International Women’s Day: Grandma Tina

For International Women’s Day, I honor my Grandma Tina. Below is the eulogy I read at her funeral. Rest in peace Grandma.


Grandma

Yesterday I sat down with Grandpa so that we could chat and remember Grandma. I had never heard their story: where they met; how he courted her; all of the what’s, why’s, and where’s. He told me that they met when she was about 15-years-old near the Gilroy garlic fields. She was walking with her cousins along Bolsa Road. That was the first time Grandpa had ever laid eyes on Grandma, and he knew immediately that something drew him to her. Later, this time in Hollister, he saw her while she was babysitting. Then he would see her again, and again, and again; each time too long from the last. I would have never guessed that it was amongst the apricot fields of Cupertino that their love would blossom. It was there that she, finally, shot her magic eyes at him and hooked him for life.

* * * * * *

The image of Grandma shooting any kind of lovey-dovey eyes at anyone, even Grandpa, makes me a bit uncomfortable. I guess that’s because of how I will always remember her. When someone passes on, we reflect on their lives and what they mean to us. Some people reminisce about a particular time, others are reminded of that person’s perfume or their jewelry or maybe even their laugh. And then there’s those who knew the person so well that they have difficulty elaborating how much they dearly miss their loved one. As I reflect on what it was that made Grandma Tina so unique, I could only think of one word: caring.

People often seek the guidance of their God or holy figure, or sometimes even celebrities, to find an example of how to live their lives. I’m lucky because I didn’t have to seek far to find my example. Grandma Tina was the only person I have ever known that truly embodied what it means to be a caring human being. In a world fraught with hate, anger, lust, depression, laziness, and apathy, she always rose above and provided everyone who knew her with as much care as a person could have.

Grandma Tina was hospitable, a trait that is unfortunately falling by the wayside. Hospitality used to be a sign of a good home, a beacon for weary travelers looking for a welcome place to rest their aching feet and fill their hungry stomachs. If there’s one thing we all could attest to, it’s that you never went hungry at Grandma’s house. She always had food ready to go at all hours of the day. No matter who you were or what your problem was, you could always go to Grandma Tina for help, and even if she didn’t know the answer, she’d give you cariños and you’d feel better.

* * * * * *

Before Grandma was filling the bellies of her family though, she was filling the local dance halls with her dance moves every weekend back in the ‘50s. Grandpa describes this era of their lives like a long, beautiful dream. If they weren’t dancing the night away, they were cruising out to Santa Cruz, strolling the Boardwalk, loving each other by the sea. They’d drive from there all the way to Watsonville and back. Sometimes they would go to the drive-in, back when it was $1 per car, because it was one of the cheapest places to have a date. Even in her younger years, Grandma didn’t care about money or material wealth. She just wanted to be with her lover. They lived day-to-day doing what they wanted to do with no care in the world. They were inseparable. Everything they did was done together. It was the perfect bond, a companionship that sprouted in the garlic fields of Gilroy and bloomed into a marriage that would last a lifetime.

* * * * * *

As I continued to reflect on all of my memories of Grandma I realized that she sometimes cared too much, often at the expense of herself. I have never known a more selfless person, a person so willing to sacrifice all she had for others. I have to confess: I took advantage of this when I was a child. Everytime I’d go over her house I would get something: good food, sweets, toys, games, etc. I don’t know if my parents even know this, but she’d even let me stay home from school sometimes if I begged her enough. And to top it off, she’d take me to Denny’s or iHop to celebrate my day of freedom. Later in life I stopped asking her for things. That didn’t stop her. She then would slip money in my hand out of Grandpa’s sight just before I went home. She would do this all the way through last year.

Grandma was the quiet matriarch of the family; she was a woman strong in mind, body and soul. Whether she knew it or not, she left a legacy of care that not many others can say they come close to. And so as I continue to reflect on her life, I realize that I have subconsciously lived my life in accordance to Grandma’s. Everything I do I try to do with as much care and love as she did. It’s my way of honoring her life that symbolized all the good in the world. If I can be half as caring as Grandma, I will have done this world a great deed. In the end, that’s what I think she would have wanted.

* * * * * *

Midway during our conversation yesterday Grandpa said he didn’t know how to proceed or what to talk about next. I asked him to go back to that beautiful time when he and Grandma were living a dream. He thought about it for a bit. It was then I saw a glimmer in his eyes. He remembered the day when the meaning of music had changed for him. A song titled “Over The Mountains, Across The Sea” by Johnnie & Joe was one of those songs. I found it and played it for him. He was right back with Grandma again—16-years-old and in love. After the song was over, I asked him if there was anything else he wanted to say. He said that all-in-all, Grandma was a good woman whom everyone liked. People from all over called to offer condolences. I agree with you Grandpa, she was a wonderful woman, and I’m grateful to have known and loved her for the time that I did.

Barrio Turkey

chalchiuhtotolin_2

I.

I’ve always been a travieso.
Can we go to Disneyland mama?
No you know that.
          Stop being a travieso.
But…
No buts!
It was fun arguing with mom about things I already knew.

Like this one Thanksgiving.
I asked if we were having turkey.
She pretended to not hear me.
I asked again as she rolled the tortillas.
She stopped and glared at me.
I was being a travieso again.

She wouldn’t go to church.
The barrio kids got turkeys with their families,
         but mom wouldn’t go.
She said we were perfectly fine with what we had.
So instead we would have a regular dinner,
         frijoles, arroz, pollo con mole, tortillas,
                  but with homemade queso fresco and tres leches cake to make it special.
I thought she should’ve just gone to church.

I didn’t want to push it so I went outside to play.
At the end of the block,
         in the corner of the cul-de-sac,
                  a garbage bag laid with something inside.
Garbage was strewn everywhere in my neighborhood then,
         but it was the size and smell that made this bag stand out.
I swear that bag was breathing.
A putrid essence was emanating from that mysterious receptacle.

It stopped breathing as I approached.
Even the smell went away.
For some reason,
         I knew what was in that bag.
Grabbing a branch,
         I slowly opened the bag’s mouth.
I’ll never forget the look on that dead bird’s face.

II.

