Wednesday’s Word: ‘Compassion’

While driving through downtown Redding yesterday I saw a young scrawny guy on a bike carrying a shoe box under one arm as he zipped through traffic.

He had “the look” that’s become so familiar on Redding streets lately: grimy, usually hauling backpacks or bulging plastic garbage bags filled with aluminum cans.

Later, at the post office, I realized I was a few people in line behind that same shoe-box guy I’d seen earlier.

While I waited my turn, I got a closer look at him. He was somewhere in his late 20s to 30s, which put him in my kids’ age bracket. Small, bright red sores dotted his face and neck. He had a small, narrow dirty backpack, and wore a T-shirt with black shorts that reached to his knees, leaving enough skin exposed to show his collection of cursive tattoos and the electronic bracelet around his right ankle.

Those visual cues led to my snap conclusions: Meth addict, probably homeless, on probation, maybe an AB-109er, could be a Shasta County’s Most Wanted.

He handed the shoe box to the clerk. The box was the single-piece kind for athletic shoes with a hinged cardboard lid. The scruffy guy also handed the clerk a piece of paper, which I assumed was the package address.

That clerk is one of my favorites at the downtown Redding post office. He reminds me slightly of a younger Drew Carey, except taller and better-looking. This clerk sometimes wears stylish hats, and he’s almost always smiling and joking around, unlike another young guy who works there who acts as if every moment he serves the unwashed masses is pure torture. Fact is, I am so off-put by the grumpy clerk that I will actually let people go ahead of me in line to avoid being waited on by Mr. Cranky Pants. His sour puss attitude just bugs the living daylights out of me.

But I digress. The happy clerk’s name tag says “JD,” which I remember because my memory prompt trick for his name is “Just Dandy”.

I was curious how JD would handle the scruffy guy. JD could have – even rightfully so – given the kid a load of crap for not taping up the box, which now meant that JD had to do it, and he’d have to use precious post office tape, to boot.

Instead, JD whips out his trusty tape gun, and with great flourish and lots of noise tapes up the package, all the while chatting up the guy as if they’re long-lost buddies, telling him he’ll get that package fixed up just fine in no time.

The scruffy guy smiled almost shyly, which is how I noticed his rotten teeth. The smile was also how I noticed that under the sores, the guy had a sweet face. And really, he was just a kid. Somebody’s kid.

When it was my turn, I told JD that I appreciated how kind he was – to everyone. He laughed and said something like, “I try, but some days it’s not easy. I just try to treat people how I’d like to be treated.”

He is right, of course. But I needed the reminder. Lately, I’ve found myself in such a state of shock and awe in my Changed Redding that I can feel my compassion slipping away, replaced by judgment, fear and frustration.

I see scruffy people slinking into the brush by my neighborhood canal, and think, “There goes another one,” while I wonder if I’ll get a Neighborhood Watch email tomorrow that reports a break-in or gas-siphoning.

I read Facebook posts where words like “dirt bag” and “losers” have become synonymous with all homeless, all transients, all AB109ers, all people holding signs that say “Help me”, and all people who look remotely like any of the above.

I read an anonymously hosted WordPress blog, Crumbling Town – Redding, CA, – The horrific demise of a once beautiful and peaceful town in Northern California, that shows photos of area transients, and mocks them. (It also re-posts other media’s content, such as from aNewsCafe.com.)

Here on aNewsCafe.com, we recently removed a comment by a reader who suggested a good solution was to shoot transients, a sentiment I’ve also seen on Facebook lately.

Don’t misunderstand; I’m as exasperated and fed up with the sorry state of my city as the next person. Somebody smashed my car window to steal my (poorly hidden) purse. I’m no longer shocked to see people tweeking or flying high in public places. I’m nearly unfazed by what would have floored me two years ago: businesses that have urine and feces on their doorsteps; reports of a transient woman who dropped her pants, squatted and urinated at a downtown intersection last week. I joke that you’ll know I’m feeling suicidal if I shop at my nearby “unSafeway” after 11 p.m.

In all seriousness, I haven’t a clue (other than amped-up mental health services and living-wage jobs, STAT) how to solve our city’s most vexing problems. My hopeful side believes that after next month’s election, help is on its way.

Meanwhile, that kid in the post office — the one mailing a shoe box that contained God knows what to God knows who — we know nothing about him, especially the biggest question of all: You poor kid. What the hell happened to you?

While we’re in the asking mode, here’s one for us: Our poor city. What the hell happened to you?

But here’s what I do know; I know that kid thawed a little under the warmth of a postal clerk’s kindness.

