It is the day before Christmas, and I wish I was writing about something wonderful—something that would uplift all of our spirits. But that’s not how I feel after what I have experienced over the last couple of days.
I got up on Friday morning and stumbled to the coffee machine to make my concoction of coffee, cream, Hersey’s Chocolate, and a splash of raspberry syrup—one-a-day-every-day. I looked out the kitchen window to see a typical Spokane morning of overcast, cold, and three inches of old snow (hence the need for sweet coffee). But I also saw something out-of-the-ordinary—a strange car parked next to the curb in front of our house.
At first, I thought the car was a restored classic. It was a long, boxy car with a small, squarish, rear window and white in color. Then I saw that someone had painted a wide band on the hood with red paint—certainly nothing anyone would do to a vintage car. A missing hubcap was also a sign it had not been restored. I could see that the car’s windows were fogged up and there were people moving around inside.
After finishing my coffee, my wife had also arisen and I told her about the discovery that was somehow giving me a bad feeling. I told her I was going to go out and check on the people in the car and to be sure I didn’t get mugged or murdered.
I went up to the drivers window in what I had now confirmed was not a restored car, but an ancient Buick Riviera that was a total wreck. The car was a combination of missing parts, mystery holes, and dangling wire that held everything together.
I rapped on the window and asked, “Is everything alright.” The person inside turned to the window and motioned that I needed to go to the passenger door (this one wasn’t functional). The passenger’s door was pushed open with a creak and a groan to reveal a young woman and next to her a slightly disheveled, younger man. There was also a not so happy black and white, older puppy that barked rather loudly at me for a few seconds.
I said, “How’s it going?” They told me that the car had broken down a couple of blocks up the street and they had pushed it until they couldn’t push it any further. They ended up in front of my house and weren’t quite sure what they were going to do next. I asked if they were cold and they said they were fine. I asked if they were hungry and the guy said, “We could eat something.” I told them I would try to find something for breakfast and returned to the house.
Walking back, I was a little overwhelmed thinking about what I had seen when they opened the door. In this huge tank of a car, everything they owned was crammed into the back seat—piles of clothes, auto parts, blankets, and assorted crap. The dog was perched on top of the pile and looked like he was the most valuable thing they owned. It was a pretty depressing “Grapes of Wrath” sight.
At first, my middle-class reaction was to think that they were probably just druggies. But later, as I interacted with them and got to know them better, I just didn’t see it. They were coherent, fairly well spoken, clean (as possible), and had a sparkle that just doesn’t exist in the drug world. Besides, every time I went to the car, there was the dog wrapped in a blanket, his head popped out, sitting on one or the others lap. From what I gather, drug addicts don’t care for anyone or anything but themselves.
I went inside and told my wife what I had found out and she wrestled up a few sausages and egg muffins that we kept for the mornings the grandkids showed up unexpectedly. When they were heated up, I took them and a bag of dog biscuits back to the car. They were very thankful and when I came back with the food. I asked what they were going to do next. The guy said he thought the car’s starter was bad and had drained the battery. I agree to give him a jump and came back with my car and jumper cables. Turned out the car was basically dead, dead, dead and the engine would just not turn over.
I asked him what he wanted to do now and he said he would try and get hold of a friend and they would figure it out. To me they looked beat up, out-on-their-luck, and a little hopeless, but they never whined about their woes and in fact the girl would smile every time she talked. I said OK, but if you need something, knock on the door. They were so grateful; it sort of embarrassed me—why, I am not quite sure.
Before I left, I reached into my pocket and pulled out a 50-dollar bill that I had stuffed into it earlier. I gave it to the guy and he said, “Thank you so much, it’s my birthday in two days (Christmas Eve) and this is really special.” I was a little taken back by his genuine response and as I walked to the house, I felt, well, I guess it was remorse.
I left the house and a couple of hours later came back (I suppose I was hoping that the car would be gone), but they were still there. I went out to talk to them again and they told me about how their life had somehow lead to their being on my doorstep. They were both 19 years old. He was disabled. He had received disability payments while he lived with his grandmother, but she had spent all of the money and when he was 18 he was basically put out on his own with nothing. He had a few relatives and friends in Spokane, but some were difficult to reach and others somehow involved bad feelings. They were looking for “a place to live” and maybe then “everything would be fine.” Someone was coming to help, but they didn’t know when he would arrive.
I asked if they had lunch and they said they had walked over to the pizza place a couple of blocks away and eaten. She later told me “He was so happy about the $50 he ordered a whole pizza and we ate it all.” I left them still sitting in the car.
Their friend (one of the roughest looking guys I have ever seen) did eventually come and they tried again to jump the Buick and get it started. They were actually a bit more successful and the car roared to life. To “life” might be a bit of an exaggeration because all it really was a horrible rumbling and a large plume of blue-gray smoke erupting not just from the exhaust pipe, but from everywhere beneath the car. It was like the car was simply giving it one more try, before it gave up and died. And then it died. I remember thinking that “This vehicle is never going to leave this spot under its own power.” Could this get any sadder.