Travieso!
I heard someone call out,
         but it must have been the wind.
I shut the bag quick,
         worried that the dead bird would fly away.
Suddenly I felt alone with it,
         me and the big ugly dead bird left to fend for ourselves.
I wanted to poke it,
         to awaken it.
I wanted it to breathe again,
         like it did when it was alive.
But I didn’t want to be a travieso.

I raced over to my friend’s house,
         on the other street.
She was always nice to me.
She would be having turkey for Thanksgiving,
          and it made her sad that I wouldn’t be.
Her parents were always nice to me too,
         allowing me to visit and sometimes giving me clothes.
Of course you can go out and play they said.

She didn’t want anything to do with the bird.
I forgot how she didn’t like coming to my block,
         but this was important to me.
I needed her more than ever.
But she was scared of the size of the bird.
To her it looked like the turkey her family bought,
         but bigger and more wild,
                  scary.

I told her I wanted to awaken it,
         but she started to cry and begged me to not touch it.
It was as if she didn’t believe me when I told her it was breathing earlier.
It was as if she couldn’t understand how this bird ever existed.
Her doubts hurt me and alienated me from her,
         all because of this bird.
She went back to her house on her street,
         and I to mine.

III.

Where have you been?
Just playing mama.
With who?
No one mama.
Don’t lie to me.
I’m not!
Okay okay.
         I just don’t like you playing with that little girl.
I asked her why not,
         but I already knew why.
She doesn’t understand you.
         She doesn’t understand us.
I was just playing.
That’s good.
         You should play with the other kids.
But they’re mean!
         They hurt others.
They’ve been hurt themselves,
         that’s why they hurt others.
                  But you can help them.
How?
By showing them that there’s nothing to be afraid of.
         Show them how to fly.
                  That they matter.

Don’t listen to your mom,
         she is going to get you killed.
How papa?
By sending you to those wolves.
         They’ll prey on you.
                  You won’t have a chance.
I’m just playing papa.
Keep playing to yourself.
         Don’t start something you can’t finish.
                  Don’t be a travieso.

IV.

The barrio kids were awake and found the bird in the bag.
It was breathing through the bag again,
         this time faster than before.

You gonna poke it or what?
I don’t know.
Don’t be a bitch.
Don’t say that.
Fuck you!

They swung at me,
         but just as they did I leapt over to the bag,
                  picked it up and shook it with all of my strength.
The most beautiful bird broke loose.
It spread its wings and shot up into the heavens.
Then it floated back down to earth.

As it landed,
         it looked at me and smiled.
I smiled back.
I had forgotten about the others,
         but they were still there,
                  just quiet and afraid like mama said.

You can touch the bird.
         It’s here for all of you.
Really?
         It won’t hurt us?
It won’t hurt you,
         I promise.

One by one they walked up to touch that majestic bird.
I had never seen those kids so full of life.
They always knew what their destinies held.
They saw it on the TV and in the books at school.
         In the music their primos cruised to.

This bird,
         this turkey whose name was Chalchiuhtotolin,
                  proved fate wrong.
As each child touched the bird-god,
         a new bird came bursting forth from the bag.
Hummingbirds and hawks and owls and eagles!
Each with ancient names that somehow made sense,
         somehow resonated with each and every one of us.

We were able to dream again,
         fly again,
                  me and the other barrio kids.

V.

I was shook awake by my mom.
Dad was there too,
         I could smell the Brut cologne.
I was on the lawn near the dead bird,
         which was still in the bag.
One of the others pointed past my mom.
I saw a large spotted cat perched in a tree.
It slowly disappeared as we locked eyes.

Dad was angry because we were playing with a dead bird.
I told you!
          I don’t want you near those kids anymore!
But papa,
         we’re not afraid anymore,
                  we can fly now.
Travieso!
The bird isn’t dead.
You’re going to catch a disease!

It was okay I thought,
         he just didn’t understand.
Mama was standing behind him,
         smiling at me.
The barrio kids were around her.
I looked at them all,
         and we knew the truth.

We were never the same.
We still talk about that day, and tell the ancient story of the ancient bird that was awakened on our block to the new barrio kids.
If being a travieso meant spreading my wings and liberating myselfthen I was a proud travieso.
That day I was grateful because I had Thanksgiving turkey for the first time in my life.

Delusion and Readiness

To bring another heartache,
another hurtful memory,
another long, long, long, suffering,
     another letdown, another strife,
     another death into my life.
Can I comprehend the endless pain
     that will devour the world
     as you walk with the wind
off this planet of stinging rain?
Will I falter at the sound of swans
     gargling fake pond water,
     eyes glazed, fixed on nothing,
beauty reshaped into gods of bronze?
This soul has seen the deepest black,
     heard the loudest roar,
felt the roughest wrack.
This soul has smelled the foulest stench,
     tasted the tartest food,
discerned the coming drench.
There must be a reason
     we still exist.
There must be a reason
     love still persists.
Am I ready to combat logic?
Rationality leads to states ironic.
     Death makes sense in life sublime:
     No one’s ready when it’s time.

Hiking With Papa

What do you see?

 

Water, peanuts, and a pocket knife. That’s all that was in my backpack when my dad took me hiking for the first time. Dad wasn’t a hiker. He wasn’t into anything athletic or outdoorsy either, so when he asked me if I wanted to go for a hike, I was thrilled.

I started to get ready and asked him what I would need to bring.

“This is all you’re going to need.” He handed me my backpack.

“Are you sure? I mean, don’t we need more things?”

“Trust me Mijo, we’ll be fine. This is all we will need to survive the trails.”

“Okay Papa.”

We set off for the local hills. The road up to the trailhead was long and winding. There wasn’t many other cars on the narrow road. The few cars we did encounter were driving slow, and when we would get behind them, they pulled over to let us go by. Dad said it was because they were scared to fall off the cliff. I didn’t tell him that I was scared too.

As we pulled into the parking lot, I noticed a girl about my age getting out of the only other car there. She was the prettiest girl I had ever seen. She was sporting a backpack, just like mine. She had a hat on that looked like it was made in Australia, a long-sleeved shirt to protect her fair skin, khaki shorts that dropped just past her knees, and long socks with dirty brown hiking boots.

