Beloved Mother by Nancy Edwards

BELOVED MOTHER

by Nancy Edwards

In the webbed flesh of your

inside elbow,

in these layers of tender skin,

I am born once more

when you hold me,

beloved Mother.

When you hold me,

I want to return

to the perfume of

your vanity table

and douse myself

in Mother’s love powder,

cake flour fine.

Only Mother has it.

I am in the webbed flesh of your

inside elbow, Mother.

You are my cradle,

my beloved mother.

I live in the fragrance

of your loose powder

and flower perfume.

You are always

the place inside.

You hold me forever

in the stream of my birth.

When I am in your arms,

you are my beloved mother.

(c) Nancy Edwards, previously published in The Woman Within

Mr. Jellison by Portia Choi

Mr. Jellison
by Portia Choi

During high school, you filled my emptiness.

You aroused me with “yellow daffodils” and the
        “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”
To the beat of bongo drums, Sidney Poitier talked of the life in Plato’s
        cave, as I felt my first kiss from a boy in your classroom.
On stage, actors lived the Bradbury tales on the “Illustrated Man.”
After you played Hamlet, I brushed your hand accidentally and
       was amazed by the heat of your palm.

You said “Observe, observe the life around you.
       Keep a journal, and write of the specialness of each day,
       only as you see with your eyes.”

I did not write in journals then, but I write everyday now.
I have forgotten what I wrote on assigned essays.
But yes, I remember how you read my words to the class,
       as tenderly as the words of Dylan Thomas.

I wondered then — are my words and thoughts just as profound?
For this wonder,
       I write wishing you were reading my words to me, again.
© Portia Choi

The King of the Playground

The King of the Playground by Annis Cassells

James felt like a circus acrobat, propelling his ten-year-old body skyward as he took his swing back and forth with the speed of a raptor. He was the “king” of Avery Street Rec Center, which took up an entire city block in this working class neighborhood.

Spellbound, older kids would gather around, holding their breath while James executed daredevil feats. Spontaneous applause and cheers would pierce the sultry air as he risked shattered bones and wounded pride. James made it look so easy other kids occasionally attempted to repeat his tricks. None possessed his skill, style, or fearless attitude. A few cocky hopefuls dared to challenge him. As if they got a chance, he thought. King of the playground, he relished his crown and the respect and accolades from his playground peers.

At home, things were different. James felt invisible, a scrawny boy sandwiched between two sisters his parents considered perfect. There was teenaged Maddie, smart, but self-centered, strewed library books all over the house, even in the bathroom and five-year-old Marsha, a pesky little thing who had usurped his spot as the youngest in the family.

One July afternoon, James was working to sharpen his flying trapeze stunt. Determined to succeed, he kept getting up from the ground and returning to his swing after each failed attempt. He glanced over at the sandbox where he saw Marsha in her bright yellow sun suit. She was sitting where he’d told her to stay after their Mom had dropped her off and instructed him to keep an eye on his sister.

Feeling like he was close to perfecting the stunt, he thought Wait ‘til everybody sees this, as he hopped back onto the middle swing, his favorite. He climbed higher, getting his legs and torso into the pumping, and two younger boys rushed to the swings on each side of him. James soared above the bystanders’ heads, almost even with the creaking crossbar, and yelled at the two swinging wannabes. “Watch this!” He stretched his arms to reach higher up on the chain. James was about to lift his bottom from the seat and push his legs out behind him when a blaze of yellow beyond the chain-link fence caught his attention.

He hesitated. Is that Marsha? Who’s in that car? For all his disdain for Marsha, his heart clenched. She might be in danger! When the swing flew forward, James bailed to the ground. He landed in the sand, struggling to keep his balance as he jetted forward. What he saw happening at the curb caused his heart to almost burst from his chest. Oh God! With winged feet, he ran toward the gate that led onto Avery Street.

Marsha leaned into the window of an unfamiliar dark blue four-door sedan that was still running. James couldn’t see who was inside. She knows she’s not supposed to talk to strangers! What’s she doing? Propelled by fear — and something else he couldn’t name — he rushed toward her. “Marsha!” he shouted. “Marsha!”

She stepped backward and turned toward him, her hands on her hips, her chin jutting forward. “What?” Irritation filled her voice and contorted her face.

