Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A Dog-dancing Day in the Park

It's always a treat when I see these dogs converging from different directions. It means there's going to be an impromptu performance.

The Home-Loan Ranger

The secret is apparently out that Bank of America is not happy with me lately. They bought out the crooks at Countrywide and now manage the outrageous, obscene, inflated, slippery mortgage I ended up with two years ago.

They somehow think that I'm going to let go of the little, one-bedroom house I moved into more than 22 years ago. It'll never happen. Where would I put the mountains of stuff I've pack-ratted for decades? They don't make a shopping cart big enough.

Besides, I gave up camping out and sleeping under the stars when I got out of the Army. To me, "roughing it" is a room at Motel 6 next to the loud ice machine.

I knew that my footrace with foreclosure was public knowledge when at least three people told me about some big shindig at the Los Angeles Convention Center this weekend -- an event where folks like me could go and maybe find some creative way to distract the vultures.

The last thing I figured I'd encounter there today was a conversation with a true urban hero -- I call him The Home-Loan Ranger.

His name is Bruce Marks and he's the founder and CEO of the Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America (NACA). Neighborhood assistance is an understatement. What he runs is more like a guerrilla army.

When I heard him tell the crowd of a couple thousand of my delinquent brethren about how he "gets the attention" of the CEOs of banks and other lending institutions, I darn near wanted to build a stature of him on Figueroa Street or something.

He's doing the stuff I dream of doing. When the rich, fat-cat executives ignore his calls for restructuring the rancid loans his troops are stuck with, he leads a small batallion of them to the CEO's doorstep -- the home doorstep.

He gives out their home phone numbers and encourages everyone and their relatives to call the big wheel at home -- every 15 minutes.

I don't know where I've been that I haven't heard about his delightful tactics or about the other massive gatherings he's been hosting. I had to learn more -- from the horse's mouth.

I waited for him to finish an inspirational pep rally and I approached him with notebook in hand.

It's great to be a journalist. Such access. Such respect (sort of).

Within 20 minutes or so we had found a less-noisy spot and I picked his brain apart.

Then I talked to a few of the thousands of people he had helped this weekend and I began to feel just how much of a Pied Piper the Loan Arranger really is.

Here's a short sample of what he and a couple of others told me:

I'll be heading off in the next couple of weeks to one of his next gatherings in either Phoenix, Las Vegas or Oakland. It turns out I didn't have all of the paperwork that they require. Plus, a couple of weeks gives me some more time to nail down some additional work assignments.

I want to grow up to be like Bruce Marks.

Maybe he needs a sidekick. The Loan Arranger and Donto!

Friday, September 25, 2009

Leti lights up the morning

Her name is Leticia, but anyone with that name in Mexico quickly becomes Leti.

She's one of the many people who make the rounds at the local park. Her eyes are so warm that they light up the morning. She's not the only visitor in search of recyclables. You'd be amazed at the number of hard-working and dedicated residents who count on bottles and cans to round out whatever income they need to keep kids dressed and in school and to pay the rent an utilities.

Leti has been in the Burbank area for ten years. You might have seen her with long, beautiful hair that cascaded down to her waist. But she had a stroke that apparently triggered a heart attack.

"They had to cut my hair," she said in Spanish, "so they could cut into my head.

"Touch here," she said in English as she parted her hair. I was willing to believe her, but she seemed insistent on having me feel the lump.

People who don't speak Spanish believe that I'm fluent in it. Those who know Spanish instantly know that I'm just a beginner who speaks more quickly than other beginners. The same applies to my piano playing, by the way. I can't fool real musicians.

I tell you this to apologize for any information that I may have gotten wrong this morning when Leti stopped by to meet Mija (my dog -- you can check out the video down further in the blog). What I never knew what how fast Leti speaks in Spanish as well as in the limited English she's learning. She's taking classes at the local adult center and apparently doing very well.

But back to her stroke/heart attack. From what I could pick up, she was pregnant at the time and that complicated things even more. I believe she was paralyzed for a while and couldn't speak.

That's certainly not the case now. She gets up early every morning and walks a little more than a mile to the park. I'm certain she has other stops along the way. Two days a week she cleans houses for two clients.

She spent a couple of minutes describing in English -- backed up in rapid Spanish -- the excellent work she does cleaning houses. I could tell it was a matter of great pride for her.

She told me that she'll clean a complete house for $50, but she hinted that she works a lot harder in the afternoon is the client shares lunch with her. Apparently, one of the clients in the past didn't believe that she should stop to eat.

What fun is it having a friendly, qualified and speedy housekeeper if you can't share lunch with her or him. Besides, that how I brush up on my Spanish.

Leti doesn't have a phone where she lives in Burbank, but her sister, Marisol does. If you should want to meet Leti and experience her high energy and higher enthusiasm, e-mail me at donray@donray.com or call me directly.