After we parked she caught me staring at her and tried to hide behind her mom. Her mom said something to her and she responded by pointing in my general direction. Her mom looked at me, and then her dad came around their car and said something. He looked at me as well, then at Dad, who was stumbling out of our car, and then hurried his family away to the trailhead.

Dad helped me fasten on my backpack, and then I helped him with his. He went over some general rules of the trail: No yelling, no littering, no disturbing nature. Stay on the trail. Sip your water. Be alert at all times. Follow me. If you need a break, let me know. If you’re not feeling well, definitely let me know. Most important, enjoy the journey. I wondered where in the world he had learned all of these hiking rules from.

We started toward the trailhead as another car parked in the lot. An older man got out. He was tall, bulky and a bit grizzly. He reminded me of my teacher from the year before, Mr. Starks. Dad used to say that Mr. Starks looked like Danny Glover from Lethal Weapon, just older.

Dad smiled and waved. The Older Man did so in return. An older woman stepped out from the other side of the car. She looked like the grandma version of the girl I had just seen a few minutes ago. Dad and I waved at her.

We walked up to the trailhead and were met with a fork in the path. A map of the trails was nearby in a glass enclosure, and after examining it for a bit, Dad started to lead us to the left.

“Papa, why are we going this way? The other people went the other way.”

“Because this way is better.”

“Are you sure? It looks higher.”

“That’s the beauty of going this way. That is the beauty of hiking.”

I was upset because I wanted a chance to run into that girl from before. I envisioned a scenario where Dad and I crossed paths with her family as they were hanging off the edge of the cliff. Dad rushes to help the parents, while I rush to save the Love of My Life.

“This way doesn’t seem so pretty.”

“Mijo, remember the rules. Enjoy the journey. Vamanos.”

About an hour into the hike we were both keeling over. Dad spotted a bench and motioned to head to it. We sat down and I enjoyed a rush of relief. After losing myself in the moment, I noticed the older couple coming up the trail. The Older Man looked so strong and confident, barely a drizzle of sweat on his brow. The Older Woman wasn’t doing as well. She looked to be suffering as much as Dad and I were.

“Hang in there young fellas,” said the Older Man as he got a bit closer.

“You know we will sir,” Dad replied.

The Older Man nodded to Dad and gave me a wink. “It’s good to bring your children out to the trails every so often. Keeps them grounded with nature. Reminds them of what is most important in life.” He looked at me. “You’re almost there child, you can do it.”

The Older Man waited for the Older Woman to catch up, and when she did they kept on past us. Dad told me to wait a little bit longer. After a couple of minutes, we continued forward.

“Papa, can I have some peanuts first?”

“Of course Mijo, but don’t eat them all. We’ll finish them up at the peak.”

“Okay Papa.”

After another hour or so, we got to a second fork. I felt stronger than I did after the first hour. The fork was marked by an old wooden sign with arrows pointing to the left and right. The sign read: “Left: Selwyn Vista Point, Grant Lake, Parking Lot (2.4 miles). Right: Antler’s Peak (6.7 miles) Danger: Fire Hazard.”

I glanced over to the left and noticed some people down near the lake. We were quite a bit higher than them, but I was pretty sure it was the girl and her family. I subconsciously started to drift towards her.

“Where do you think you’re going?”

“Oh, um. I thought maybe we could check out the lake?”

“Of course we can, but after we get to the peak.”

“Aw Papa come on, I’m tired. That way looks more harder than where we came from already. Plus, it says there could be fire up there. You wouldn’t want to maybe die from the fire, would you?”

Dad walked over to me and put his hand on my shoulder. “Mijo, I know it’s been tough so far. You’re not used to hiking. And you’re right, it’s going to be even tougher from here on. But you need to understand that you can make it Mijo, that you can beat anything these trails throw at you. And the fire? Don’t be afraid of things that might happen. You can’t let them keep you from reaching the peak.”

“Okay Papa.”

I was upset. I glanced back at the lake again, watching the girl and her parents having fun. They looked so happy, and they definitely weren’t as weary as I was. I was certain Dad didn’t have a clue what he was doing.

Those last miles up towards the peak were unbearable. Any strength that I thought I had before was gone in the first part of that torturous uphill ascent. After the second mile, I started to go ahead of Dad, who was breathing harder than I had ever seen him breathe. We looked like two people that were caught in a rainstorm of sweat. Every time I looked up to try and find the peak, all I found was a dusty, rocky trail to nowhere but heaven. The scorching heat just made matters worse. I was certain we were going to die there.

“I don’t know if I can do it Papa.”

“We’re almost there Mijo. Are you feeling bad? Do you feel dizzy?”

I hadn’t thought about it, but I did feel dizzy after he suggested it. The world started spinning around me, or me around it, I wasn’t sure at that point. Dad later said that he caught me just before I fell. He laid me down on the ground under a nearby tree and sat next to me.

“Here, sip some water. Cool off a bit, we can stay here awhile. I told you to tell me when you needed a rest. The sun can be brutal, and the mountain is not known for being merciful either.”

I nodded and said sorry. I felt sick. I wasn’t really sorry though. I hated hiking, I hated the heat, I hated Dad for bringing me out to these trails. There was nothing fun about it. We weren’t having fun like the other family.

“I want to go home. I feel bad Papa. You don’t look like you’re having fun too. Are you?”

“This hike wasn’t about fun. It was about enjoying and appreciating what we have at all times. Even the bad times. Tell me, what do you have right now, right now at this moment?”

“I don’t have anything. My water is almost gone and you said I can’t eat too much peanuts until the top of the mountain. I have a knife. What is the knife for? I just want to go.”

“You have your life, que no? You have your strength. You have your ambitions.” Dad looked down at the ground. “You have me. You have your Mom, who’s waiting back at home, making chile verde for us.”

“Really?”

“Yes sir, I asked her if she could make chile verde since it’s your favorite. She said she would have it ready for us when we returned. Your Mom is an angel like that.”

I sprung to my feet with a new vigor that only chile verde could instill in me. As soon as I was standing, I immediately felt the heat’s menacing presence again. I looked up towards the peak and felt a comforting hand on my shoulder. Thinking it was Dad, I turned to hug him. It was the Older Man, and after recoiling a bit from shock, I looked at Dad, who started to laugh.

“Did I frighten you?”

“No sir.”