When Marsha moved, James pulled up short, recognizing the person in the passenger seat. It was Aunt Rose. Just Aunt Rose. Her narrow, nut-brown face was framed in tortoise shell glasses, and she’d wrapped her hair in a sky blue colored scarf. Aunt Rose lifted her hand and waved, calling, “Hey, Jamey. How’s my boy today? Marsha says Mom’s gone to the store. We’re just out for a drive, trying out this new Caddie. Isn’t it fine?”

James finally let the air escape from his lungs. Flustered and embarrassed, he raised his hand and forced a tentative smile in Aunt Rose’s direction.

“What?” Marsha demanded, stomping her foot, her hands never leaving her slender, side-cocked hips.

“Nothin’,” James said, a thick, low growl straining past the lump blocking his throat. Then, in his big brother voice, “You just better get back on this playground. You hear?”

He gave a slight nod to Aunt Rose, and like an on-duty soldier, made an abrupt about face. Unable to hold back the threatening tears, James trudged away, through the gate and past Avery Street Rec Center’s main building. He shoved his fists into his eyes then rubbed his wet knuckles down the coarse fabric of his Levi’s and kept walking.

Around the back of the building, James braced his hands on his knees and took a few deep breaths. It was only Aunt Rose. It could’a been somebody bad. Confusion flooded in. Before, he welcomed the idea of somebody whisking Marsha out of his life. But now he felt, well, different.

He stood erect and shook himself then sprinted off to reclaim his center swing.

“Okay, see if y’all can do this trick!” James hollered at the two now-reluctant flyers who sat dragging the toes of their sneakers through the sand beneath their swings. They looked up, surprised at the change in his voice and tone.

“Look. You start like this,” Gesturing with his head, he said, “Come on. I’ll show you.” His feet apart, planted on the swing seat, James bent his knees, and with the power of his thrusts, the swing began its ascent.

 

Sin Malicia

Sin Malicia by Katie Romley

This morning I saw a man who looked hungry. Right before I reached the drive-thru at McDonald’s on “F Street” in Bakersfield, I noticed him. As I waited to pull forward in my car, the questions that always come to me whenever I see someone homeless began flooding my brain

  • How long has it been since you’ve had a bed?
  • Are you sad or did you leave someplace where you felt sadder?
  • Can I help you?
  • If you don’t ask me for money, will I offend you by offering?

I circled back to where I first saw the man. Young, black, possibly newly homeless. His gaze was one of sadness, but not hopelessness. I drove up close to him, hoping I wouldn’t scare him. He looked up. I asked if he needed money. He said quickly, “Yes”. I realized I already had the five-dollar bill in my hand. I was nervously turning it over. He saw it. His eyes became wider and his eyebrows rose. He walked toward me and I said, “If you’re hungry, they’re still serving breakfast inside”. He said, “Thanks. Wow. Thank you”. After wishing one another a good day, he collected his bag, and what looked to be a rolled sleeping bag with a green and blue pattern on it, and headed into the restaurant. I felt an emptiness. Sad because he seemed genuinely happy, grateful, to receive this small thing. Guilt because I didn’t engage with him further. Didn’t ask him where he is going. What else he needs.

My whole life, giving has been my default button. It has been a rather black and white issue for me, and I’m not sure why. For my fourth birthday, I cried watching a televised special of Biafran babies, arms skinny but bellies extended. I wouldn’t stop crying until my mom agreed to send some of my birthday dollars to the babies. Today the same core truth remains. Where some might find fault with the homeless or their plight, I’m unlikely to look to blame – even so much so that I may put myself in harm’s way without a second thought. I share this not so someone would pat me on the back, but rather understand my thought process. It is something I feel in my core, similar to how I feel if I see a child or an animal mistreated. To face another human’s immediate pain makes me ache.

The feelings that I imagine a person who is homeless has, whether it be temporary or years-long, seem to attach to me each time I see someone in need. And mostly, they are ones I’m conjuring in my brain, because everyone’s situation is different and each person feels differently about his or her address. I know there are people who blame the homeless, or feel no responsibility, presumably because it feels so “other”. I can be guilty of over-identifying. I imagine how someone is feeling when I make eye contact, and I take it with me when I leave.