The thing is, there’s no way of know if that kid with the shoe box was inching his way back up, or was on his way even further down.

Maybe a little compassion could make the difference.

Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as anewscafe.com in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke of the Czech Republic. Prior to 2007 Chamberlain was an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, CA.

Doni Chamberlain
Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as anewscafe.com in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke of the Czech Republic. Chamberlain is an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, California.
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19 Responses

  1. Avatar Rico Montenegro says:

    Thanks Doni. We all have had tough times and once in while maybe it has gotten the better of us. I’ve appreciated in the past, especially most recently when others have said I care and have reached to out to me. Maybe we can make our community a little better by doing the same, especially to those in need. A little compassion by all of us may really make a difference, instead of waiting for someone else to do it or even better yet, our government to do it.

  2. Avatar Patrick says:

    Great story and sure all the AB 109’rs aren’t all horrible people and I’m sure a very select few are trying to get their life back in order. Actions from the majority of 109’rs isn’t a positive thing and I’m still on high alert when they get in my space.

    Sadly, your right, the “hat guy” that works at the downtown PO is awesome and I have done the same thing when it’s my turn with Mr. Nasty, let someone else go ahead of me. I take in pre paid ebay packages and have them scanned so my customers receive an email saying their purchase is on it’s way. Mr. Nasty just hates to scan my package, he’s told me before, just deposit them in the drop off in the wall unit. Yea, right so someone can drop a car part in a flat rate box weighing 70 pounds on top of my fragile glass. No, just do your job Mr. Nasty. Everyone else at the downtown PO is great.

  3. Avatar Virginia says:

    I have read all the articles you have written, Doni, over the years about the homeless, mostly caused by drug of one sort or another. As usual, you do a great job.

    We can feel compassion. We can feel revulsion. We can pray. Yet, the only one who can help the helpless is belief they want to have a better life is the person themselves. Without self awareness however they attain it, unfortunately, they are lost.

  4. Avatar Cheri Davis says:

    Great article…I too love the man at the post office! He is a master of service and kindness all the time…something I must always remind myself off too especially when looking past all the physical world I see in front of my eyes, deeper into the spiritual aspect of everyone.

    Recently at a spiritual retreat center the owner said to me ” if you are still mad and judging others because they don’t “get it”..then you don’t “get it”. That hit home for me. Compassion yes…

  5. My brother Pat died in 2001 at the age of 49. He was born mentally retarded, what we call developmentally disabled now, had a weak heart, epilepsy, and was on top of it all schizophrenic.

    If you didn’t know him and saw him waiting at the corner for the bus, you would think he was one of the many homeless tweakers in our town. He was skinny, had about 17 teeth when he died, and his clothes were hopelessly mismatched on a good day.

    He also worked at the Opportunity Center every day, had a heart of gold, and loved his family very much especially his nephew (my son).

    Whenever I see one of the street people in town, I think of Pat and try not to judge.

  6. Avatar sue k. says:

    Wonderful article, Doni. Thank you.
    To witness someone’s kind actions is such a gift to all of us.
    The struggle I have is finding compassion for the man who works in a place where he appears to be very unhappy and seems to treat people as invasions in his space?
    Compassion needed there too – BUT difficult to rest in that space.

  7. Avatar cheyenne says:

    As I read about the vagrant problem in Redding, which by all accounts has gotten much worse since I left, I look at downtown Cheyenne and Fort Collins/Loveland and I do not see the numbers here that are cited in Redding.
    In downtown Cheyenne we do have an occasional downtrodden person or two but that is all. Our downtown parking structures are not temporary campgrounds. Many of the antique shops have chairs and benchs ouside their businesses and nobody is loitering in them. Depot Square has events and farmers markets year round and some vagrants or homeless will be attracted to there for donations, I won’t call them panhandlers as they seem more intent on being offered free food or cash without asking.
    The main reason that I would say California and Redding has major problems is because of the AB109ers which we do not have. Any program to aid the homeless in Redding is going to have to deal with the AB109ers first.

  8. Avatar Teresa Norman says:

    Thank you Doni, but I am sad that we need a reminder to act human. I also note with interest the placement of your two articles today.
    I don’t know what the answer to the homeless situation is, but I believe it starts many years before we see people pooping on the ground and we bull doze the hand full of possessions a person holds. Like you said, “these people” are some mother’s child, a brother, a mom. There, but for the protection and grace of God, go I…and lots of others!!