“It sure looked like I did. There’s no reason to fear me child. Are you ready to ascend to the peak with your dad?”

I looked at Dad for confirmation. He smiled and nodded. Feeling much better, he led Dad and me up the rest of the trail.

From that point, we were no more than a couple of minutes away from the top. The Older Man said that he and the Older Woman were just ahead of us and hadn’t been at the peak for long when they heard us behind them. That’s when he noticed we weren’t doing so well and started to come to help us.

When we got to the peak, I noticed the Older Woman standing over near the edge of the cliff. The Older Man asked Dad if it would be okay to let me go join her, to which Dad allowed. The Older Man then asked me if I wanted to go and check it out.

“Check what out sir?”

“The view. It’s the reason your dad brought you on this journey. It’s the prize. And child let me tell ya, it’s worth it.”

Dad encouraged me to go. I walked over and stood beside the Older Woman. She was looking out back towards the city. She had on a straw hat, a long sleeve shirt with cursive writing on it, khaki pants and hiking boots. Her backpack looked like mine, but just a bit more weathered. As I got within a foot of her she extended her hand towards me without looking at me. I took her hand and shared the view with her.

“Hello. My name is Claire. Is this your first time at the peak too?”

“Yes ma’am.”

She looked down towards me and then knelt down beside me.

“Isn’t it beautiful? Isn’t it the most beautiful sight you have ever seen? It took me my entire life to finally have the courage to come up here. I had always been afraid. Afraid of the steepness, afraid of the fire. When I was younger, I thought I would maybe fall off. My dad told us to never come up here, it was too dangerous. So we stood on the easy paths. The hiking was fun, but after awhile I wanted more. I wanted to see the peak.”

The Older Woman sat down and patted the ground next to her. I sat down and we let our legs dangle over the edge of the cliff.

“How could I truthfully say that I went hiking without ever reaching the peak? Without ever seeing the full view that the mountain offers so graciously? The view is spectacular. I can see everything from here. All the angles, all the sides. I can now say that I have seen the beauty that everything together creates as a whole.”

I looked out at the city where I grew up, a city I thought I knew intimately. I recognized a few things: my church on the hill, my school, the park with the baseball field my friends and I would frequent. There were so many other things that I had never noticed before as well. From the peak, the city was a single entity, something that I was suddenly excited to be a part of.

Tears fell on her cheeks. I agreed with her that the view was beautiful. We got up and she hugged me. Dad and the Older Man came up behind us, each embracing their loved one while enjoying the view that they both journeyed for.

The Older Man put his hand on my shoulder. “I’ve seen this view many a time. It never stops being so wonderful. And it’ll continue to be wonderful well past all of our lives too. Your pops is a good man, bringing you up here. Now we’re all able to say that we’ve see the view. Remember your pop’s number one rule though: Enjoy the journey. The view is great, but it wouldn’t be so sweet without remembering the trail that led you here.”

He held out his hand for a handshake, and after I obliged, he offered Dad a handshake as well and then started off. The Older Man and Woman headed back towards the parking lot. Dad and I sat on the edge of the cliff looking out at the view for a bit longer. We sipped some water and ate our peanuts.

“Did you know them Papa?”

“No Mijo. But I could tell they were good people. Isn’t it nice when you meet good people?”

“Yeah. Papa, why was she crying?”

“I don’t know Mijo. Maybe she was happy. Sometimes we cry when we’re happy.”

Tears were welling in his eyes, but they never fell.

“I knew you were strong. I knew you could make it. I wouldn’t have brought you if I didn’t believe you could. Not everyone can. Not everyone wants to. The last time I came up here, the trail was wild and overgrown. There’s been much more people coming through here. That’s great.”

He looked at me and chuckled.

“Maybe some day you can bring that girl you have been so in love with all day up here. I’m sure she would enjoy the view.”

I liked that idea. I finished my water and peanuts. While digging around in my backpack, I saw the pocket knife.

“So what was the knife for? We didn’t use it at all.”

“Carrying a knife is an old habit of mine. Having a knife ready to go was often a smart thing to have when growing up. Old habits die hard Mijo.”

“And Papa, what about the fire? How many people have been hurt by the fire up here?”

“Mijo, there hasn’t been a fire up here for a long time. Ever since they cleared the brush up here, the fire danger went away. That sign is a relic. There is nothing to fear up here.”

He started to get up and gather his stuff. “Well, I’m done. What do you say we head home to some chile verde?”

“Okay Papa.”

It was right then that I thought of a use for the knife. As we walked back towards the city, I stopped by that old wooden sign and scratched out the fire warning.

Remembering September 11

We often remember significant events not because they changed the world, but because they changed our own world.

* * * * *

A turning point in my life came five years after the attacks. It was Patriot Day and I was in a very dark place in my life. I was doing poorly in school, had no good prospects for employment, and my personal life was in shambles.

The topic of the day was the 5th anniversary of the September 11 attacks. I really didn’t care about it. I was initially very stricken by the attacks, reading all I could on them, leaning towards the idea that it was our own government that did it, so on. After a couple of years, my own personal demons overshadowed those of the outside world; the 5th anniversary of anything wouldn’t cause me to bat an eye.

It was Monday and I was at school. After taking my usual spot in the rear right corner of the class, I noticed that someone I had never seen before was sitting in the front where the professor usually sat. The professor walked in a couple of minutes later. She explained that in lieu of class we would be hearing from a guest speaker—the man sitting in front. He was from Wales, and because we were studying medieval British literature, he would offer insight on the topic. Apparently he was a friend and past tutor of hers from university.

After introducing himself, he broke into his lecture. I don’t remember what he lectured on. With about thirty minutes left in class, he started to wrap it up. He then said he wanted to change the topic to Patriot Day. I thought it was strange that a foreigner would care enough to want to speak on my country’s problems, especially when I didn’t even care about them.

He said that he was glad to be in the United States on that day, that he was glad to be able to speak to fellow literature lovers about such a tragic event that no doubt shaped the world. He then asked the class how it had affected us personally. One classmate raised her hand and said that her uncle was a firefighter in New York and had helped during and after the attacks. Another classmate said he had a cousin that was visiting New York at the time of the attacks. The rest of the people who spoke talked of how it had affected them emotionally.

