By Cecil e Lusby
I first met Eliza B. in the mid-1980s at Santa Rosa Junior College when she was a student needing my help getting resources through the Enabling Services Department. I don’t remember whether her issues were neurological or emotional, but we always stopped and talked whenever our paths crossed. She was a brave, but fading hippie and I a part-time politico. She seemed happy with her classes most of the time, rarely venting any discontent. My son and I helped her move once, but we never understood who or what it was she needed to leave behind so suddenly. After she lost her job and dropped out of school, I didn’t see her for about a decade.
You wouldn’t know her now.
I began to volunteer at FISH, the Catholic Worker, and then the Interchurch Pantry. Every now and then Eliza would show up in line, get her food, and disappear. I believed she was having a tough time making ends meet. As the years passed she would grow flustered when she recognized me at the Pantry. Her blush has now weathered into a permanent sunburned ruddiness; the look of the outdoorsy Irish often resembles that of the chronic alcoholic or the homeless. Sometimes the pink lingers on even after sobriety. After decades as a food distribution worker, I still am not sure. With my father and grandfather both relentless drinkers, I am familiar with the pattern, but reluctant to jump to conclusions. I have never seen Eliza drinking or under the influence, yet she has always been vulnerable in a harsh world. I never witnessed her being impolite, not “clothed and in her right mind,” as James Baldwin used to say.
Last month I brought my recycled coffee cans to be refilled at Taylor Maid’s beanery.
As I approached the store’s entrance, I saw a green water hose move and a garbage bin shift on its wheels. Then I saw a woman against the wall, her hair now shining silver. She moved quickly, setting the bin at an angle to block my view, but I saw the bright blue eyes: it was Eliza behind the dumpster, not wanting anyone to see her scavenging. My old friend did not want me to see her. After a long fight, she has come to this. Perhaps she had not recognized me, so out of respect for her privacy, I left her alone behind the bin. Was I wrong? Was I missing an opportunity to acknowledge someone I knew? Or was I sparing her embarrassment after seeing that she had slipped through the cracks? All these thoughts ran through my mind as I bought my coffee. Stepping outside, I looked around, but she had gone, and now the memory of her troubles my conscience.
Eliza is still out there, still one of us. What separates us now is the awareness that she has fallen in a society that blames the poor for their situation. Because of my mother’s struggle as a working divorcee, I know that many poor people try hard, work hard and still have nothing to show for it. Sonoma County now is full of the formerly employed and underemployed. We are not so different.
Even though I was able to work, be a mother, get an education, and retire with a pension, not every life travels an upward arc. Some of our peers fall by the wayside, and witnessing them fills some of us with an anxious need to keep striving, while others realize how much we have to be thankful for. The next stage is responsible gratitude, remembering those still in need. It is a call and response. For our thankfulness to be effective, it is necessary to work together as a community to prevent more suffering, more hunger, and exposure. Once again, it is the dark, chilly time of year to remember the Food Banks and Pantries from the bright warmth of your home and hearth.
Please give to the Interchurch Food Pantry of Sebastopol; P. O. Box 579; Sebastopol, CA 95473