Someone reading this might think I’ve never had a bad experience when talking to a homeless person. That is false. I was once chased home by a homeless man who barked as a dog and nearly caught me until I made it safety into my Washington, DC home. I was panicked, heart racing and out of breath. I sweat through my clothes. I remember calling a friend to come over and stay with me once I realized I’d made it safely inside the door. Another woman yelled at me for not giving her more money when I left Sunday mass and handed her the $10 I was planning on putting into the collection basket. Collection-in-action, I had decided, and while it was not pleasing to her, this didn’t stop me from giving to people who asked or seemed in need. I later learned after many mental health facilities were closed in Washington, DC, a number of innocent people became homeless, with nowhere to go, no skills, no address. These folks had diagnosable mental disorders which impacted functioning and the ability to maintain jobs. It confirmed what I already felt to be true – these folks did not need my judgment – they were entitled to grace.

I do have to be careful though. Careful of over helping and over caring. It could possibly freak someone out. They could feel, for example, that I’m trying to make them into a project, obtaining community service hours, taking pity. When truly my heart hurts less in a pity way and more in an “I’d want someone to do the same for me or my loved ones” – way. To me, homeless feels less other and more us. Any one of us. I know that it could be.

I have extended family who live here, who would take me in. My parents, brother, aunt and uncle. A warm bed in any number of places has always been in sight. But say I didn’t have this. One late paycheck, one serious illness, or one lemon of a car, and I could be couch –surfing or curb-surfing. Without moving towns or neighborhoods, I could switch from a zip code of plenty to a zip code of despair.

“Sin Malicia” literally translates to without malice. And it encapsulates what I wish to feel about anyone who crosses my path. Homeless or homed. I don’t know the things that have been on their path before, and all of that has informed and shaped who they are, just like my path has shaped me. Since I cannot judge, I’m operating from a perspective of now. Immediate. What can I do in this moment to alleviate some suffering? Maybe that comes from my first job as a lifeguard.

My favorite work site was Jefferson Pool in East Bakersfield. The hot dry summers were punctuated with moments of teaching young kids to read on their mandatory 15-minutes breaks from swimming. Many of the neighborhood kids stayed with us lifeguards all day.

A skill one learns as a lifeguard is to scan the water. A guard is never supposed to keep his or her head stationary, lest they miss a body that is beginning to drop. Most drownings are quiet. They lack commotion and excitement. The person appears to be keeping their head above water just fine, and they slowly begin dropping, yet they don’t have the skills to push up through the covering of water for that next breath. Each day of 100 degrees plus I sat in that high back, white fiberglass chair. I climbed up the silver ladder, hot to the touch. I perched from my post, and moved my head from side to side, my eyes roving the lanes of the 25-yard lap pool, full of children. I did what I was taught to do and it became a habit, routine. Each shift I’d begin scanning the water, my eyes would attach to the swimmers, counting them to make sure I hadn’t lost track of anyone.

The neighborhood kids would watch as we’d practice our resuscitation skills weekly, staying in top respond-worthy condition in case the need arose. One day it did. A homeless man was outside of the park, passed out after one too many. Three of the young kids came running in,

“Miss! Miss! He fell over”.

My manager instructed us to grab the oxygen tank and run. The four of us surrounded him, checking for vital signs. When our boss assured us he had a pulse, he encouraged us to take out the oxygen mask. As this 22-year old young manager knelt beside us teenaged-guards, he held the forehead of a stranger in a park, next to the paper bag he’d been carrying, he said,

 

“Now let’s help him out, and give him some nice cool oxygen”.

 

The only person who ever received an actual rescue that year never drowned in a pool. And it probably didn’t look as if he were slowly slipping through the water. If he were swimming, he probably would have appeared to be having fun, splashing as his friends laughed alongside him. This man might have been the only rescue, but he was likely not the only one who needed one. I wish that what this man experienced that day was not luck. I wish it was common to pick up the fallen, any of us who fall. Maybe that’s why I’ve still got my oxygen tank beside me, and I’m still ready to run.

 

(c) Katie Romley 2016

When a Person Loses a Sense of Home by Nancy Edwards

 

We may not realize when a person becomes less functional, less able, confused, not the high-functioning family member  or co-worker he or she used to be.  We might see the person as lacking competence in self-care or unable to maintain a home or job.  The life-style can change drastically mandating the individual’s resignation from a job or the assistance of a caregiver or partner.  There may be additional consequences for someone who can no longer manage the basic self-care needed to maintain a reasonable life style with three meals a day, medical care, clean clothing, a safe place to stay, and social interaction.  Some people cannot stay in their homes or lose due to hoarding, non-compliance with payments, and inability to handle money.

