I miss Alma. She died last Wednesday but she’s been away since the fire in November. Before then, she usually stayed near a bus stop bench on Tennessee Street near my house. She was big woman. All her belongings, including her garden, were in her shopping cart.
Alma was well-spoken, dignified, proud in her way. Without being a busybody or intrusive, she watched the world go past her near the corner of Tennessee and Tuolumne Streets. She was in touch with the world as an observer. She liked to read, too.
I don’t know her whole story, but somehow her fortunes went down a difficult path. She was homeless in the sense that she did not have a house or apartment. This was so unthinkable ten years ago or so when everyone felt buoyant with the dot com bubble. Everyone bought property then. But Alma was still homeless. It seemed crazy. She could go to a shelter at least. After all, it rains in the winter here even if it doesn’t snow. December and January often bring frost. And we usually have a week or two of searing heat in the summer.
When we talked to Alma, she said she preferred to stay out of shelters. She had tried them and while she was glad to get a meal there, when the lights went out at night they are dangerous. Predators roam the night. She didn’t say what happened. It wasn’t safe. The bus stop was safer.
She liked mystery novels and my husband would bring her a book or two sometimes. She helped us with real life mysteries, too.
In 2003 I was heartbroken over being laid off from my technology job in San Francisco, a credenza full of customer service, business appreciation and technology awards one day, walked to the door with a cardboard box the next. I was fragile, recovering from having invested too much of myself in my work, having loved my job too much, having believed that good will and excellent performance would preserve my livelihood. I was like so many of my former co-workers with an excellent resume, years of good ideas still brewing and yet downsized by false hope in investments in air. After spending yet another 16-hour day looking for and applying for jobs, it was after midnight when I surfed dog rescue sites.
My Rusty, a Cardigan Welsh Corgi, had died about six months earlier. He had suffered a couple of bouts of rare ear cancer, had survived surgery for that and near-miraculous back surgery by the geniuses at the University of California – Davis veterinary school. But, in spite of the insulin injections twice a day which he took without complaint, finally diabetes took our sweet dog. Rusty had adored my husband, the biggest sheep he’d ever seen. As a herding dog, Rusty felt John was his responsibility and followed him everywhere his short legs would take him. I would often watch them in the yard, John bent over a bonsai and Rusty behind him. As John moved to the left, Rusty did too, to the right, and his shadow matched his every move. The tough thing about adoration is that when you lose it, it leaves a hole in your heart.
So in the wee hours of the night, I stumbled upon a photo of a dog described as The Perfect Gentleman and fell in love. I woke John up, showed him the picture, submitted my application to the Furry Friends Rescue (http://www.furryfriendsrescue.org/) and literally held my breath. Who wouldn’t want a dog who was the perfect gentleman? And beautiful and friendly and kind to cats? Lucky us, we were the family chosen to adopt our Quincy and were delighted to have him our first day.
He was nervous but well-behaved. He wanted to sleep on the couch that first night. We got up several times to make sure he was OK. I woke up early in the morning and went to sit with him on the couch for bonding. John got ready to go to work and was at the door when all of a sudden, Quincy shot out of the house like a spit wad. John got in the car and I, in my very humble sweats and barefoot, took off running after him. I ran the streets of our town like a madwoman, calling his name. I ran my bare feet until they were raw and bleeding. And Quincy was always a block or two ahead of me, turning corners and disappearing, running as fast as he could.
During our search, John stopped and asked Alma if she had seen a cocker spaniel running like the wind. She pointed and said she had seen him cross the busy street in front of her about ten minutes before. I came home filthy, limping, bleeding, and crying. I did not know that my broken heart could hurt even more until then. We had not had him 24 hours and we had lost him.
And then, a little miracle happened. John came back with the car, unable to find Quincy. He stopped a friend of ours and cautioned him not to be his usual jovial, joking self with me because we had just suffered a tragedy. Our friend asked what the dog looked like and when John described Quincy, our friend pointed behind John, “You mean like that dog there at the corner?” John turned around. Quincy had found his way back to his new home. John brought him to me and I think I hugged that dog for at least two hours. My puppy, my symbol of hope for a better future, my dog had a home.
Alma will always have a place in my heart for helping us when we were so terribly in need. I grieve that we were not able to do the same for her. We rescued our dog, our cats, perhaps even ourselves. At least our city, that makes the news for less-than-ideal circumstances, didn’t mind letting Alma stay at the bus stop, her shelter.
I met a kind woman in southern California named Amparo. I asked her what her name meant and she told me, “shelter.” But it is more than that. It means the protection that justice brings when the strong and good step in and shield those less fortunate and protect their personal freedom. Being homeless isn’t contagious. Being heartless is. Be kind and respectful to the homeless among you. Don’t hate them for their circumstances. Do you know their whole story? Could that have been you? Help them when you can. And you can help them more than tossing change in a cup. Some of them, like some of your other neighbors, can be wonderful friends.
The 10 of Pentacles or Coins is a card that shows a family with everything they need, including their two dogs, shelter, the comforts of home, freedom of want. But look closely. There is an old man outside the gates. The dogs notice him. The child notices him. Don't the adults have enough to help him out too? Do we know his whole story, how he got there, why he is outside the gates?
Good night, Alma. May your soul rest in the shelter of the wings of love and be free, free at last.