I sat there in silence. I started to drift back in my memories to that day, sitting in my high school history class, the teacher on his computer trying to keep up with the news and the TV tuned to breaking coverage. Towards the end of that class, my history teacher broke down. Through tears, he said that we would never forget this day, that the history books would all have to be rewritten. He told us to not be afraid, but I could tell he was scared. Later, my Mom came to pick me up from school early.

As I sat in class reliving the past, a distant voice caught my attention. I realized that it was my professor, and she was calling my name. A classmate next to me tapped my shoulder. She was asking me if I had anything to share. I shook my head.

The guest professor then ended the class with his story. He said on the day of the attacks, he was coming home from work. On the radio, the DJ was stating that something had happened in New York, USA. When he got home, he put the television on. It was morning in New York, just an hour or so after the second plane hit. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Images of the towers being hit, the fires, the debris, the people jumping out of the windows, the destruction.

“Who would do this?” he asked himself.

After a night of keeping up with the coverage, he turned the TV off and started turning in for the night. He was restless. He couldn’t sleep knowing that some people were at that very moment going through the worst tragedy of their lives. Others were experiencing yet another sorrowful moment in a life of sorrowful moments. He got out of bed and went to his study.

Looking for something to read, he grabbed a book that he hadn’t read for many years. Flipping through the Bible, he landed on a page that had been bookmarked before. (I don’t remember the exact passage or scripture.) The passage alluded to judgment by God unto the wicked. It said that those that believed in God would be saved.

He said he was agnostic at the time and still was. Sitting in his study, he started to cry, then wept. He cried out to God, asking why he would allow such horrors to happen. He then thought of all of the others in the world that were experiencing horrors in their own ways. He then started to understand religion, or at least one aspect of it. In life, we want to believe that there is an order to everything. We want to believe that there are answers to all of the questions, all of the wonders, all of the things that don’t make sense. When there is none, we get angry, and then scared.

He was scared. He was scared that the most powerful country in the world was brought to its knees by a small group of individuals with different ideologies. He was scared that it could happen to him, to his beloved country, just the same.

But the most frightening thing he was afraid of was that no one knows who is right and who is wrong. He was scared that he was a contributor to other people’s tragedies, that he wasn’t doing enough for them. That is what religion does for some people. It gives them hope. It gives them a purpose and a reason to live. Religious people are firm in their stances, they take a side and don’t falter. They may be wrong, but they won’t know it until they are long dead.

Although he had other problems with religion to hold him back from converting, this epiphany did change his outlook on his life. After that night, he saved up for a year to take a sabbatical. He went all around the world, helping and learning, teaching and observing. He met many people on his trip, learned of many different religions, cultures and morals.

He was finishing up his years long sabbatical in the United States. Coming full circle around the world, he wanted to end with a visit to the site of the attacks. He had never seen the World Trade Center in person, but as he stood where they used to be, he imagined towering and majestic entities that stood tall and effortless. He imagined the veins of the WTC, the offices and hallways, filled with the blood that provided life to those buildings, the many different people that worked there.

An older man walked up to him and asked if he knew anybody in the attacks. The older man’s son was a security guard for the WTC. He died in the attacks. They never found his body. After conversing for a bit, the older man had to take his leave. The guest professor asked him one last question: How did he feel about the attacks now? The older man just smiled and told him that he had accepted it, and that it was the greatest feeling in the world when he finally did.

The guest professor thanked us and left. I went home afterwards. I sat at my computer and felt empty. Everything he had said resonated with me even though I didn’t want it to. I wanted to go away, I wanted to say my goodbyes. I wanted to leave and for people to remember me in a good way before I did something bad.

But I didn’t feel like that anymore. The germs of an internal revolution were sparked in me. I started on my current path towards enlightenment. I’m still achieving it, and will do so till I perish. That is what 9/11 did for me.

* * * * *

Through terror, we achieve acceptance of terror, and once we accept terror internally we can then start to balance the internal with happiness.

 

The Jungle District

The small room was muggy. A slight pine smell drifted in the air. City Hall’s air conditioning system was malfunctioning, so everyone was moved around to accommodate for the repairs. Two windows were cracked open to let out the summer heat. Water, coffee and donuts were available in the hall just outside the room. An American flag hung from its pole in the corner, slightly waving with each warm breeze that careened across it. An oak podium stood at the head of the room facing the double doors on the opposite side. Next to the podium was a plush executive’s chair. To the right of the chair were ten stackable chairs arranged in two rows of five facing the double doors. The rest of the room was filled with stackable chairs in rows facing the podium.

The vice chair of the planning commision, Dori, was the first to enter the room. She had a cup of water in her hand. She took her place in the executive’s chair and kept looking at her watch. There was an important dinner she had to attend to after the meeting. The hot room irked her.

The other planning commision members slowly filed in one at a time. They each took their seats in the designated area set aside for them beside the podium. Some had water, some coffee, none had donuts. The clock on the wall above the doors read 3:32 p.m. One of the members said to another that he was only obligated to wait until three forty-five, after that he was leaving. The other member said that in any case, even if the meeting commences, they were only supposed to stay till four thirty at the latest. They both looked at the clock again and sighed.

The clock now read 3:34 p.m. A third member questioned Dori if she knew where Norman, the planning commision chair, was. Dori said she did not know.

Norman walked in a couple minutes later. He was holding a donut and a cup of coffee. After placing his things down near the podium, he finished his donut and coffee and started talking with the members that were in attendance. The phone on the wall behind them started to ring. Dori got up and answered it. After hanging up, she informed everyone that two members were not able to make it tonight, so it would just be eight members and the two chairs. One of the members grumbled about having better places to be. The two clock-watching members from before looked at the clock again. It read 3:41 p.m. They looked at each other wistfully.

Norman looked at the clock and saw that he had enough time to go out and grab another donut and coffee. He left the room and came back in with two donuts, a cup of coffee, and a person no one else had seen before. The clock read 3:44 p.m.

Norman motioned to Dori. “That is Dori, the vice chair. They over there are the members. That’s all who will be here today, including myself of course. Two members are out. Dori, this is Paula. She is the person who will be speaking to us today. She said she had others with her as well. They are on the way.”