I'll hook you up.

She'll light up your morning also!
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Thursday, September 24, 2009

The girl I never met

I accepted an invitation to join some fellow Vietnam veterans who get together once a week to share poems that they've written about their post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

It turns out that it's therapeutic to express inner fears and feelings and share them.

When I returned from Vietnam, I also wrote a few poems. The interesting thing is that I didn't know that I was doing the same thing these vets are doing today -- I was expressing inner fears and feelings.

PTSD works in strange ways, it turns out.

Because my job in Vietnam was to work alone at night with only my dog, I didn't develop many of those close friendships with fellow soldiers that my colleagues who fought in other wars may have developed.

My best friends were the two dogs I worked mostly with: Fritz and Ralph (the cute little fellow in the photo).

When I got out of the Army, I went straight in to Los Angeles Pierce Community College with the belief that I'd end up a veterinarian (I'll tell you the amazing story about how that dream came about, but in a later posting). One of the first classes I took was astronomy. If you go back into the earlier blogs, you'll read about the constellation Southern Cross. It's connected to that.

It was in my astronomy class that an attactive and friendly looking young woman attracted my attention. What I didn't know back then, was that the early signs of my PTSD were showing up.

After weeks of wishing that I could be her friend, but being unable to make it happen, I wrote the poem.

I never gave it to her.

In preparation for meeting with the veterans' poetry group, I found the old poem. When I read it, I immediately understood what was at work in my mind.

The Girl I Never Met
By Don Ray

You might be Sue or Cindy —
Monique, Marie, Michele.
You could be Cathy, Kay or Chris
As far as I can tell.

Your name is, quite regrettably,
Unknown to me as yet.
Unless we’re introduced, you’ll be
The girl I never met.

That day when I first saw you,
A month or so ago,
I vainly tried to smile at you
And simply say, “Hello.”

We see each other frequently —
A dozen times a week.
I can’t help feeling close to you
Although we never speak.

I wonder if you wonder
What I’m thinking when I stare.
If you think I think I’m good for you,
You haven’t got a prayer.

I guess I should explain it now —
My silence from the start —
Thought I appear unsociable,
I’m cowardly at heart.

So be happy that we’re strangers.
It’s really not profound.
As long as I don’t know you
I can never let you down.

You’ll always be a friend to me
But, one day, I’ll regret
I never really got to know
The girl I never met.
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Saturday, September 19, 2009

McFlashbacks with a side of Pride

Just about every morning, I take my spectacular dog, Mija, to the local park.

It's not for enjoyment -- it's her job. Every morning she heads for the ivy that surrounds the tennis courts and searches for a tennis ball. When she finds a ball -- and she always does, the work is over and the fun begins. She has trained me to throw it and then, when she retrieves it, to throw it again.

And again and again.

But that's a story for another time. This story begins at the same park, but in the dark hours before midnight. I was blessed to have my stellarly stunning wife, Xiao Mei, accompany Mija and me to the park. Mija enjoys showing off for Xiao Mei. Xiao Mei enjoys pretending to not be impressed. I pretend to not notice.

As we entered the park, I noticed the couple sleeping on the grass behind the trunk of a big tree. One of them was wearing a white sweatshirt with the hood pulled up over the head. A couple of days earlier, I had seen a big fellow sitting with his wife or girlfriend on the bleachers watching an imaginary softball game.

He had been wearing the hood of a white sweatshirt over his head. The sweatshirt draped down his back and, from afar, looked like long, white hair. My park friend, Larry, told me later that they were, like him, homeless and that the guy had beaten him to a pulp a while back.

I didn't tell Xiao Mei who I thought the sleeping couple was -- I simply steered us in a different direction on the walk back home.

The following morning, Mija and I were there doing our respective jobs. It was shortly before 8 a.m. when she and I started walking across the baseball fields in the direction of home. That's when we noticed a young couple with their three-year-old (probably) daughter walking away from the spot where the people had been sleeping the night before.

It was the woman, it turns out, who was wearing the white sweatshirt with the hood keeping her ears warm. And the guy was much smaller and thinner than the homeless man who had messed with Larry.

They were carrying some blankets, some makeshift bags and the little girl's Teddy bear and they were walking in the direction of the public restrooms on the opposite side of the ball fields. Park workers open the restrooms at about 8 a.m.

I kept walking toward home, but I couldn't stop thinking about the young couple and that little girl having slept all night in the park. Something made me turn around and walk in the direction they were walking.

I finally caught up with them when they reached the restrooms -- which were still locked. The mother stood off to one side with the little girl while the father checked the doors.

"You were in the park last night," I said to the man. He had warm, friendly eyes. He looked to be in his early-to-mid 20s. He hadn't shaved in a couple of days, but he didn't have any of the telltale signs of being a careen homeless person.

