to meet the missionaries somewhere, look over and be reminded I hadn’t yet been by to see Rose. “I should make a note to go see Rose”, I would tell myself, and then hurry off to meet the Elders. I recall one day driving past having finished my work for the day and thinking, “now is the time to go see Rose.” It was dark, it was late, and I was tired. I figured it wasn’t that big of a deal, I would get by to see her. She wasn’t going anywhere, besides, no one but me seems to be able to move her. I went home.

Sometime later the senior missionaries told me a story. It had been just a little too long since they had seen Rose so they scheduled some time to drop in and visit.
Rose wasn’t there.
Rose had passed away.
The people at the home had done their best to contact someone but Rose had listed no relatives and left no point of contact. With no one to contact Rose had been buried by the state. The employees at the home were only disclosing this information to the senior couple because they recognized the logo on the name tags as the same logo on Rose’s copy of the Book of Mormon.
Riddled with guilt I asked where she was buried.
“They don’t know. They said people buried by the state are put in unmarked graves. They have no idea where she is. Sorry.”

That was that. Rose was gone.CIMG4332

I know enough of the gospel to know that Rose is in a better place. It wouldn’t be hard to be better than an empty living room in a wheel chair. Yet when I think of Rose I mostly remember that I drove past her house, thought I should stop, and didn’t.
My little family was in the airport getting ready to board a plane when my little three year old yanked on my sleeve, “Look Dad, it’s Rose!” she said pointing to an old stranger in a wheel chair. “O yeah, that does look kinda like Rose.” I say in my best fatherly voice; encouraging and matter of fact. But it wasn’t Rose. Rose was gone.

Where Rose is now, she can smile with teeth. She can stand. When I knew her she couldn’t do either of those things. I should be happier about that. But I haven’t changed all that much, I’m thinking about my own guilt and failure to act. I’m trying hard to get better and I think I am making some progress. Slow progress. Rose didn’t have time to wait for me to get better. I couldn’t fix all Rose’s problems, but I could have helped more than I did.

How many Roses do we drive past every day without stopping? Let’s do a little better.

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I Abandoned A Homeless Man: what a horrible thing to say, uhhhh… do.

Calvin James *not his real name.
Today I got great news. I was informed that I am no longer responsible for a homeless man. Yup, he’s off the books.
This doesn’t mean he is all the way off the streets; he’s just off my plate.slumpedcorner
Off my plate.
How cold. Like left overs.
Has-been, second rate, and inconsequential leftovers. It feels heartless to talk about him this way because it is. I feel heartless that I was even able to walk away from his life, but I have. It is good that I’m no longer responsible for him, I was never very good at it, but I was all he had. I wish I could say I left him in a better spot than when I found him, but that isn’t true.
That isn’t true mostly because he wasn’t homeless when I found him.payphone
When I met Calvin James he was a competent, cocky, guy. He wore shined shoes and suit jackets along with gold hoop earrings. He was a little flashy for my taste but always well put together. He was funny and friendly and above all else, he was sure of himself. But he had reason to be.
Calvin can cook.
When we met he was the head chef of a fancy prep school. He had a kitchen and a staff. He loved what he did and took great pride in it. The man could, and really still can, cook.
We met in church.pushforhelp
This cocky guy came in contact with some missionaries and couldn’t shake them. He began to realize that his life lacked depth and this new church had it. Now I have met some others in church who came there to escape their past. Calvin wasn’t doing that. I have met some who lived hard lives, or maybe lived life hard, and once on the bottom looked to God as a way back up. That wasn’t really Calvin either.
Calvin had it together. He had done some college, business school, had a career he loved, and he wasn’t all that old, just a little over 40. He was single, no kids, owned a house. He came to church, not necessarily came from somewhere else.
That was Calvin.
Then came cancer.
I don’t know all the details, I’m not a doctor. I know he lost a lot of weight, he was never very big, went through radiation of some sort but kept his hair, and I know it was very hard on him. He had to take time off work to get healthy; Dr.’s orders. He took so much time off that his job let him go.
It wasn’t right for them to let him go and after a lot of haggling the courts agreed and he got a settlement. He got a settlement, but not his job. He was also awarded disability benefits but not a clean bill of health. So now he had a little bit of money but still had cancer.drugtires
Losing the job hurt him a lot. Chemo is painful and so is unemployment. Calvin tried to kill the pain. But Calvin found this pain was hard to kill and then the doctors told him it wasn’t just ordinary pain, it was depression. For those keeping score we are up to cancer, unemployed, and depressed.

 

Then came the fire.
While Calvin was in the hospital there was a fire in his house. He didn’t know about it till he got home. Calvin was, and still is, a nice guy; the kind that lets people live in his house. Some of the sorts of people who just live in a friend’s house are also the sort that just runs away when a fire starts. Sometimes when you live in an old house in North Philly and you get cancer you don’t really think about things like insurance. Calvin didn’t have homeowner’s insurance.
For almost a year Calvin lived in a fire damaged house with no windows and a door that wouldn’t close all the way. He spent most of that time trying to kill the pain. Now a bunch of us tried to tell him things, warn him about stuff, and he tried coming to church, but none of the words, or sitting in a pew, made the pain go away.

