Saturday, September 8, 2012

Sheila's Prayer

Yesterday, we went to visit Oscar and Sheila, two of the recyclers in Redemption who play a somewhat smaller role.  I first met the two of them back in April, wandering around some industrial facilities in West Oakland.  At that time, they were simply looking for a decent place to sleep.  Where they might find adequate shelter and warmth in that area, I had no idea.

For the last several months, though, they have apparently established a “home.” Tucked at the end of Ettie Street in West Oakland you will find a small area of huddled shopping carts, covered in tarps, with a few blankets in between them.  Scattered underneath the carts and around the blankets caked in filth, you will find all kinds of odds and ends: a piece of an old sofa, a plastic container with a half-eaten bagel, a suitcase filled to the brim with Oscar’s cherished books.  In the farthest corner of their little encampment is their bathroom, which is anything but private.  The edge of their camp is against a fence which blocks out the area beneath the freeway to public access.  This fence serves as one of the “walls” of their bathroom, the other of which is one of the tarp-covered shopping carts.

To use the bathroom, they squat against this fence, and defecate into a bucket or an old Folger’s coffee container.  To keep things relatively sanitary, this material is discarded into trash bags which are kept on the other side of the street until the time comes to remove them.  The city doesn’t service these trash bags, of course, so they must walk a few miles to dispose of their own waste.  This is sadly ironic in some ways, because just behind their fence is a human waste treatment facility, its powerful engines constantly purring.   

In spite of all this, we arrived to find Sheila sweeping the sidewalk surrounding her encampment.  She gathers all the dust and dirt in the area into little uniform piles, and lifts them up into one of her small trash cans.  It’s a fairly surreal experience – nothing out of the ordinary, were it not for the extraordinary and dire living conditions she had been placed in.  Considering her position, it’s somewhat remarkable she finds the motivation to clean the area in the first place.

We had a fairly quick interview with Sheila, as Oscar never showed up.  Sheila says he was out to purchase some of the medicine to help him cope with his cancer, which includes pills that cost about 20 dollars apiece.  A monumental price for almost anyone, but especially for people who have to gather some 100 pounds of glass just to make 7 dollars.  She gave us a tour of her home, and we asked her what her most treasured possessions were and where she kept them.  “The blankets.”  She responded.  “Because when it gets cold out, they’re the only things that are going to keep us alive.”

Before we left, she asked me if she could have a little money.  Though I know Sheila is prone to cocaine use and alcohol abuse, she had been so helpful in the interview that I felt obliged.  I gave her a mere two dollars, not necessarily a great honorarium for a two-and-a-half hour interview.  I thought to myself that some celebrities, just as prone to self-destruction, would be paid thousands for a similar grace of their time, and indeed might even be said to be “winning.”  I can’t justify Sheila’s actions, and I can’t say for sure how she ended up spending that two dollars.  But isn’t her life more valuable than that?  Isn’t it obvious that the paltry offering I gave her was far too little, that her story and her time should be considered useful and wanted?

I hope that Sheila will be one of the lucky ones who can get into rehab and change her story, but realistically even that probably wouldn’t be enough.  To break the stranglehold of poverty found in this corner on Ettie Street, there would need to be a comprehensive, creative, and patient effort on many different fronts, an effort that I doubt many Americans are willing to give or even pay attention to at this particular juncture.

We call ourselves the greatest nation in the history of the earth, but how does greatness allow this?  How does greatness turn a blind eye to this?  How does greatness view itself as helpless to overcome this, or simply too busy or too indifferent to engage this?  The short answer is that it doesn’t, and the long answer needed to break this cycle of poverty and ensure our national greatness is much more complicated.  But that answer is indeed needed – that discussion is needed.  The first step is to accept that this aspect of greatness is left wanting, and to see to it that we do our part to remedy it.

When we left Sheila, I gave her a hug and she kissed me on the neck – as far up as her tiny body could reach.  That expression of love and faith alone was worth far more than the two dollars I gave her, and far more than I can hope to achieve by having this interviews with her.  Even if it’s too late for Sheila, her time and her kiss are now her prayer – a prayer that others won’t have to live like her.  A prayer that others will have a home, and a security, and a community to foster their spirits and salve their wounds, and love them, and appreciate them, and confer dignity upon them.

