Monthly Archives: September 2014

I may have burned the bridge, but they poured the gasoline

SaberSave was losing a phenomenal amount of business to their competitor. Lets face it, Market Basket is the superior store in a lot of ways, mainly in that they obviously inspire a lot of confidence and loyalty in their hard working employees. Even the management actually manages to care about the people working for them, so it’s no wonder that the strike went on for as long as it did and that their CEO was able to get his job back, simply by treating each other like human beings. SaberSave proved that they did not care if I lived or died, by repeatedly cutting my hours back until there would have been no feasible way for me to support myself on the pittance they paid me.

They did this for everyone, but sorry, the idea of “I’m not alone” has never been comforting to me. If I were in a room I could not escape and the oxygen were rapidly depleting, and I knew the horrible and violent death that awaited me, telling me, “Well Nathanielle, you’re not alone in there. There’s forty other people breathing oxygen with you.” is not going to help me get through this.

So when this week’s schedule came out and they told me they were taking another shift away from me, I told them, “You either need to give me another shift or I’m quitting.”

They said go ahead. Obviously they felt superior and comfortable in their position. I wonder then, how they felt, when I stopped at the floral department on my way out of the store and picked up the phone, dialed the PA system and said, “Attention Saber Save customers: The mop I use to clean the bathrooms is the same mop they make me use to clean the entire store, including the bakery. Bon appetite.”

A Burned Bridge at Lifebridge, Originally published in 2011

During 2011, I was a resident at the Lifebridge shelter in Salem, Massachusetts. This letter was published in the Salem Gazette and I’m still getting compliments for sharing this story with the public.

I was recently screamed at by a shelter staff member, for following shelter policies in regards to certain items in the refridgerator. I am not exaggerating, I was literally screamed at. If you do not believe a shelter has the right to act this way towards it’s residents, then copy and paste the letter below into an e-mail and send it out to every Letters to the Editor section of your local paper.

In this rough economic climate, it’s only natural to expect that people will suffer a bit of hard luck. As much as we would like to pretend otherwise, the homeless exist. That means there is a need for places and services to assist those people, including, but not limited to shelters.

The question a lot of people in Salem, Massachusetts have no doubt been asking is just what is the Lifebridge Shelter doing to improve this situation in our town?

When you go into the living area of Lifebridge, the first thing you are likely to notice is the people who are just sitting around, reading, watching TV, or just staring off into space. These aren’t just people who have jobs and are simply taking it easy. The majority of them are people who are there every single day, all day, unless otherwise asked to leave. Half of them will only leave of their own volition to smoke, or to run down to the store to buy cigarettes and junk food. Remember this.

There is no doubt that some of these residents are mentally ill. There are also those who have limited mobility, or disabilities that otherwise make it difficult to leave the building. Once again, the majority of the people you will meet here have no greater disability than their own overinflated sense of entitlement.

Failure or refusal on behalf of staff members to enforce certain policies fuels this entitlement. People who would lose their beds or other services in a much stricter environment mistake this laxness for the norm.

Intoxicated residents who are banned by one staff member are given the run of the place by another. The lives of residents who need oxygen to breathe at night are placed in danger as residents prop the exit to the sleeping area open, allowing cigarette smoke to blow in. Remember this as well, it will be important later.

To speak to some of the residents, you might be lead to believe that you were in the Hawthorne Hotel rather than a homeless shelter. But then again, hotels have rules and policies that are better enforced. And those people actually pay to spend the night there.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have the one percent of shelter residents who do take advantage of the services and try to improve their situations. If you see them at the shelter at all they are likely eating, sleeping, or heaven forbid taking it easy for a little bit. But they are awake and out the door early in the morning. If they do have jobs, they are faithful to their schedules and working hard to get a place to live. If they are unemployed then they are pounding the pavement in search of work.

Ironically, these are the people who suffer the most. Instead of assistance, they are given excuses. Appointments are made with their caseworkers, only to be canceled or forgotten without notice. Miscommunications between staff lead to misunderstandings that can cause these people to miss a meal, or to wind up being needlessly penalized.

Probably the worst offense of all is when a staff member who cannot properly manage their stress takes it out on a resident. This creates a hostile environment as that person’s inner circle of residents now believes that they can mistreat the victim. This is further reinforced when that staff member refuses to apologize, thus ensuring that a supposedly safe environment grows potentially dangerous.

Take a moment to think about that. As mentioned, there are mentally ill people living in this shelter. Some of these people would not be credible witnesses in a court case and very likely, if one of them were to tell you what someone did to them, you would likely dismiss them. But try to imagine a relative of yours.

Maybe someone with a similar mental illness or an elderly relative with Alzheimer’s disease, who for whatever reason has been placed in a home or other sheltered environment. How would you feel, knowing that a nurse or an orderly took out their frustrations on that loved one? Where would you draw the line? How would you feel if you were that person and you felt threatened and intimidated by people who were supposed to be there to help you?

What does this have to do with you, the citizen of Salem, Massachusetts or any other town with a similar situation to deal with? Well, at one point or another you’ve probably been asked to donate to one of these shelters.