As it turned dark (it happened to be winter solstice and the shortest day of the year), I went out to check on them and again asked if they needed anything. They answer “No we’re OK. We are waiting to hear from relatives.” I asked if they were hungry and again, “We could eat.” I said I would get them something and left.
I went in the house and as usually although we buy groceries like there is no tomorrow, there wasn’t much to make a dinner out of. I finally made sandwiches out of leftover meat loaf that were served on Asiago Cheese Bread from Panera (seemed a rather odd thing to be serving to people who had obviously been hungry for so long). I put mayo and ketchup on the bread and wrapped everything up in foil.
I probably went overboard on everything else as I added four bags of chips, a dozen homemade chocolate cookies, and two cans each of Diet Pepsi and Cranberry Ginger Ale. I also took a Zip-lock bag and put in a dozen dog biscuits and two hot dogs (my dog Sam’s favorites). I threw in a liter bottle filled with water and my upbringing made me put in a couple of napkins. I took the dinner out to them and they were almost cheerful; I felt incredibly miserable about how things were going.
A while later, a friend came to see me and I told him the sad story of the people whose car he had parked next to. As they say, fate would have it, his ex-wife was involved in what is know as “Homeless Advocates.” It is a volunteer operation and he said he would call her and then in an hour, they should call her and she might be able to find them housing for the night. I wrote all the info down and when he left, I picked up the sleeping bag I kept in my car for emergencies that never happened, and headed back to their car.
I told them “You really need to do something other than just sit here. I don’t think this car is going to do you any good until it is fixed (or sold for scrap).” They mentioned unresponsive friends again. I said, “Here is the phone number of someone who helps people in your situation. She will be expecting your call. Do you have a working phone?” “Not anymore.” I said I could get them a phone to use and he said (and I guess it was there way of saying they wouldn’t be calling) that there was no need because someone was bringing them one. When I tried to give them the sleeping bag, they said they didn’t need it, but I insisted they take it and walked away (the next morning, I saw they were completely wrapped up in the bag).
The last thing the gal did was smile and say to me, “Thanks so much for the fancy sandwiches, they were fantastic.” It amazed me how upbeat she was, how she still seemed to have hope, when all I could think was that what they were going through would have crushed me.
I got up the next morning and to my amazement, the car was located on exactly the opposite side of the road and was now in front of my neighbor’s house. In fact, they had put it where it partially blocked his driveway (I was never able to ask them how or why they moved the car across the street in the middle of the night and it will always be a quirky mystery to me).
Thing is, it seems that what may make you responsible for helping wayward people is simply the fact they ended up parked in front of your house. My neighbor was already outside helping them with their car. His wife had taken them into the house and was making them breakfast.
While my neighbor was alone and working on the car, I went over and talked to him. He said he thought he could help them get it started and charged the battery and aired up a tire while they were inside eating. He was a mechanic and so I thought “Great, a savior” (for them, but also for me). I told him what I knew about the situation and thanked him for being a good person.
The end of this story happens quickly. I watched out the window as they once again got the car to cough back to life. This time there was an even bigger plume of smoke before the ancient Riviera’s heart seized completely.
I came back to the window a few minutes later and saw my neighbor was running a chain from his carryall to the wreck. I put on my coat and went back to grab another 50-dollar bill out of my wallet. I went out the door just in time to see them round the corner. Poof, they were gone.
I’m not happy with the ending of this story. I knew they would never drive off in their car and was thinking I needed to go out and again encourage them to contact someone who could help. I wanted to tell them to go ahead and keep the sleeping bag and make sure they had a little more money for whatever the next problem they had to face. I felt guilty that I didn’t get out there in time.
They were gone and even though they told me their names, my old brain quickly forgot them. With the car no longer there, it was like I had never met these two forlorn people.
For whatever reasons, this event deeply affected me. It comes back to me as a jumble of disturbing thoughts. Here it was nearly Christmas. It was also nearly his birthday. They were obviously good people. They were so very young and yet so much tougher and resilient than I was at that age. My life had always been so different. I was taken care of by good parents. I was never rich, but I never suffered. I tried to help them, but I really did so little to really help. I feel I should have done more and now I can’t.
It is not right we live in a country as extravagant and rich as America and yet we still have people who are destitute paupers. It’s not right at all.
On the exact day I met these two people, our government was celebrating the passing of the new Tax Bill. Everything I have read about this legislation says it is that it is simply a ploy (very nicest thing I can call it), to give the wealthy a huge influx of even more cash. Eventually, it will be paid for by providing less services, welfare, and healthcare for the disadvantaged and just plain-ass poor.
Our righteous congressmen (most [make that all] whom are extremely rich) feel that every person can simply do for themselves, work hard, and not depend on government for handouts. That my friend is not what I, or most of the people I know, feel and it is the worst kind of self-serving, political bullshit. They traded these two kid’s shot at a decent future to pay off their moneyed benefactors—shame on all of them.
I felt the two kids I met were doing the very best they possibly could. They were deserted by family and friends and were simply pushed out in the world to survive or perish. They deserve so much more help from all of us. To be a compassionate country, we need to show a little compassion.