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Once a month we work as a family at the Berkeley Men’s Shelter. We cook for and serve dinner to about 55 men. It is wonderfully rewarding work for us and for our son. We’ve been doing this for several years through our church, most often working with only one other couple, or a family we’ve known since kindergarten.

Last night the census was low. Only 40 men were there, with five late arrivals. After we’d cooked and served, I sat down at a table and ate my dinner with four of the men. One of them didn’t speak. One had the gift of gab. The remaining two were taciturn but engaging, if that makes sense.

We talked about their mothers and children, their home cities and historical facts about presidents and holidays. They said there were fewer men there because it was the holiday and people travel. This made me marvel that even the homeless get out of Berkeley on long weekends.

One gentleman asked about my birthday and regaled me with a vast knowledge of astrology. He said he developed a penchant for it when he was stationed in the army. We talked of his service but I stopped myself from asking how he’d ended up in the shelter. Sometimes they describe their journey. This time, he didn’t offer and I didn’t ask.

It’s not as if we don’t see many homeless in the Bay Area. We do, all the time. But up close in the shelter, you see not street people so much as men with a variety of complex problems:  addiction, mental illness, criminal activity and severe health issues. We see them try to hoard food because they don’t know where their next meal will come from. And we always have to say no, that we can’t give them tin foil to take an extra dessert back to their rooms.

I just hadn’t heard anyone talk about his time in the U.S. military before last night. I’ve seen men who look like they belong on the Berkeley campus teaching grad school, but I understand that life happens and anyone can slip through the cracks.

But how the U.S. government fails a person who served time in the military for his country…that leaves me speechless.

As I said, we love this work we do as a family. It’s physically challenging and can be mentally exhausting. I return home each time and count my blessings. And I usually cry because there is always one man in the crowd who inevitably breaks my heart.

But this time, I fell mute. Because this man wasn’t riding a Harley or shouting for Sarah to “Look over here!”  This man was wondering what he’d do the next day and how, where and when he’d eat again.

Like so many other forgotten and neglected Vets, this man had served his country. And he deserved better than to find him self on a rainy, cold night, telling me that my moon was in Capricorn.

With thanks to all who quietly serve their country and fellow man, and make this world a better place.  Happy Memorial Day. 


 


Comments

05/30/2011 08:55

I hope you are having a great memorial day Laura. I have relatives serving in the military and they tell me the benefits they get are really generous, but you have to apply for them and get involved in a process. If veterans fail to do this, the military will not come after them to make them do it. I don't know the specifics of the individual you mentioned, but if he has some impairment that prevents him from seeking help, then the system won't work for him. He is going to need someone to take him to the right offices and make him apply for his benefits.

Alex
05/30/2011 09:16

Amen.

mumimor
05/30/2011 09:40

Thank you for this - both your work at the shelter and the account of your dinner.

suzanne
05/30/2011 09:52

I appreciate the reminder to thank a vet every day, Laura.

d.t.
05/30/2011 10:30

That's a beautiful post.

05/30/2011 13:22

A beautiful essay. Thank you, Laura.

Up
05/30/2011 19:20

Bless you for doing this.

Suelu
05/30/2011 23:03

No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.

What a lovely way to honor this day and those that have served and sacrificed on America's behalf. I hope and pray that America's engagement in war will soon come to an end. Sadly, the effects of war live on beyond the war zone. If only, we could live in peace.

V
05/31/2011 03:00

How generous you are, Laura! And to do it once a month, over the years, without fanfare (unlike our favorite narcissist who tried to crash the Rolling Thunder event for some free publicity - but then disappointed some of her fans by not going to Gettysburg - a talent for going where she's not wanted and not going where she is).

But I commend you for steadily giving back and doing what you can to make the world a better place. I would love to read here what others here are doing (if they feel they can comment while remaining anonymous).

DebinOH
05/31/2011 07:10

Good for you guys! No one talks about the problems that some of the vets have. It is so sad.

Its too bad that all the people wanting the spot light don't do what you guys do. It really ticks me off when people just want a photo op and really don't care about the vets at all. But I guess these people are the ril Americans. Go figure.....

05/31/2011 10:00

Excellent observations following the Memorial Day weekend.

My wish is that we would stop sending our young people to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and other poor, third-world countries...and let them work here, on US infrastructure needs and places like Joplin, where natural disasters have struck.

Here, they're more likely to survive intact and to have daily interaction with people who appreciate their service.

Thank you, Laura, for your sensitive and beautiful blog post.

06/01/2011 08:00

All the pretty speeches by politicians about how much they appreciate those who serve in our military don't match the fact that Congress has denied the cost of living increase to veterans for the past two years. Yet, millions of dollars were "available" to bail out unethical coporate executives who almost bankrupted our economic system.

06/01/2011 13:45

Thank you. You know, we really do enjoy this work as a family. It's very quiet, focused, almost Zen-like work. It's been a very good thing for our son to do. And a great family practice. We never do it on the big holidays b/c that's when everyone and their brother comes out to cook/serve. It's the other days when these men need help.

And Barbara, I could not agree with you more. It's a travesty. thank you for reading.


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