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.
Posted by Picasa


Bev Feldman said...

Don-- a very moving story... one of those slices of life that can vaporize over time but provide so much for us to think about. Thanks for snagging that one, and keep going, dude!

William Prather said...

Wonderful story. I'm sure those people will not forget you. No matter what they did, you were a positive influence on them. I'll bet they ate the meals about 2 minutes after you left.

Anonymous said...

That is a wonderful description of what most of us would LOVE to do, but don't...YOU DID IT!!! BRAVO, our friend...YOU made a difference...
That is what we all need to do...
Thank you so much for sharing and keep the stories coming...
Love, Pam and Jon

Jan Lange said...

I could have written that story, Don. Having worked for the County of Los Angeles Department of Parks and Recreation for nine years, I have witnessed more than one homeless family living in the park. I, too, have purchased many meals for folks that were ashamed of their situation and would deny any assistance. But let me tell you, they ate, as your family did, and appreciated the kindness extended to them. You haven't changed much from the Don I knew 40 some years ago, kind then and kind now. I'm looking forward to reading your stories.
Love, Jan

VickiSiedow said...

Thanks, Don. I'm looking forward to more. Your friends and fans will make you keep your promise. ;)


VickiSiedow said...

Thanks, Don. I'm looking forward to more. Your friends and fans will make you keep your promise. ;)


Connie said...

Good job, in my business I see more families homeless, we use to see Adult's homeless, now we have familes homeless. More people need to hear stories like this because this is the new life in our own Country. People think we have no poverty "WORNG". Stories like this are not shared with the Meda and if they were the childern would go to fosterhome's. How nice of you to share a meal with them we need more caring and less greed. Our system does not help they take the children from the families causing fear.

Eugene said...

A great shows what a great person you are.

Kathy (Treloar) Buzan said...

Don, a wonderful and moving story...thank you for sharing this great story...keep them coming, i look forward to more and i know others do too...

sweetsuzee said...

You did a very good thing and what makes it wonderful is that you expected nothing in return. You are a good man Don Ray !!

Don Ray said...

Sweetsuzee has wonderful insight. :-)