"What a wonder life I've had! I only wish I'd realized it sooner." Colette

Feb 25, 2018

Two Weeks to Bakersfield

I’m preparing to hit the road again…back to Oregon and another unpaid position, but in a gorgeous location, complete with a lake. I'm jazzzzzzed to be leaving the land of Longhorns and Lone Stars and heading back to God’s Country, but don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t have missed this stint for the world, but now it’s time for a break.

I’ve been living in a community comprised of the chronically homeless for 9 months. I came to paint, I thought. The village is a conglomeration of tiny houses, tents and RV’s; and my job has been to paint anything from oddball signs to second-hand furniture.  I thought I knew what was in store, but claiming to understand the Homeless through doling out soup is like saying you understand Italy because you’ve eaten at the Olive Garden.

It’s been a challenge. Despite the warm-fuzzies of contributing to such an endeavor, the flip side has been steeling myself to much of the sorrow surrounding me in order not to tumble into my own rabbit-hole of depression. It took too long to climb out the last time, and I have no intention of going back down.

What do I mean? Well, let’s see...most recently, while walking BC on that quiet, frigid Sunday morning, I saw a body lying face down in the street. At first I thought it was someone drunk, which in itself would not be unusual, but as we came closer I noticed the fellow’s legs kicking and a puddle of blood next to his head.

Of all people in the community to find him, it was his misfortune it was me: no cell phone, and a Christian Scientist whose knowledge of medical attention is primarily a Band-Aid and a Bible. At first, of course, I couldn’t comprehend what I saw; but his head was moving and I’ve watched enough Law and Orders to know he should remain still.

I tied BC and bent down to speak to the unknown man who was moaning and agitated. I kept looking around for someone on the street; after all it was 9 am…shouldn’t people be heading for church? But it was silent as a...

I pulled off my woolen European shawl and tried wrapping it over his shoulders, accompanied by the shameful tinge of “I hope blood doesn't get on it,” which you’d probably have thought, too. I assured him I’d be back and implored him to remain calm; while I went off, screaming like a woman possessed, momentarily considering yelling FIRE, because people don’t respond to,

“HELP!”   “HELP!”

I banged on the door of one tiny home whose occupant I knew, but she couldn’t get to the door fast enough before I continued on.

‘HELP!”  “HELP!”  “Oh, please, HELP!”

I clutched my chest, running like a girl, banging on doors until someone finally answered. Luckily it was a Missional couple who are nurses, since all I could muster was,

“A Resident down; bleeding; CALL FOR HELP!”

My heart was pounding and I thought I’d drop by the time I'd returned to the man, now sitting upright alongside another Resident who'd been too frightened to come outside until I started making such a ruckus. She was on her phone with the authorities. I was shocked to discover the man was 'Oscar,' who I often encountered during morning walks when the weather was warmer.

I knelt down and assured Oscar help was coming; while the barefoot Resident, bless her heart, was,

“Prayin’ to Jesus; help him Jesus; Jesus is comin’ to save YOU,” on and on, until Oscar, unintelligible up until then, managed to say quite clearly,

“I don’t want that,” but hell, maybe it worked.

I said, “Oscar, it’s Andrea,” and he grabbed my newly dry cleaned down coat (a Goodwill score) in a bloody hand and stared hard into my face.  At one time, rather than just considering the cleaning bill I might have recoiled, just a bit perhaps; but I never budged, I'm proud to report.

“Yes, I’m not leaving.” Oscar sat propped between the two of us until the Nurses came a-runnin’ with towels and diagnostic questions; followed by the first of what turned out to be four emergency vehicles summoned to the property that day. I left Oscar in good hands.

For the first time I looked over at BC, who was sitting so patiently on the curb in her winter coat of many colors. As we walked home I tried to dissuade children from bicycling over to gawk, but then came the adult ‘Lookie-Loo’s,’ on foot and in golf carts. I was taught not to rubberneck at another's tragedy; but by the number of traffic jams on any given day, I'm relatively alone.

It was traumatic for us all; and in subsequent days I re-lived the anxiety as forgotten bits and pieces popped back into memory. I was most upset about what COULD have happened, why it was ME of all people, and how to avoid the same in the future (carry my phone, for one). Additionally I was disappointed to learn that my fantasies of reacting well in a disaster have plummeted as low as my credit score.

Following 24 hours for observation, Oscar was safely returned home. I didn’t ask what happened; not my beeswax. And since the blood was dry, no stains, although the shawl needs a cleaning anyway.

I saw Oscar a week later, and he was upright but still shaky. “I was really scared,” I told him and he replied, “I was, too.” The Barefoot Resident told me later that while I was hollering for help, Oscar was asking for his ‘friend,’ and kept repeating, "Don't let me die."

“She’s coming back…see, there’s her dog,” and he calmed down a bit. I was close to tears at this point, and grateful I was there for whatever reason.

So as I began, I’ve become somewhat steeled to this sort of thing, which I don’t really like. I don’t want to become so inured to misery that I stop feeling altogether. It’s difficult to watch and frustrating not to solve, but little by little the community comes together to pick itself up from the homeless mentality, which is the hardest thing to overcome.

But they'll do it without me, at least not for a time. I've got a book's worth of stories like this to process in a more objective light, but I’m keeping the door open, for as the community continues to grow they’ll still need a painter.

Based on last year’s travels, it took me 1-1/2 weeks to go from Phoenix to Austin, so I’m allowing myself the 2 weeks to get to Bakersfield; then another 4-5 days up through California to Oregon. I should make it by the end of March.

I told you I’m a pokey driver. I’ll try to record any interesting adventures along the way, but since I’m taking the Interstates (ugh) to save time, how interesting can it be? My radio continues to mystify, so I'll likely drive in silence, as I've done for the past 18,000 miles. You get used to it, and BC never complains about my singing.

But I know my brain won't stop, and I'll probably be rehashing much of the past 9 months over the next 2,000 miles.  Oh, I really wish I hadn't looked the mileage up!

Yippee Ki-Yay, My Friends!

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