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.