Dori stood up to shake Paula’s hand. The two clock-watching members shook their heads in unison. The second one whispered four-thirty to the first one, making him smile a little. Paula shook Dori’s hand and then waved to the members. Two of them waved back, the others were busy on their phones. Paula sat down in a chair in the second row facing the podium.

Dori sat back down. “Well Paula, the meeting starts at three forty-five and ends at four thirty, so you may want to start so you can say all that you want to. The other people you have coming in can speak when they arrive, granted it is before four thirty.”

Paula nodded and stood up. The members took out their notepads and pencils. Dori sat up, and Norman took his place behind the podium. He asked for attention before starting.

Norman laid out the general schedule for the meeting. He said Paula would state her position and then he would ask clarifying questions. Then the members would ask questions if they had any, and Paula would answer those as well. After that, Dori would restate everything, make sure everyone is okay with what she had summarized, and then they would adjourn. The next day Dori would submit the paperwork to the city clerk, who would then pass it along to the city council for discussion.

As Norman finished, a family of three came into the room quietly. Paula smiled and waved the family over to sit near her. The mother looked to be in her 50s. She had a red shirt on that was too big for her. She was overweight and her pants were light green capris. Her hair was put in a ponytail. When she smiled back at Paula, the others in the room noticed most of her teeth were missing.

The father looked younger than the mother. His eyes sagged and the bags under them were noticeable. He had tattoos on his neck and hands. Dori was sure he probably had them all over his body except that he had on long sleeves and pants so she couldn’t tell. His shirt was a faded black long sleeve shirt with pleats on the back. It looked like a piece of a tuxedo ensemble. His pants were over-sized khakis held on by a leather belt. He had on clean Nike Cortez’s. His head was shaved and he had a goatee. He was shorter in height than the mother.

Their little girl hid behind the father. She wore a dress with sunflowers printed on it. Her hair was neatly combed and held up with a sunflower hairpin. Her stockings were a beautiful white, and her shoes were clean, white and pointed with a little strap on top. The half-Mexican half-Caucasian girl had a smudge of chocolate on her cheek. The mother wiped it off with her finger when she noticed it.

Norman waved to the little girl. She retreated further behind her father’s leg. The father told her she should wave back. She lifted her hand waist-high and gave Norman a slight wave of her fingers. The family sat down in the row behind Paula.

“Is this all who is coming today Paula?” Norman asked.

“Yes it is.”

“May we have their names?”

“This is Jeannie, this is Albert, and this cute little girl is Michelle. They will be speaking a bit later as they are much more involved with the situation than me.”

“And just to clarify…This situation you speak of is about redistricting the city, correct? There are many different commissions so I want to make sure you don’t waste your time today. This isn’t about any kind of government assistance or anything like that?”

“The only assistance we need from you is to hear us out and consider our request.”

“Okay, you may proceed.”

Paula got a folder out from her bag and walked up to the members. She handed out photos to pass around. Paula then addressed the members and Dori and Norman.

“Where do you think these photos were taken? No idea? If I were making a blind guess, it wouldn’t be unthinkable to name any number of third world countries.”

The photos showed tall trees and plants adjacent to creeks and dirt trails. Among the trees were what looked to be tents, huts, and makeshift houses. Many people were shown living in these houses. Dogs could be seen as well. One photo showed an asian man cooking on a grill over a metal oil pan. He looked to be cooking corn and some kind of meat. Another photo was of children wading in the dirty creek. Trash was everywhere in all the photos.

“Look at this photo. A trench dug out for shelter from the elements. Slats of corrugated metal line the inner walls. If you look closely, you can see a thin line just before the opening to the house. That’s a booby-trap trigger. If someone tripped it, a small explosion made possible by household products would go off, sending nails and screws flying in all directions. For all intents and purposes, I could tell someone that this photo was taken in 1969 in the heart of Vietnam during the war and they would most likely believe me. The truth is that it was taken two weeks ago right here in the city that you all live in. It is a place locals call The Jungle.”

Paula walked back to her bag. “The family behind me are members of this community.”

Paula looked back at the clock. It read 3:58 p.m. “I am short on time so I will just give you a brief history of them. Jeannie has been homeless since she ran away from an abusive family at the age of 16. She is 34 now. Al has been in and out of jail and The Jungle since he was 13. He is 33. Michelle was born in The Jungle, in the very booby-trapped house you see in that photo. When Jeannie was giving birth to Michelle, a neighbor had run out to a convenience store just a block away to call 911 for an ambulance. The paramedics showed up 47 minutes later. Michelle was delivered thanks to the citizens of The Jungle, particularly an ex-Army medic that goes by the name Doc.”

Paula looked back at Jeannie and whispered to her. Jeannie then whispered to Michelle, who got up and walked over to Paula. “Michelle, tell the nice people here how old you are.”

“Four.”

“Four years old. And tell them how long you have lived in The Jungle.”

“All the time.”

“Great. Now I want you to think really hard, okay? Tell them how you feel about where you live. Take your time.”

Michelle looked at Paula and shook her head. Paula knelt down beside her and hugged her, whispering into her ear. Michelle looked down at the ground, sniffling. A tear started to stream down her cheek.

“You don’t have to talk if you don’t want to mija.”

Michelle looked up at Norman, who was finishing his second donut. She then looked at Dori, who averted her eyes down to her laptop. She then looked back at her dad, who smiled and held up a fist. Michelle spoke up.

“It’s hard.”

“What do you mean it’s hard?”

“It’s hard when mama and papa aren’t there.”

“Where do they go?”

“To get food.”

“Are you alone when they go to get food?”

“No, Joe is there.”

“Who is Joe?”

“My friend. He watches me when mama and papa have to leave.”

“Do you like living in The Jungle?”

“Sometimes.”

“What do you like about it?”

“I like that everyone is nice. No one is mean like when we have to leave.”

“Leave? You mean out of The Jungle?”

“Yeah.”

“How are people mean to you out of The Jungle?”

“They yell at mama and papa. They make us sleep in different places.”

“Like at the shelters? Or outside?”

“In the buildings with the beds.”

“What don’t you like about The Jungle?”

“It’s cold a lot.”

“It’s hot today though, huh?”

“Yeah.”

“Anything else?”