I know now that I should have approached him with a better first line.

"No," he said with a friendly smile, "we weren't in the park last night."

"I'm going to be at the McDonald's down the street in about 15 minutes," I said. "Could I buy you folks some breakfast?"

"We weren't in the park last night," he said again, a bit more firmly. "We like to come here in the morning."

I knew better. I'd never seen them before. "I must have been mistaken," I said in a desperate attempt to undo the damage I figured I'd already done. "The couple I saw last night were wearing the same colored clothes. You must be embarrassed that I made such a stupid mistake. I certainly am."

The whole time, his wife or girlfriend stood about 20 feet away with her daughter and just listened. I strategically bid him a farewell, offered up another apology and headed home.

I wasn't even halfway there when it became perfectly clear to me that I couldn't continue my day without doing something.

That's when I had the McFlashback.

When I was about three years old, we lived in a little, one-bedroom house at 11116 Weddington Street in North Hollywood.

My sister and I shared a sofa that flattened out into a bed. The living room was the dining room and vice versa. My mother backed a couple of dining room chairs up against the sofa to keep me from falling out. When my father wasn't looking, she would pin a bathroom towel around as a makeshift diaper. If Dad found out I had wet the sofa, there would be a bad scene.

The man with the baseball cap and the flashlight came to the door in the middle of the night. It's the first memory I have of being alive. It was a disturbance. Our parents were clearly afraid and were scrambling to get whatever it was that the man in the baseball cap wanted. They didn't turn on any lights -- probably so they wouldn't wake my sister and me.

It would be years later that I would figure out what had happened that night -- what that man wanted. He was either a bookie, a loan shark or one of my father's co-workers at Lockheed Aircraft who my father had scammed. You see, my father was a horse race addict and, by that time, had already pretty much ruined their marriage. This man wanted his money and wasn't going to leave peacefully until he got it.


As I walked back home from the park, I couldn't stop thinking about that nightmare and about the three-year-old girl who had slept with her parents on the wet grass the night before. I wondered if, many years later, that little girl would remember hearing her father lie about sleeping in the park and then turn down the offer for food. Even if she didn't hear or understand the conversation, I'm certain that she could feel the tension and wonder what Mommy and Daddy were worried about.

Of course, there was no doubt in my mind that the young father was not being truthful. I figured it was about that ridiculous pride that keeps us men from admitting that we need help. Later, a friend suggested that the young man was afraid that someone might report him to the authorities and they would take the child away.
I felt even more stupid. But back to that day.

When I left home to begin my day, I drove through the local McDonald's and ordered four breakfast meals. I knew that the man would probably not accept it, but it didn't matter. I suppose it became more about me than about them.

I parked my car in the parking lot and walked to a picnic table about 50 feet from where the mother was sitting on a blanket with the little girl. The father was, no doubt, in the restroom cleaning up. I didn't make eye contact with them. Instead, I methodically set the table for four and sat myself down.

Again, I never looked at her and I don't know if she looked at me, but I'm guessing she did.

I ate my breakfast, gathered the empties and deposited them in the nearby trashcan. Of course, I left the three other meals sitting on the table -- orange juice, McMuffin and hashbrown potatoes. I never looked back

As I drove off, I knew that I would never know what happened to the food. Did Mommy and Daddy have a "should we" discussion? Did they scramble to the table and begin eating? Did the little girl ask them why they couldn't eat the food?

I'll never know. And I'll never know if or how that innocent little girl will see life differently because of the crisis her parents were experiencing.

The whole incident, however, made me think more about how easily some circumstances can change the course of someone's life. I pondered about the impact that the circumstance of my childhood had on my life.

Was it a combination of childhood crises, attention deficit disorder, dyslexia and post-traumatic stress disorder from Vietnam (and childhood?) that set the tone for everything that has happened in my life? For as long as I can remember, I've struggled just to keep up with life. I've been blessed with an inflamed curiosity and a radar-like ability to connect with the most wonderful and amazing people -- and a few who were not that wonderful, but equally amazing.

And I've been cursed with the inability to complete stories and projects so that I could share them with people. I'm buried in a massive collection of astoundingly wonderful stories to tell about people anyone would want to get to know.

But instead of crafting the stories and sharing them with people, I've spent my entire adult life (so far) scrambling to keep the wolves off my heels. If only I had the time. If only I had the money. If only I had a working partner. If only I had the breaks.

I cannot keep saying "If only."

I can no longer wait for someone to give me permission to write something or shoot something or to record something. In my heart, I believe that it's time to tell the stories and hope that people read them. I spend so much time encouraging people to sit down with their parents or grandparents and record oral histories.

"It's like being in a library that's burning down," I keep repeating. "You have to move fast."

I'm also a library and I'm feeling the heat.

I hope you'll enjoy the very personal and amazing stories I'm about to share with the world.
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