You might have seen a booth at a fair, or attended a benefit dinner to support a homeless shelter. Or, perhaps you received a pamphlet from a place like Lifebridge, full of color photos of the staff, residents, and campus. In that pamphlet is an envelope where you would put a check or money order in one of the amounts requested.

The question you need to ask yourself is after reading this letter, do you honestly believe that this is a place you would want to donate your money? Does this sound like a place where your hard earned dollars would go towards caring for the mentally ill or for helping that once percent who just need that extra boost. Or does it sound more like you’re funding a twenty-four hour college fraternity party? Read on.

A number of the aforementioned residents, who suffer from those disabilities and limited mobility, will receive a disability check. Half of that money will go towards cigarettes. Similarly, their food stamps will pay for junk food while they enjoy full meals provided by donations from well meaning businesses and church groups. To add further insult to injury, the oxygen tanks, which many of these smokers use believe it or not, were paid for by health insurance that was provided by the state.

So in a sense, you, the tax payer have all ready paid a substantial amount for these people to just sit around, smoking, eating and reading. Do you really need to donate more money for them to do the exact same thing?

Salem, I love you, but I’m glad my sister isn’t growing up here

For the record, I’m not saying Bennington is much better. But let me regale you with a tale of something I overheard yesterday on my way home from work.

My daily commute takes me past one of Salem’s high schools. As such I’m always apt to cross paths with any number of the kids walking to and from school. While I was waiting for a light to change at the crosswalk, group of girls who couldn’t have been older than fifteen were  jogging from the high school to the middle school, which is also on Highland Avenue. They also stopped to wait for the light to change and I overheard this exchange.

“Hey I got a new game,” one of the girls said. “Every time someone honks their horn, you get a point.”

“Oh, then I have a hundred points already.”

“Do cat calls count?” Another girl asked.

As I was crossing the street, it occurred to me again that these kids couldn’t be older than fifteen or sixteen. Maybe it’s the part of my brain that is terrified that that there are guys (or women, I’m not judging) of untold years behind the wheels of cars who are “honking” at teenagers in the vicinity of both a high school and a middle school. Although a part of me is hopeful that the “honkers” are at least teenagers themselves with their driver’s licenses, I’m more inclined to think that it’s the former. And just a couple days ago was when this happened and at least that woman was an adult, but it really does bring my home, which I’m generally very happy to live in to a whole new light.

Good for these girls for having a sense of humor about it and hopefully being self aware enough to protect themselves if the behavior goes beyond cat calls and honking. But I also have it in the back of my mind that my little sister is turning twelve this year and I am so glad that she is not growing up here.

Stories You May Not Have Heard 1: The Naughty Chair

This should really be a #ThrowbackThursday post, but I’ll post it whenever the hell I want. This also breaks my “things that happened in the last 48 hours” policy, but I haven’t taken that terribly seriously lately.

I went to Christian Alliance preschool when I was four. There was special chair for kids to sit in when they had been “naughty” and I’m not entirely sure what the criteria for sitting there was. Because one kid got a hold of a bottle of perfume and spilled it in the sandbox and he got off scot free.

The thing that stands out to me to this day is that I was never placed in the chair. The biggest punishment I ever got was that I never got to participate in show and tell. And the only thing I distinctly remember from the teacher was a vague line about “not paying attention”. This puzzles me because her daughter, who was in my class, somehow always paid attention and always got to do show-and-tell.

Anyway, one day I guess I was feeling left out, so I put myself in the naughty chair. That was it, there was no major story behind it and no one questioned me really. One kid found it strange and went to tell the teacher, but, what was the endgame there? “Teacher, Nathanielle is being naughty by sitting in the thing that was designated for just that purpose.”

One For the Road

As always, I will give you the fact, but this feels like a win. Judge for yourself.

I was walking home from work today doing the most unattractive thing I can think of: Eating store bought fried chicken.  On the way down Death Race Road I paused to finish deboning a piece of chicken when a landscaper stopped in the road for red light right. Simultaneously, a woman who probably my age or a few years older walked by. I only noticed her after I noticed the perv in the passenger side of the landscaping company’s truck who had said, “Hey, what’s up gorgeous?”

Without missing a beat, I swallowed what was in my mouth and said, “I’m doing fine, how about yourself?”

The passenger and the driver both busted a gut at my quick wit.

“Well, someone responded at least.” The passenger said.

The woman must have heard me, because she laughed and turned her head just long enough to smile in my direction before continuing on her way. I returned the smile. Please understand, the unspoken communication was very likely only this.

“Thanks for taking the attention off of me.”

“No problem.”

Again though, I’ll leave you, faithful reader, to be the judge.

The Street Performer’s Beard ~ A Short Story

The street performer sat on the bench, hunched over. In one one hand was a laminated piece of paper with his name and photo and in the other he held a cellphone to his ear.

“Four years. After four years of paying dues, it’s finally mine. Because I need it to perform.” He rolled his eyes. “Because it’s the rules, I can’t perform without the license you know that. Oh don’t, don’t you give me that. All I ever get is criticism from you and I’m just trying to be a little happy. Is that okay with you?”