  9. Avatar Demetra says:

    Thank you for your touching article. It hit especially close to home for me as the taller/handsomer Drew Carey’ish gentleman is my husband. He is an extremely sweet and kind hearted man who is often too humble to see the tremendously positive impact he has on those around him. Thank you for noticing and encouraging others to practice the simple art of compassion with those we encounter each day. You never know what battle each person may be fighting and how a kind word or action… even a simple smile might brighten their day and give them hope to carry on!

  10. Avatar Sam Allen says:

    Thank you Doni for your reminder of compassion. I too get so frustrated sometimes on a daily basis. Then one of the homeless come in and ask for some kind of help and I can’t seem to say no. I wish I could stay furious with the situation Redding has been plagued with but every morning when I get up I feel somehow ready to face whatever comes at me. Sometimes by the end of the day I want to scream and ask myself why am I here. Other days I have hope and am thankful that I have such a window to view life in it’s raw form. We can’t let life as we want it get in the way of our compassion. We will find a way to change all of this madness that has come into our safe little lives. Maybe there is a bigger message here?

  11. Avatar Liz A. says:

    Also love the fun hat guy at the P.O. But if we are going to give the meth guy the benefit of the doubt I’d want to give Mr. Sobersides postal worker a pass too…… he’s gainfully employed, duly passes required tests and has stayed off drugs and out of jail. He deserves a break to. And, no I do not know him but will give him a big smile next time I see him. How about if we all do the same. What do you say?

  12. Avatar Kathryn says:

    Thank you, Doni, for this column.

    I recently saw on Craigslist a very nasty response to a couple of people asking for food. The guy (I assume it was a man) went so far as to suggest that Craigslist have a category titled “Begging.” One of the people needing food to get her through a couple of weeks ’til she got paid was a 21-year-old woman. I ended up buying some food for her–enough to last awhile–and delivering it to her tiny little run-down apartment. The idea of her, or anyone else, not having food to eat was more than I could take. I suggest that Craigslist start a category called “Mean People” or “Lacks Compassion.”

  13. Avatar TS says:

    Compassion is good…but…misplaced compassion hurts the overall situation. Many folks have absolutely no interest in joining society and I think they typically draw the “bad break, need help” folks to their side. You can only help people who want to help themselves. The rest need to be invited to leave by making it a very hostile place to be. I recently moved here from Salt Lake city and I think they had less of a problem than Redding. They had some homeless shelters but made it very hard to beg and live on the streets so the homeless that just wanted something for nothing moved on…maybe to Redding! the other thing going for Utah was the weather…it is a lot easier to live in Santa Barbara (I only mention this as I talked with a, for lack of a better term “beggar” and he told me he spent his summers in Utah or Arizona and he wintered in Santa Barbara. Must be nice to live like that! I wouldn’t know as I pay taxes and support that guy!

  14. Avatar Ron says:

    Great article Doni. Maybe you could write a letter to the uppers on JD and how he’s appreciated. Don’t forget the goodies bag for him on Christmas since we know how you like to cook 🙂

    On another note maybe you could do the same for a random homeless person. Maybe by showing compassion they will pass it forward but most importantly it shows humanity. We all bleed red………

  15. Avatar Harold says:

    Doni,

    It’s good to see you “out and about.” I’ve been hunkered down for some years and have been ignoring current events for quite a while. I’m glad I stumbled on this and you.

    I tried to leave my comment on your piece on the city council forum but couldn’t unless it was a reply to another comment. Then I found this article and it dovetailed with my comments below.

    ==============

    It’s sad to see phrases in the comment section such as “creeps on the streets”, but I have to remind myself that even though it doesn’t take all kinds, there are all kinds. The greatest virtue is kindness. It is so sad that it costs so little and is seldom offered to strangers by so many.

    Thank you for writing this. It will help me make better choices in voting this November.

    ==============

    In regards to the above article about compassion, I love it. As I said before, kindness is the greatest virtue, compassion is just a longer word — maybe with a tiny bit of a nuance. You really cannot have compassion without courage because it takes courage to act, and often compassion requires us to act.

    How many of us have actually talked to a homeless person? I mean a real conversation.

    Not all of them are “creeps on the streets.” Many of them have just been badly equipped to deal with the harshness of “humanity.”

    I could tell you a story or two. 🙂

    Best Regards,

    Harold

  16. Avatar MK says:

    TS: The reason why Salt Lake City has fewer homeless people around us because they have the funding (and compassion) to actually help their would-be homeless.

    http://www.sfgate.com/nation/article/Salt-Lake-City-a-model-for-S-F-on-homeless-5587357.php