Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Things may be looking up for my friend — or so I thought.

It's a two-part story. I wrote the first part several months ago. The second part ain't so positive.

“It’s all your fault,” he told me. “If you hadn’t walked down that alley that day . . .” He was referring to an incident back about five years ago. What that had to do with getting help replacing a tree was a mystery to me. First let me tell you about the great stuff that happened today.

Today was one of those days you wish you could duplicate and relive every day. On Sunday, a friend offered to help me and my neighbor cut down and remove a tree in our front yard — a tree that had died about the same time my wife’s father died a couple of months ago. Xiao Mei told me that it would be bad feng shui to not replace it with a living memorial to her father.

My friend knew that I didn’t have any money to hire anyone to help, so he just plain insisted that I give him permission to work for free. That wouldn’t be a big deal, I guess, but knowing that he is homeless and struggling to work his way out of a deep hole, allowing him to work without being paid didn’t feel right. But he insisted, and he worked. And worked and worked and worked.

I posted on facebook a picture of him doing the heavy part of the work. Before I knew it, one of those facebook friends I’ve never met in person stepped forward and said he needed someone with my friend’s skills. He had a job available if my friend was interested. I couldn’t find my friend last night — where he camps out is not the kind of place one wants to explore at night. But today, I put the word out, and soon his friends told him to find Don Ray for a possible job.

He called me before I could even get situated in my office. He had an odd job to do for someone and he’d be right over. He talked on the phone to the facebook friend who needed a worker. They’ll meet this weekend when my friend will be helping us with a yard sale.

All of my friend's possessions are locked in a rented garage. He’s behind enough on his payments that he knew he was in danger of losing everything. I drove him to the office of the landlord and we apparently arrived just in time. They were just about to file the legal notices that would enable them to liquidate his stuff. He had no money to give them today, but on the promise that he now has a job, they granted him a very short extension.

He also needed to get a replacement drivers license so he can borrow my old truck, so we arranged for that as well. In the course of six or seven hours, my friend found himself in a place of hope. It’s as if the clouds opened up and he could see small ray of sunshine.

I joked with him the way men friends do. “My friend,,” I said, “you kept me from getting my own work done today. What a pain you are!” That’s when he said that it was my own fault. Here’s the gist of what he recounted:

 “It’s all your fault because you walked down that alley that day. I’ll never forget it. Here we were — six or seven of us — all homeless — some drinking there at the end of a dead end alley. Nobody in their right mind would come walking there. But we looked up and saw you walking toward us. Everyone stopped. Someone said, ‘Who is it?’ ‘Is he a cop?’ ‘He doesn’t look like a cop.’ ‘He doesn’t look lost.’
“Everyone kept an eye on you as you walked right up to us. Nobody else would have dared to walk right up to us. Then you smiled at everyone and said, ‘Has anyone seen Joey?’ We nudged Joey and sort of warned him that some dude was looking for him. We were all astounded when you told Joey that you were there to help him get a copy of his birth certificate. We didn’t know that you had met him in the park and offered to help him. When you left, we were all amazed that you had the nerve to walk down that nasty alley.

“That was how we met. It’s all your fault. Oh, and by the way, I just realized that four of the people who were there that day have died: Lance, Big Gene, Deb and Jerry. They’re all dead.”

It turns out that all four of his friends — two of them were my friends as well — had lost the battle of survival on the streets.

Today, I have a feeling of optimism that my friend is finally about to work his way out. With his amazing talent as a cabinet maker, carpenter, mason, painter and all-around repair guru, I know that he will have no trouble staying employed. This job offer will enable him to work toward having a roof over his head, three meals a day and a chance become productive and happy again.

It’s one of those situations where social media proved just how social it can be.

Postscript: February 14, 2014.

I made a big mistake. I forgot to remember to never forget that I am powerless over alcohol. All of the optimism I had embraced was for naught. It was the rain that derailed everything, but if it hadn't rained, it's likely he would have found another obstacle to embrace — another excuse to turn to booze to kill the pain.

You see, when the weekend arrived, so did the rains. You can't do a yard sale in the rain. He told me that he could stay sober until the next weekend. He kept his word, but the rain intervened again. He was sure he could be at my place the following Saturday.

I was up early on the third attempt. Clear skies. But my friend wasn't outside setting up his stuff. People were already gathering in the front lawn. I had to ask a neighbor to take over while I looked for my friend. I found him where many of Burbank's homeless gather in the morning. He was drunk. He didn't remember saying he'd be at the yard sale. He had fallen prey to the addiction. I knew that I'd have to wait for him to decided to dry out. The yard sale was pretty much a failure without him  — there's no one better at yard sales than my friend. And the job offer vanished in the rain as well.

I ran into him several weeks ago. He was wearing a sling. Someone had broken his left arm above the elbow. All he remembered was that the police had picked him up for public drunkenness, but he wasn't drunk, he insists. At his demand, they took him to the hospital where he hoped they could prove he wasn't intoxicated. The last thing he remembers is that the police officers escorted him out of the hospital — nobody had tested anything — and they were going to un-cuff him and release him. He woke up a couple of hours later outside the back gate of the hospital with a broken arm and fractured rib.

He was certain the police had done it. I arranged for an attorney to meet with him the next day, but during the interview, it became clear that my friend had downed a fifth of vodka and was drifting into his typical routine. His friendly, happy, cooperative attitude morphed into slurring defiance. The attorney left. No way he was going to take the case if his client was so unreliable. It was clear that there would be no way of proving what really happened. And if the police were involved (as the attorney strongly suspected, given the story my friend had told), it would be impossible to pursue any path to justice.

My friend calls me occasionally. He may or may not require surgery.

I still have no control over alcohol. My wife wants me to remove all of my friend's yard sale items that are stashed at our place.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The most beautiful romance of Catalina Ortiz

I first met Catalina Ortiz Provencio in 1990 when I interviewed her within sight of Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. She was 71. I was capturing memories of people who had lived in Chavez Ravine in the '20s, '30s, '40s and '50s --- before the City of Los Angeles made them move from the quaint, ethnic neighborhood.
I had seen her interacting playfully with her husband, Morro, so I made it a point to ask her about her first encounter with the man she would marry. Her response was magical. Some 20 years later, I interviewed her again. She was 91 at that time. Recently, she passed away. Her family asked me to produce a short tribute to the love she had for Morro, who died several years before the second interview I had done with her. You may have seen a shorter video I made. This one weds the stories that she told --- 20 years apart.