 

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Then Calvin just kind of went away.
I would go by his house, the one with the open door, but he was never there. Sometimes some very suspicious people would be there, but never him. After a while the people who were there didn’t even know who he was. He was gone.
But he was never all the way gone. He would turn up, usually in a hospital, and usually when it was cold. Sometimes he would just show up on a Sunday to say hello. He would be there looking a little unkempt, never asking anyone for anything, just wanted to say hello and go to Sunday school. He told me the cancer was gone and he was doing OK. I never pressed to hard. People who have hit the bottom don’t normally like to be pressed too hard. When you are on the bottom being pressed feels like being smashed.
One day Calvin called me in tears. His father had died.
He told me his father had been sick for some time, living in a nursing home. The funeral was tomorrow, he had just been told today. He found out via an aunt. All the arrangements had been made by one of Calvin’s two brothers, but none had thought to tell Calvin.
Calvin asked if I would come with him to the service and just be there with him. I took the day off work and went.couchoncurb
I never knew Calvin had a family and when we showed up at the service, I didn’t really learn anything different. They all knew who he was, he looked exactly like his two brothers, but it was equally as obvious he wasn’t really one of them. I sort of stood back and observed as Calvin looked in the casket and touched his father’s face. We sat off to the side as the service went on, speaker after singer after speaker. Everyone in the family got a turn. But not Calvin. In fact Calvin’s name was not in the obituary, not on the program, and not on the lips of anyone who spoke that day. When it was all over I pulled Calvin’s arm over my shoulder and half carried, half drug, this grown man to my car. Then I dropped him off at a shelter.

 

He was a wreck.
About a year after that Calvin called me for a ride. We had been in and out of touch so this was not completely out of the ordinary. This ride was to the social security office. He had to be there at 9am. He asked me to sit in on his appointment. This part was not ordinary.
As the woman began shuffling papers around and talking in official tones I began picking up that there was a problem with Calvin’s money. The money didn’t come right to Calvin, it went to his aunt. Because Calvin had once been hospitalized for depression and dependence, the state would not just hand him some cash, they required a responsible third party to make sure it was spent responsibly. The aunt was now refusing to be this responsible party.
She asked Calvin who the new “payee” would be.
He stared at his hands in his lap, said nothing, and sheepishly looked over at me. I wanted to argue. I wanted to walk away right there. But I knew just enough of his family and situation to know I was there because he had already tried everything else. I signed the paper.
Shortly after signing the paper I got a government ATM card with my name on it in the mail along with an IRS accounting form. I had to report to them how every penny was spent.
From then on I also got a phone call on the first of every month from Calvin. Well, not every month. Sometimes he would disappear and then pop back up in a hospital. There was always a story that went along with it, but after the third one I stopped believing. Not long after that I stopped listening.
Once Calvin started trying to put the pieces back together I began trying to really help. We got him a phone he could afford. The doctor found him a half-way house recovery program. Calvin and I went back to his burned out house and loaded some clothes into trash bags and took them to this half way house. If you have never been to a half-way house for recovering addicts the first thing that you will notice is that they are filled with recovering addicts. Obvious, recovering addicts.boardedup
The man who ran this first house wore fur coats, gold chains, and had his fingernails painted like American flags. Most of the men in the house weren’t really recovering. I learned this because Calvin began buying his stuff from his roommates with the money he was supposed to be spending on food.
The second place we went to had forty men staying in about 1500 square feet.
We tried having Calvin live on his own. We stopped trying to have Calvin live on his own after two more trips to the hospital.
Calvin has a good therapist. This good therapist found Calvin a spot in a home run by the Catholic Church. Calvin has lived in this shelter for a little more than a year.
We have been at this for some years now Calvin and I. Long enough that if I’m honest with myself I must admit I stopped really trying to help a long time ago. A long time ago I met with the director of the shelter and worked out a plan. I pretty much turned it all over to him. At first I would get a call from Calvin on the first of the month, and then I would deliver a money order for his rent and some cash for his food. Then a little later on I would deliver some cash and make him go get the money order.
But really, near the end, what I did was make a withdrawal, make a delivery, and then make an accounting to the IRS. Calvin became an errand.
I feel bad about that.
The good news is that Calvin has been clean and stable long enough that the he is no longer required to have a payee. The money goes right to him. The bad news is that I’m not confident that Calvin will be OK. He isn’t the Calvin I first met. He isn’t the cocky guy who loves his job. In his place is a beaten down guy who is mostly tired of living with addicts.
I watched this guy go from there to here and at the end of it all I am mostly just glad to not be his payee. That is it. The prevailing emotion, the feeling, is the same relief one gets from crossing off the bottom of the honey-do list.
But he isn’t a task he is a person.
A person with a life. A person with problems bigger than anything I face and at the end of it all I walked away. Well, really I drove a moving truck away, but none-the-less I left. I left a man with problems. A man I tried to help but failed, and then I just sort of shrugged my shoulders and moved away. I shrug my shoulders, move away, reflect, and write it up as a story. I write a story mostly about what I feel.
What about Calvin?

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