He stood up and paced around the bench. For a moment, he lowered the phone, forgetting what he was doing. Quickly, he corrected himself and glanced about to see if anyone was watching.

“I want you to be proud of me. All of this is for you and I just want you to see how happy I am when I’m doing something I love. Making ends meet hasn’t been easy but if I don’t take this little bit of time to enjoy myself, well, I don’t want to imagine what could happen.”

After a pause, the performer closed the phone and placed it back in his pocket. He turned around and after another short pause, he gestured to his pocket. “What that? If anyone sees me talking to myself, they’ll put me away again. That’s my beard.”

The tiny marker at the head of the plot remained silent. But he was certain she could hear him. After he was sure that the license was visible to anyone who might happen by, he performed for her.

Bitter Coffee ~ A Short Story

Forty became fourteen, fourteen became one hundred and one hundred became seven. Only in retail did that kind of math make sense and then only to the people who signed the paychecks. Right now, Jack only needed a dollar, seventy-five to get through the next hour, which would lead him to the four he desperately needed to turn one hundred into one, twenty-five and make it to ten and a half if he was really lucky.

The aroma hit his brain, lifting the fog as he took a deep breath. The cafe was brightly lit which stung his eyes at first, but then he settled on the Halloween décor which was already covering the walls. In a glass case in the corner, a scarecrow with a pumpkin head waved at him from top of a cake he wished he could bite into – mostly because the chemicals used to preserve it would put him in the hospital long enough to get some sleep, but he was sure it would be a tasty way to start the unintended vacation.

“Here you go.” Kathy filled the mug to the brim and nudged it towards him. As always, she didn’t leave room for milk and she gave him that playful, all knowing grin that annoyed him when he first met her almost two years ago.

Even now he could remember conversation that cemented their relationship. He had just come off the night shift at a school for trouble teens and was about to begin an eight hour shift at the store. With only two hours to get showered and dressed, he stopped into the Bake Shop, just down the road from his apartment.

“Coffee with three espresso shots please.” He said, pulling out his wallet.

Kathy frowned.

“We usually only serve it with two.”

“Can I have three please?”

“Alright, but even two shots isn’t very good for you.”

“Make it four.”

Whether it was from exhaustion or not, Jack’s voice remained deadpan and maybe that’s why Kathy laughed that morning. She gave him his four shots with a friendly reminder that it still wasn’t good for his heart. Her smile made the bitter coffee easier to swallow.

Anytime he had a buck, seventy-five, he went to the Bake Shop. She wasn’t always there, but she was always there. Even if the cashier was a snotty college brat, his brain was rarely functioning enough to register that it wasn’t Kathy’s concerned frown or affectionate grin responding to his simple requests for coffee and however many shots he thought he would need. Sometimes she talked him down from the ledges so to speak.

Today she ordered for him. Jack was barely awake and this time it wasn’t because he had two jobs, or three jobs, or one job that was equally tasking until the big thing in the news occurred. This time the hours were barely enough to cover the rent and to please the other people who wanted his sweat and his blood. This time he couldn’t sleep, because he was certain that every morning would be the beginning of his life on the streets.

Kathy must have seen him, barely awake, his head in his hands and his elbows on the counter.
“It’s light roast,” she said. “None of your ‘Next Stop Cardiac’ crap. Just drink it.”
He couldn’t argue with that. Mostly because he was too tired to know what he was arguing about. The first cautious sip was warm and bitter. Jack grimaced. How had he managed to choke this stuff down all of his adult life?

Jack reached for the sugar and Kathy stopped him.

“Oh no you don’t.”

“Jeez, Kathy I’m not in the mood.”

“None of us are, Jack.” Kathy leaned forward, almost getting right into his face. They had never been closer than the counter before, but he wasn’t as surprised by the action as he was by how serious she seemed all of a sudden. “But all the sugar in the world isn’t going to make it any sweeter.”

Kathy pulled out a packet of salt and tore it open. Before Jack could say anything, she carefully shook a small amount into the coffee and started to stir it with the spoon.

“What are you doing?”

“There, take a sip.”

Jack stared at her, incredulously. He looked from her to the coffee and had to fight the urge to get up and storm out. All he wanted was this little but of comfort to help him understand the six months of showing up for his shift on time, doing a damn better job than the guy who had been there for ten years, only to have to suddenly compete with some bratty high school kid for his right to a fair amount of the hours. Instead she was making things more complicated.

“Right or wrong, the coffee is on the house.” Kathy said, easing the tension. She knew when to push him and when to let him be. Clearly, this was time to push and he didn’t want to storm out.

“Fine,” Jack said.

He took a sip and was surprised to find that the bitterness had gone. There was no salty flavor exactly, but the bitter coffee was somehow tastier. Jack took another sip to see if he was imagining things and it was the same.

Kathy stood back and shrugged.

“Just a little trick I picked up,” she said. “Maybe everything else will get better too.”
For the first time that he could remember, Jack found himself returning the smile.