According to the legal definition of homelessness, “there is no federal or constitutional right to shelter” in the United States.  In 1987, the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act (42 U.S.C. A. 11301) was passed to provide public resources and program to assist the homeless population.”  The definition of a homeless person is stated as an “individual who lacks housing, including one whose primary residence during the night is a supervised public or private facility that provides temporary living accommodations…or an individual who has as a primary residence a public or private place not designed for, or ordinarily as, a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings.”  There is a large and varied body of data available to access to further inform interested persons which can enlighten us about the issues (www.nhchc.org/faq/types-homelessness / Dec. 2015) Official National Health Care for the Homeless.

I have noticed another aspect of what may become a physical homelessness among people whom I have known that I am calling a psychological homelessness.  I have found that some friends and acquaintances have arrived at a place where they can no longer access their homes due to numerous mental or psychological interferences.  A mental chaos generally seems to occur, then an abandoning of social convention, severe negligence of personal health, safety, personal appearance or hygiene, and unwillingness to seek help.  These characteristics may be evident to family and friends, but many people are unable or unwilling to alter the patterns.  Observers may be as I have been, perplexed,  lack knowledge about the best way of helping people who are deeply distressed.  I will mention some persons whom I have known recently. Real names have not been used.

Leslie Sloan was a very much loved friend.  In her prime professional days, she was brilliant, charming, socially active, and dependable.  Later, Leslie became very confused about the smallest tasks, including directions, money, preparing meals, grocery shopping, seeking medical care when she was ill or injured.  She fabricated truth.  Having known her as a very bright and reliable person, I was not sure if some things were true or not.  She wandered around her neighborhood and refused assistance.  We as her friends became alarmed and afraid for her safety, but there was no relative to call to take care of her.  She refused to discuss her plight with us.  When she died quite suddenly, the shock left people reeling.  Yet she did not function in her home or take care of her life.  She had a solid retirement pension and a lovely home which she had once taken great pride in owning.  That feeling had completely vanished.  Her sense of home had become disengaged from reality. When people saw her, disheveled and unclean, they would have assumed that she was homeless.

Elena Soltice was an attractive Latina woman.  She was vivacious and adventurous.   I could not wait to see her if we had plans to shop or have lunch.  She was able to mix with any group of people and travel easily all over the world.  She had long black hair when we first met, like Cher, and could easily go dancing, ski, play tennis, bowl, etc. She was fun to be around.  When we decided to play tennis at Jastro Park at midnight because they had lights, we had a wonderful time, mostly laughing and missing the ball.  As she hit her forties, she found she was unhappy in her marriage or he was or both.  She had a nice home, some successful business they both owned, an expensive car, health insurance, and many friends who adored her.  She met someone new, exciting, desirable.  The divorce came and she married the new man.  Her ex remarried and had children.   Her new husband insisted she delete her former life, her business holdings, her previous job, her friends, and move to a new city near Los Angeles.  Sadly, she moved away and I rarely saw her.

Lives changed rapidly from that perfect day of her wedding.  Within three years of the marriage, she called to say, they were divorcing.  She found herself single again, with no employment, and a small settlement to exist on until she could re-invent herself.  All of the good feelings and friends with the second husband no longer existed.  She had no business and no home.  She owed money on credit cards.  He did not want to support her or pay her debts.  She could not find a job she liked.    Now older, heavier and over fifty, she could not compete with the younger women in their 20’s entering the business world.

By the time I met with her for lunch at a hotel my husband and I were staying at  in Los Angeles, she was trying to survive by living with friends, couch surfing, sharing what little she could access in terms of food and basic necessities.  We sat for hours catching up after two years of absence from each other.  There were no adult children to turn to, no family members as her mother had recently died, and only a house of worship and dogs to form a sense of family.  I was sad when she had to leave as I missed her very much,  but she insisted she had to go home to cook a big pot of beans and rice, dinner for herself and her dogs.  She saw my face, even if I tried to hide my surprise, when she said that she had to find meals to feed them all with her limited funds. She ate what the dogs ate. I did not ask for more details.

