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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.