“No.”

Paula thanked Michelle and gave her another hug. She turned to the planning commision.

“We are not seeking government assistance. The people in The Jungle deserve more than that. A few measly handouts and putting them in some housing program that is so strict they are destined to be homeless again is not assistance. No, what these people need is a voice and legal rights so that they can reap the same benefits as everyone else in this city. That is why we are here, to ask that the city council consider adding a new district, District 11, and making it primarily in the vicinity of The Jungle and various other encampments that are close to it. If not that, then at the very least we are asking to redistrict the city in order to include The Jungle as a legitimate neighborhood with addresses.

“Many of these people work. They do their taxes. Yet they still cannot afford to live in this city. All we are asking for is legal rights and a chance to vote. They have no home outside of The Jungle.”

Paula sat down. Norman looked at Dori, who was typing notes on her laptop. He put his coffee down. “Thank you Paula. So to clarify—you are looking to create a brand new district or incorporate this area into an existing district?”

“Yes sir, that is what the residents of The Jungle have asked for,” answered Paula.

“Fine. Before we pass this on to the city council, I must let you know some things about redistricting. One, the ten current districts, while varying in physical size, are all roughly the same in population size. That is what keeps the city fairly divided. That is also why you getting your own district would not be an option, unless you have somewhere over 90,000 people living in this jungle of yours.”

“No sir, there’s not that many people. But there are 247 families as of two weeks ago.”

“Ok, so then your second request. We can request redistricting, but you must know that the area of The Jungle is not zoned for residential and so it would never be recognized as a viable neighborhood. Looking at the pictures you brought, I don’t think it will ever be zoned as such either.”

“If we can be given the requirements for the zoning that would be great.”

“I will get that for you before you go,” said Dori.

“Thank you,” said Paula.

“One last question, then I will turn it over to the members. What exactly do you plan to do if you were somehow given what you asked for?” asked Norman.

“I will let Al answer this one. He has been a large factor for this movement,” said Paula.

Albert stood up and nodded to Paula. He was holding on to his notes, and his hands were slightly shaking as he addressed the planning commission.

“Hello, my name is Albert. I have talked to Paula and her team for a while now about this dream of mine. If given the opportunity to make The Jungle a legitimate neighborhood, we would then be able to ask for help from the city for things like garbage services and police patrol. This would make our neighborhood safer and cleaner. As a former carpenter, I would help my neighbors build more sturdy homes. The most important thing though would be that The Jungle would be a place for people that need a place to stay and get back on their feet without being harassed by the Housing Authority or the sheriff or anyone else that doesn’t like our lifestyle. The Jungle would be a safe haven for people of all colors and backgrounds. Thank you for your time.”

“Thank you Albert. Dori do you have anything to ask?” asked Norman.

“No, let’s move on to the members.”

“Any members that have questions or need any clarifying statements please stand up.”

Two members stood up. The first, a man in the front, was quick to stand. The other was an older woman that seemed to be debating whether to stand or not. Norman pointed to the man. “Go ahead Miguel.”

Miguel turned toward Paula and the family. “Good afternoon. I have one question. What do you mean you don’t want help? I mean, my brother-in-law works for a non-profit agency that helps place homeless people in homes. He is very happy in his work. He says he helps many people. We both came from the Philippines, so we know what it is like to live in poverty. How is this direction you are taking any better for the people in The Jungle than help from non-profits?”

Jeannie raised her hand. Paula told her to go ahead and answer.

“Lemme tell ya somethin. I’ve been in the system since god-knows-when. Lord knows I woulda done myself in if Al didn’t come along when he did. I been beaten, stabbed, raped…jesus, everything. I’m a recovering addict. And guess what? All of this was before I found The Jungle. Also guess what. Those nonprofits have always been around. But you know what? Give a man a fish. That’s what they do. We want to learn to catch our own you know? The Jungle isn’t perfect, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t home. No one bugs us. No one hates us. We can be invisible in peace. Hell, I didn’t even want to do all of this here legal stuff. I told Al to just drop it, lets live comfortable. He said he had to do this. Don’t know why, but he a smart man. Loving too. So I’ll back him. But to you sir, keep your help, all it does is make the crazies down there mad with envy. That’s what the booby traps is for.”

Albert stood up. “If I may sir, thank you for your question. My wife is correct. The help your brother-in-law provides is a nice gesture, but it will never be enough. We are smart people and can do well for ourselves if given the rights we ask for. We can’t help ourselves if you make us leave The Jungle though. We get spread out, people lose touch. It’s the main reason why we want to keep our community together.”

One of the clock-watching members stood up.

“I’m sorry but what the hell are you talking about? You’re so smart, yet you’re living in the damn gutter! You gave birth to a kid in one of the filthiest places I have ever seen. These non-profits want to help y’all out, but you refuse? C’mon, get a grip dude. The Jungle is just a bunch of people that fell through the cracks and now are holed up together in one place. It’s a black mark on the city. Now you have the audacity to come and ask to be recognized as a legitimate neighborhood? Psh, I’m sorry, but nah. Nah.”

Albert and Jeannie sat down. Miguel glared at Josh, the member who stood up. Norman asked Josh to sit down and wait his turn if he had questions or comments. He then asked Miguel if he had further questions. Miguel said no and sat down. Paula raised her hand. Norman told her to go ahead.

“I’m glad you brought this up sir. It has been brought up every time we have come and asked for help. We don’t have much time, so I will keep the answer short.

“You are right. These people fell through the cracks. Of course not everyone down at The Jungle is perfect, nor a saint. Neither are people anywhere though. Many of them are immigrants or children of immigrants. Many are a reflection on the education system. And then there are some who actually owned businesses, did well in life, but either lost their business and couldn’t recoup the losses or realized that they weren’t truly free in the society that you and I live in.

“Overall, the problem, hard as it may seem, is segregation. You look at the city and divide it by economic brackets. You will notice that more affluent areas tend to be populated by the caucasian population and the poor areas are filled with minorities. When a city is divided that much, it is hard for the poor areas to get better because they don’t get the support they need. Poor areas foster poor schools, which foster uneducated children, which foster crime and poverty, etc. You get the idea.