This was hard for me to understand.  My beautiful friend was now without her own home, without an income to live on, and had no way back up the ladder.  She had served a gourmet meal at her wedding and once visited expensive, trendy places.  Her clothing was ragged. The close friend who had allowed her to live in his place had committed suicide recently, so she would have to find another place to exist.  I thought of her often .    She was trying to reconcile with a sister as there had been dissention upon division of her mother’s property.  They had apparently not cared about her desperate situation.  More recently, I wanted to find Elena, arrange a visit to see her for the holidays, if she would let me.  There had to be something I could do.

Another close friend and I checked every address we had for her.  I called and emailed and did not receive a response.  Her phone was disconnected. She was not listed and there was no forwarding address. I did not know her sisters’ married names. We were truly cut off.

Five years before, she had called me on New Year’s Eve when she was with her second husband in China.  He was her fiancé then and I think she thought life would always be a joy with him.  She was herself bubbly, like champagne.  I envied how comfortable and secure she was travelling all over the world.  Once my students were doing an literary/education film and they needed a gypsy fortune teller with exotic looks and dark eyes.  I called her and she appeared with her own invented costume, laughing and enjoying her role as a “star.”  She had not realized that her happiness depended upon her sense of home and security.  Unlike my other friend, Leslie Sloan, Elena never lost her sharp intelligence and caring personality.

I searched for some weeks for a clue of where she could be.  I tried her various married and unmarried names;  I even thought of calling her ex-husbands, but was not sure how I would be received.  Her first ex-husband had been a good friend, but had remarried and started a family.  He might have found my call intrusive and rude.  As a last resort I Googled her name and the last area I thought she resided, and place of worship.  The news was shocking and deeply troubling. A candlelight service had been held for her one evening two years before that date. She had died.   I emailed the clergyman whose name appeared on the bulletin. He indicated that Elena had been able to stay with her sister during her final days. I would never see her again.  She would never know how much her friends in Bakersfield would miss her and loved her. Losing her home and her identity had been fatal to her life force.

Both of these women represent losing their place and falling into  darkness and  hopelessness.   They were both capable, productive, engaging people before their fall.  After their descent into personal hell, they were unable to communicate their distress and receive help.  What became a slip and fall from the graces of life turned into a major breakdown destroying their lives.  The sense of psychological and physical homelessness appears to be increasing among many age groups.    Before we lose track of our generations on the precipice of tragedy due to disability and inability to maintain survival skills, we need to gather our resources and knowledge to seek solutions and enact measures of prevention. This year, this moment is the right time and place.  The path not yet taken awaits us.    Good people are still our greatest resource and need to be cherished.  When English poet John Donne wrote “No man is an island entire of itself; every man/is a piece of the continent, a part of the main/ if a clod be washed away, Europe is the less…/any man’s death diminishes me,/because I am involved with mankind….”,  he defined what some may see as compassion for others.  His voice still resonates as containing a value we consider worthy enough to embrace (John Donne. Devotions upon Emergent Occasions. Meditation VII).

 

There’s a Wurlitzer Here by Kevin Shah

We met outside Uricchio’s Trattoria, one of Bakersfield’s fine restaurants.

“I saved us a table.”

“You look really nice,” she said. I mumbled some words, too mesmerized with the skin on my friend’s neck and the bounce of her black hair. We sat. The soft lighting made her otherwise caramel complexion soften.

“What is it, Kev?”

“What?”

“You look like you want to tell me something. Is there something on my neck?” She motioned for her neck with her hand.

“Oh, nothing. How are you?”

“I’m good,” she said, catching her breath. “Sorry I’m late.”

When we sat down, my black camera, which I used to save our table, looked classic against the white tablecloth. With my friend finally here, I allowed myself to enjoy the romantic dining room lights and candle flickering in a jar. The din of forks and dinner plates competed with our quiet ways. Something told me this was more than a birthday dinner. Mary wanted to treat me. So here we were.

Although this wasn’t supposed to be a writing meeting, I couldn’t resist showing off pictures that she had, on an earlier occasion, called “true art”.

Because the first edition of our new magazine would focus on homelessness, I had tried to take pictures of homeless people but had failed to capture what I considered to be the symbolic centerpiece for a story.

But all that seemed to fade when the charm and warmth of the evening took over. “Happy Birthday. It’s so good to see you. It’s kinda loud in here. I hope you don’t mind I sit next to you,” she said, leaning in as she scooted her chair to the corner next to mine. “There, that’s better.” We shared bread and then her house salad.

