Posted by: MC | December 24, 2011

Christmas Eve Roses from Art

Art Garcia holds one of many distinctions as Voice #2 in 100 VOICES — AMERICANS TALK ABOUT CHANGE.  

Today I got a text message:  “Check your front porch.”  Then a second message followed “: )” — Both were from Art.  I wasn’t home at the time, so I called David, my world’s best ever next door neighbor and asked if he’d go see what Art had left.  “It’s flowers,”  David said.  “Roses.”  I could hear David’s smile through the satellite waves.  I was smiling, too.  “That Art.”  I said.  “I’ll put them in water until you’re back and send you a photo, ok?”  This is how great a neighbor David is.

And then there’s Art — a friend for probably a decade, now.  Art and I first met up at the 28th & E Burnside Natures, before it became Wild Oats and then Whole Foods….  Art was selling Street Roots — Portland’s newspaper of street life.  Since that time, Art and I have become good friends.  He’s done me lots of favors and I’ve done him a few.  One of his biggest favors was talking to me early in the EX:Change process — then agreeing to be Voice #2.

This is an excerpt from Art’s introduction in the book:   Art is a veteran of Viet Nam.  “I decided to go into the army because it was the best job option I had.”  By the time he came back from the Southeast Asia his well-established dependence on substances led him “through 100 jobs or more,” punctuated with prison terms, and finally to life homeless on the streets.  Friendships like mine and Art’s have taught me that when difference would otherwise place barriers, time is the thing.  With time comes relationship and willingness to trust.

A year ago this coming January, I asked Art the three questions again.  His answers were different because balancing out his recent medical challenges and too many deaths among his brothers, Art’s circumstances had change in one major way.  He had an income.  

Here’s what Art said on Jan 15, 2011 — here 0n Christmas Eve of the same year, with red roses in a vase and Art’s voice on the phone saying, “Good.  I’m glad you like them.  They’re for happy holidays, so you have some, ok?  And I’ll see you soon.  Coffee early in the New Year.”

[My words are in italics — the rest is Art]

What I’m doing now is finding some folks and find out what change means to you two years later.

You mean change in my life or in the community or in the world?

Wherever you want to start.

My life is what really changed because of the money I got.  I can do a lot of things I couldn’t do.  I always wanted to wish or pray I could have money to help my brother, help my sister, see how the other half lives.  Now I do.  I was able to help my sister-in-law because she was having trouble with drugs.  My other brother – I got to help him.  I plan on doing some traveling.

I got your email saying you’d gotten this money, but explain what happened.

It was a class action suit against the VA.  It was named for the woman who started it — Nehmer – and for veterans who were suing the VA for that Agent Orange inViet Nam.  When we were over there, they were spraying Agent Orange and White and Blue over the foliage to interfere with the enemy strategies by killing all the jungle stuff.  But it was poison.  They knew it was poison.  They knew they were exposing us.

They’ve been fighting this for 25 years.   I put my claim in 14 years ago when I had heart surgery.  I claimed that agent Orange was the cause.  It had to be.  I was completely healthy otherwise.  They called me three months ago and told me I qualified for back pay.  Two days later I had to see the doctor.  Two months later, I got the check for $190,000 plus they upgraded my status to full disability and I went from $985 to $2600 a month.  That’s a lot of money, there.  The government doesn’t pay out a lot, but they are now.  Going all the way back 25 years there’s a lot of interest.

My one brother died with agent Orange two years ago.  And truth is, I sure would rather have my health.  I could be doing a lot more things.  That’s where I am now, though.

It was two days before Christmas when the letter came.  What a huge change.  I sent out a bunch of money to my relatives.

So, my life is different.  It’s better.  But when I look around me, I don’t think things are any better.  I don’t see a lot of change.  They talk a lot in the local government.  The thing I’m interested in is homeless people.  I don’t think the employed people and the government really care too much.  People are still coming to be Street Roots vendors.  That means they don’t have other options – 8, 9, 10 new vendors a week.  They don’t stay.  We say we have 70-80 vendors; probably 20 who have stayed.  Other than that it’s a revolving door.  A few have moved on and gotten jobs.  During the holidays people were making killings, especially in the few days before Christmas — $200-$300 a day.  There was one guy who was new.  He made $70 one day and said he felt guilty.  He said, “Is there any way I can give some back?”  I said, “Why would you want to do that?”  He said, “It’s so much.”  But I told him it was the holidays and it wouldn’t stay that way.  He’s gone now.  Got discouraged after things went back to normal.

We went to get a grant from this organization and this guy wanted to know if we knew where our vendors were who worked with the paper 5 years ago.  I said, “No. Can you tell us where the employees who left your company are?”  Unless they keep in contact you can’t know.  There are a few who call now and then, but people come and go.  I know a couple are doing good with jobs.  As a whole, people that come are on their last legs, trying to get their lives going again.  Most find they can work again, they get their self esteem back and they move on.  They usually aren’t in touch after that.

I”m using some of my money to buy things for the vendors, like ponchos for the rain and hats and gloves for when it gets cold.

I’ll tell you one thing, It sure doesn’t seem like it’s been two years.

This Christmas Eve, the velvet red of roses has me standing in spirit again with my friend Art Garcia, remembering our brothers and sisters on the streets — and beyond the remembering — taking real action to do actual kindness that makes a difference.  This action is ours to take.  It is ours to do together, listening to what the people involved want and need.  This Christmas Eve, I am grateful too, for the amazing good turns of fortune (like a sane judicial act of reparation) that can come to a life like Art’s.  In all of the challenge and opportunity of change, I wish us all a peaceful eve and a gentle and generous Christmas day — one of giving, receiving and sharing the abundance.

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