I can only hope that I can help be the messenger of Sheila’s prayer.    

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Cheers to the Fighters

The following is the single greatest poem I have read in a long time, and the only thing that makes it sweeter is that it was written by the single greatest person I have ever met.  No ado is necessary, as the poem speaks for itself, and single-handedly surpasses anything I could write in response.
Natalie, I love you.

Cheers to the Fighters
I burn our candle in hopes to burn time.
The batteries in the old clock will not be replaced
in an attempt to forbid my mind to count
the hours since we parted.
True love takes hard work,
hard work takes pain
I guess that's why divorce turns dreams into dust.
People keep on hoping.
I have tried hope.
It's a nice word, but is meaningless
without commitment, without strength.
Complaints benefit others, but never yourself.
They can keep complaining about love
and we will keep proving them wrong.
Cheers to the fighters
Someday we will retire in paradise.

-Natalie Cole

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

First Days in Oakland/Berkeley

It has only been a few days since I’ve arrived in Berkeley to work on my friend’s documentary, Redemption, but I sincerely feel as though I’ve made the right decision to come here.  Not for any monetary reason (were it not for the generosity of my hosts, I would barely make enough money to scrape by here) but more fundamentally for the purpose of a good challenge, and a good story to be discovered.

Redemption tells the story of Oakland’s recyclers: members of an economic underclass who survive by redeeming countless bottles, cans, bits of metal, and other goods at local recycling facilities.  In our case, the facility in question is Alliance Metals.  If you didn’t know what you were looking for, you probably wouldn’t even notice it if you drove by its location in Dogtown.  Were it not for the ever-ubiquitous amounts of stolen shopping carts rolling to its gates, it probably would never be noticed.  

Amir noticed.  He’s the kind of guy who notices everything.  Every story, every person has something special to offer.  And he doesn’t just say stuff like that, he genuinely lives it.  Yesterday, we visited the recycling center for what was only my second time.  By happenstance, we arrived just as Miss K, a friend of Amir’s was finishing up her route for the day and trading in the recyclables she had collected.  Covered in filth, and with the general air of poverty around her, most people would brush off types like Miss K, but not Amir.  He gave her a big hug, and summarily introduced me to her.

He invited her to lunch, and we resolved to eat at a small Korean restaurant on Telegraph Avenue (she is originally from Seoul).  Miss K and I stepped out of the car a bit earlier than Amir, who was fumbling around with his keys and wallet in the car.  As Miss K walked into the restaurant and asked for a seat, the greeter told her she would have to wait.  Only moments later, as Amir and I stepped in, we were immediately offered a seat that was clearly vacant.  

The poor are invisible to us, because we do not want to see them.

Is it fear that leads us to stick our noses up at people in such a way?  Is it shame?  Or is it something else?  Does Miss K have the air of a bum or a drunkard about her, which leads us to refuse her service or our time?

When you get to know Miss K, she really is as personable as anyone else.  She makes small talk and asks questions about you just like any stranger would.  The only stark and obvious difference is her extreme poverty.  Miss K is old (nearing 60) but she has a certain resilience about her, a certain dignity, a certain beauty.  She is a sweetheart.  She is diminutive, but strong.  She has a cute smile.  

But would you have seen her?

Regrettably, I must admit to myself that, were it not for this experience, I wouldn’t have.  I would have passed her on the streets.  I would have never known anything about her story.  It’s hard to hear every story, or to make time for everyone, but perhaps even a smile and a “good morning” would have meant something.

I’m beginning to notice things out here I never could have possibly noticed had I stayed at home.  As an outsider to Oakland and Berkeley, I can’t say that I understand it yet, let alone that I know how to fix it or even address it.  This place is fraught with urban blight, cycles of poverty and injustice, and countless other issues to be sure.  Yet, at the same time, there is a wealth of spirit and energy just waiting to be cultivated.  Sometimes it hides, and other times it emerges from the ether, in the form of Miss K’s contagious smile.  I am beginning to sense this spirit.  I hope to embrace it and define it, at least a piece of it.

I am where I am meant to be, and I look forward to the new adventure each day brings.