When our waitress took away our empty plates, my resistance wore off.

“I took some new pictures,” I said, reaching for my camera.

When she smiled, her dimples became dark emeralds.

There were, of course, all the pictures she’d suggested. But I had edited each one so they looked distressed and antique, kind of like Levi’s jeans. Here was Horace Mann Elementary, looking like a painting. Here was the Padre Hotel, cast in pop tones, sepia, black and white, and cyan – like fine china.

“Wow, Kev,” she said, in an amazed whisper, “all of your pictures tell a story. I told you this before, I think. They’re true art.”

Art.

The word was bittersweet because the picture I wanted was supposed to complete a connection between two homeless people living at the entrance of the El Granada Theatre and a movie I had recently seen with my younger brother. The Artist , came out in 2011. This black-and-white silent film tells the story of a dance artist who makes his silent world colorful and musical. Two pivotal scenes, one at the height of his fame and one at the depths of his loss, are both shot at the entrance of the theater where he danced. One day he bumps into a young lady in the crowd and takes a picture with her. In time, with the emergence of sound in film, she becomes the new dance star while he gambles on the silent film industry and loses his fortune. In a bittersweet reversal, he takes his place in the crowd – a virtual nobody, hoping to catch a glimpse of her.

I felt that the two homeless people were a real manifestation of The Artist. I imagined they had had their day to shine prior to living in the entrance of this now abandoned theater. The marquis facing west read, “RIP ”. This added poignancy to what might become a poetic essay that we could share with our city.

Mary was one of those friends who felt what others felt. She could sense things. And I wanted her to feel these people. I knew she would also sense how to allow our readers to do the same.

“Thank you,” Mary said, when our waitress brought a basket of bread.

“You bet.” Our waitress was a grandmother-aged woman with trendy short hair, a man’s shirt, and a man’s tie. The lines on her face suggested a lifetime of smiling.

“I really like our waitress,” I said.

“I was about to say! So, what happened, Kev?”

“Well, I just got all these great pictures of the theater. I mean look at this.” The marquis facing east read, “There’s a Wurlitzer Here.” A year earlier, when driving by, I thought that that was the name of a movie. I later learned that a Wurlitzer is a special piano made for live theaters. And the El Granada had one of the few Wurlitzers on the west coast. Months after my birthday dinner with Mary, I read that the theater’s owner lived upstairs until the day he had committed suicide in the theater. Hence the intended meaning of the “RIP” on the marquis.

Once our waitress took our order, we were back to the camera and our conversation.

“And guess what I saw when I came to the entrance of the theater.”

“What’d ya see?” she said with feeling.

I lowered my camera. “A man and a woman.” I said it as though I had found the man and woman living at the bottom of a dried out well or a tool shed. A theater entrance seemed to me an unlikely place for two people to be living. But, in this early stage of helping to create an alternative news magazine, we were already toying with the idea of telling the truth in a beautiful – or artistic – way. So, their life on the street to me was tragic art.

“It made me sad, and I don’t know why. They looked Nouveau Homeless, like they had been displaced by some disaster”. They appeared to be in their forties. “I guess I could identify in some small way.” What I was referring to was the time in my late teens in which my parents got into a heated argument during a family vacation to Oregon. As a result, my father and I were left stranded for several days, two hundred plus miles from home. We wandered the streets of Yreka and slept in a movie theater prior to catching a bus back home to San Francisco.

The man I described for her was Hispanic with mostly brown hair. “While he sat on his mattress, I noticed the lady sleeping. Well, sort of. She looked uncomfortable. Anyway, a third lady crossed the street right around the time I would’ve started taking pictures.” I combed bread crumbs with my spoon, not knowing what this all meant, but confident Mary would find truth in it. This is one of the reasons we were such strong friends. “It seems like the two were old friends.” At the time, she seemed a confidante. At any rate, their bond seemed stronger than my odd presence, as I stood there with my large camera around my neck.

“What were they talking about? Did you listen?”

“Well, I just noticed how relaxed the man seemed, sitting on the edge of his bed, Indian style. I took a picture of the theater entrance. But, just as I was about to snap a picture of the man and woman –”

Our dinner arrived. It was time to lift our forks and dive into the evening.

After dinner, Mary lifted up a glass of wine. “Happy Birthday, Kev.”

“Ah, thanks, Mary!”

As I lowered my glass, I thought to the neighborhood surrounding Uricchio’s, where the homeless seemed to float up and down the street like ghosts and recalled the scene at the Granada that day.

“What are you thinking about?” Mary asked, tilting her head slightly.

“Oh. I just wanted to say…I appreciate you spending my birthday with me.”

“I appreciate you spending it with me.”

I pushed my plates away slowly, and she followed suit, as if we were waiting for the magic of our evening to materialize into another dish. We sat in silence.

“So, Kev? I feel like you wanted to tell me more about the homeless man.”

“Yes.” I did want to tell her more. But the silence was delicious. “So, I really wanted to get a picture. It just didn’t seem right. So, I asked him, ‘Sir, do you mind if I take your picture?’” He turned his head in my direction and said, ‘Actually, I do mind.’”

“Okay.” Her remark neither justified the man nor judged him.

“I mean, it was hard to blame him. He had his dignity.”

“Yeah. I get that. And so, what happened next?”

“Well, I got these.” There was no point in describing the picture you didn’t get. We huddled together for another look. Here was Baker Street, then all the pictures I could possibly take on the walk down Kentucky Street as I walked towards the Theater. The heavily vined wall, a shopping cart, the “There’s a Wurlitzer Here” and “RIP” messages on the marquis. Then the theater entrance. At this point in my walk, the pictures stopped, except for the last one taken after I learned that I would not be taking a picture of my two theater stars.

“That’s it. Here’s the last shot.” She was silent and put a hand on my arm. “Oh, that’s just the entrance doors.”

Her face was like that of a doctor studying an x-ray.

The picture showed nothing more than a pair of red doors and walls that were partly tiled and partly exposed. The doors had brass plates at the handles. I studied the picture with fresh eyes. I noticed a Styrofoam cup that sat on top of a milk crate as well as a black backpack.

“The backpack you see is the man’s,” I whispered.

“Oh, Kev!” she whispered, as though my voice had given her permission to talk. “That’s it. That’s him. I mean that backpack is so personal. It’s like you’ve captured him.”

“Oh, Mary, you should have seen them.”

“I am seeing them already.” Her imagination filled in the missing details.

“So, I have one question, Mary. Do you think our readers will see it?”

 

The End

 

Homeless in Bakersfield by Portia Choi

Homeless in Bakersfield
BY PORTIA CHOI

I was homeless for the first two months in Bakersfield. Well—not homeless on the streets, but homeless nevertheless. It was not a home with loved ones and friends nearby.

I had a place to stay. It was a motel suite, alongside a street next to Highway 99. It was advertised as a suite. There was an impression of a living room separating a bedroom. It was an impression, as there wasn’t even a door between the two rooms. The whole suite was the size of one, regular room. The living room had a small sofa and a side table; a single light on the ceiling. There were a small coffee table, a television, a microwave and a small refrigerator. The bedroom had a twin bed, a side table, and a chest with three drawers. The bathroom had a sink, a stall shower and a toilet. Outside the room, the hallway was long and dark with rarely another person in it.

During those two months, I had enough food to eat. The motel had breakfast included in the price. The ready-made breakfast was available each day. It was perfect for getting something to eat and going to my new job. There were the cylinders of cereals: multi-colored Fruit Loops, Cheerios, and Cornflakes. There were the glistening white, peeled, hard-boiled eggs under a plastic dome. (I enjoyed those eggs, sprinkling salt and pepper from the corrugated paper packets.) In a bowl of ice, there were yogurt cups with peach morsels and blueberry flavor. The lunch and dinner was ready made at local restaurants and eateries. I learned to find the least expensive, tasty foods. After a time, I tired of eating out and yearned to cook (like in a real home.) Even making a cup of noodles with water heated in the microwave, with bits of fresh cilantro, was tasty and satisfying.

I was homeless especially in the emotional sense without persons with whom I was completely comfortable and relaxed. I had lived in El Segundo, a small city within the Los Angeles metropolis. It boasted having the most parks and hills per capita. It had its own fire department, police department and school district. There were two elementary schools, one middle school and one high school. This place was home, the place where we lived when our two sons were born. They only knew El Segundo until moving to Bakersfield. We had friends whom we visited with almost each week and sometimes more. I had taken my Lamaze classes at the local park & recreation center when my friend and I were pregnant for the first time. We had helped baby-sit each other’s children. We celebrated birthdays, holidays, and any reason to get together. We had watched fireworks from our living room during July 4th celebrations.

This emotional homelessness was a feeling of not belonging. I was always on guard, a hyper-alertness. Everything was new. Places were unfamiliar; people were different. I felt self-conscious. The feeling of not belonging was intense. I could not completely relax. I was in a new place without knowing anyone, friend or family. Yet I was open to new experiences. I convinced myself that this was a new adventure in my life. I started looking up familiar organizations in the phone book. One of the first organizations was a self-help group that I had belonged to in El Segundo. When I called, there was a message-tape that was on the answering machine. I wasn’t sure whether I would get a call back. But I did get a call with information for a meeting that Friday evening. When I went, the people were friendly. And more importantly, they went out to coffee afterwards. We chatted, shared and they accepted me.

I also felt a loss of a spiritual home when I came to Bakersfield. A spiritual home was very important to me. I always knew and felt God was nearby and within my heart. Yet it was also important to hang out with persons of similar beliefs. Again, I went to the phone book remembering a church a dear counselor and friend had told me about. It was a church organization that I had not previously attended. But, I was in a new place and I was willing to be open to new experiences. When I first went to this church, I found a person whom I had met at the self-help group. She became my first friend in Bakersfield. At this church, there were three writers whom I had recently met at the “Writers of Kern.” The three of us met on Sunday mornings at 8:00 A.M at the poet’s home. Her name was Helen Shanley. She taught me how to meditate. She always served tea in her porcelain set.

Slowly, I started feeling and thinking that Bakersfield could be my home.

Physically, I moved out of the motel suite after two months to a rented house in a quiet, safe neighborhood. I strolled along the streets, rarely seeing any moving cars, admiring the citrus fruits and roses. I found out about Hart Park and Ming Lake. I had missed the water, the Pacific Ocean near our home in El Segundo; I visited El Porto Beach almost every Saturday. Now I was able to enjoy calming, undulating waves at Ming Lake, and the flowing ripples of Kern River. Eventually, our family bought a home in another quiet neighborhood. I felt even more connected in Bakersfield.

Emotionally, I ventured to invite friends to our home and visited them in their home. It wasn’t the same. I had to get in a car and drive, maybe ten to twenty minutes, to get to their homes. Before, in El Segundo, I could walk or drive over in less than five minutes. When my family, my husband and our two sons, eventually joined me in Bakersfield, life became busier. They had stayed back in El Segundo until our older son finished his school year. I longed for friendship. Slowly with time I met poets and writers. I felt a bond of writing and revealing of ourselves.

Spiritually, I was able to visit places of worship of various faiths. I felt comfortable at these places. I was impressed by the devotion of the persons to their beliefs and religious practices. It was very easy to visit these places, openly and within short distances in Bakersfield. I developed a personal spiritual practice and held an admiration for the devotion and dedication of persons of all faiths.

I thought about what was home to me. A home was where I lived when I felt deeply during a major life’s transition. While living in El Segundo, both of our two sons were born. I started my career while in El Segundo. I thought about the life’s transition during the time in Bakersfield. My mother had moved into our home in Bakersfield; and she passed away a few years ago. My older son moved away to college. Helen passed away; Liz and I were together at her death-bed and had made arrangements for the memorial service. I recently retired from a life’s career and now re-defining my new vocation.

Home is also where I am nourished and growing.

Physically, I was nourished with food in Bakersfield. I found places where to buy my favorite vegetarian and ethnic foods. And there was the farmer’s market with locally grown artichokes, blueberries, and cherries. I enjoyed the small plot in our backyard to grow basil and tomatoes. I enjoyed the bushes that bloomed purple, pink and red roses each year, after the pruning during the winter. One neighbor had a grapefruit tree with fruit to share.

Emotionally, I was nourished with close friends who I could call just to chat or when upset. And my friends could also call me. I felt totally accepted and loved by my friends. I became nourished by being with writers and poets. I felt a sense of belonging through promoting poetry in Bakersfield.

Spiritually, I was nourished by mentors who practiced and taught meditation. There were many opportunities for meditation and worship in the Bakersfield community.

Finally, I am home.

Portia Choi, November 2015
Biography: Portia Choi moved to Bakersfield on May 5, 1996. She enjoys living in
Bakersfield. She promotes poetry and is involved in a number of groups and
organizations.