“What these residents want to do is not just up and leave the problem, but meet it head on and improve the area. Al is trying to change the culture of the ghetto mindset. It may be a moot fight, but it’s admirable.”

Josh grumbled. Norman then asked the old lady, Grace, for her question.

“Hello my dears. I just wanted to apologize for the terrible realities you have had to face in your lives. I wholeheartedly believe in your cause. My son is the mayor. I will be telling him what was discussed today. I cannot believe I have never heard of this jungle. My question is Where is it located exactly? I would like to help as much as possible.”

“The Jungle is located right near Happy Hollow Park, under the freeway overpass and it extends to about an acre in size, roughly following the trail and creek. No one bothers the residents there because it is well hidden, but more importantly, the residents keep to themselves. Since the police do not go down there, they have there own policing system, and it works. Mostly, they just accept everyone though. No discrimination goes a long way.”

Grace thanked Paula for the answer and sat down. Paula looked at Norman. “Sir, I would like to make a closing statement.”

“Go ahead. You have five minutes. Then Dori will read the statement that she will submit to the city council. Then we can all go home.”

“Thank you. To date, we have explored many different avenues of help, all resulting in dead ends. I cannot believe, as Grace just said, that people who live here in one of the most economically rich cities of the country have no idea that the largest homeless encampment in America is just 11 miles down the freeway from Apple, the most profitable company in America. The encampment is next door to Wal-Mart, the world’s largest public corporation.

“These people are just looking for some simple rights, some semblance that they are a part of this society still. Most of them weren’t born in The Jungle like Michelle, but they choose to stay there now because it’s a place where they can feel like humans again. To be acknowledged is sometimes all a person wants. It’s certainly all the residents of The Jungle are asking for.” Paula sat down.

The clock read 4:31 p.m. Norman asked Dori to read what she will submit to the city council.

Dori stood up. “I just want to say thank you for bringing this issue to light here today. Whatever the outcome is, we hope you feel you were served justly and given fair representation from this commision. After I read the statement everyone is free to leave. I will now read the statement that will be given to city council:

“One, Paula Dominguez, on behalf of Jeannie Martinez, Albert Martinez and Michelle Martinez, have requested the city council to look into two potential redistricting proposals. The first is to create a new district that comprises the area and boundary of Story Road, Coyote Creek, 101 North and 280 South, also known as ‘The Jungle.’ The other proposal is to redistrict the city in order to include this area into a current district. They feel if this proposal passes that they will be able to help the current residents of this area.”

Dori sat down and looked at Norman. Norman asked if there was anything incorrect in the statement. Paula shot up from her chair, but Albert patted her on the shoulder before she could speak. Paula looked at Albert and then at Michelle. She grabbed her bag and started to leave the room without saying anything.

Albert grabbed Jeannie and Michelle’s hands.

“Everything was correct sir. Thank you for your time.”

Scholarship Contest Finalist

I was recently selected as a finalist for a scholarship. The way it works is through votes that the submission accrues. If anyone out there that actually reads this blog and has extra time, I would appreciate you voting for my submission to help me out. Thank you all, and may the force be with you.

http://www.diplomaframe.com/contests/frame-my-future-scholarship-contest-2014/details.aspx?entryID=66066

Vicious Cycle

If you want to know happiness, you have to be willing to know pain. That’s all that makes sense in this world, pain. It drives and motivates and goes on and on and on. Until it ends, of course. There’s no escaping pain. People run and hide from it; do they not realize it is just waiting to devour, that it is unavoidable?

I learned that the hard way. I continue to learn it. I will never learn. Learn, never.

The most tolerant people you meet have experienced the greatest amount of misery. People who whine and moan about the most mundane things in life are those that have never experienced real pain. They will, but they haven’t, yet. Someone that has endured and survived a holocaust doesn’t complain about a wrong order at the fast food restaurant.

My life has been so hard, the pain so real. I need to learn to trust my own words.

The cost of happiness is pain. That’s what war is: pain for happiness. Suffering for comfort. Everyone endures their own personal war, and people need to realize that none suffers greater than anyone else.

God, how I have learned this. I know already. I can’t help it. Why am I here? Because, you’re losing the war.

If this all sounds so bleak, just remember that it is a truth that has been in existence since the beginning. Abel pursued his happiness, as did Cain. The person that can accept the pain as a fact is a person who can then experience happiness. To experience happiness is to be human.

This IV is killing me. These pills are killing me. This bed is killing me. This world is killing me.

What you need to realize, son, is that I will not be here for very long. You need to move on, before it’s too late. You need to accept the pain as fact; but to more importantly move the hell on. How can you be happy when you trap yourself in a self-induced prison? Trust me, I’ve been trapped in my own god-forsaken prison since childhood. It’s a life of raw rending insanity. Trust me.

You fucking hypocrite. Do you think just saying the words will save your ass now? Your son is as pathetic as you are; actually, more so. Quit it with the pain and happiness bullshit, he’s not even listening anymore. You sure as shit don’t believe it.

Are you hearing me, son? Do you understand me? I fight internally, hourly, and I have avoided the pain for so long. I’m ready to be happy. I want to be happy. Nothing will make me happier than knowing you will be ok. I want the pain. The real pain, not the fake pain I do to myself, but the truthful pain. Please, son, take my hand.

Just stop! Stop stop stop!

Don’t be scared Mijo, I have not been more at peace then I am now. I think I deserve the happiness, don’t you? Please, don’t cry.

Look at him, he is so distraught. Do you want to do that to him? Come back, you don’t deserve it, and you know it. Think of all the horrible things you have done. Why should you get to dwell in happiness? Just come back, get better, and we’ll escape the pain for a bit more longer.

Ok.

Shrek and Christmas, A Story

As I sit here, another Christmas day upon the world, I can’t help but think back to the day Shrek 2 helped teach me the true meaning of Christmas.

Growing up, Christmas was pretty much summed up best by the greatest holiday movie of all time. A Christmas Story epitomizes what Christmas means to kids, but that movie is so much more than just the tale of Ralphie. It is a tale of the meaning of Christmas throughout one’s life.

As a small child, like Randy, Christmas is so much more than just a singular gift. Consumerism hasn’t quite taken a hold on a small child. They are happy to just be where they are, in the moment, getting whatever gifts they get, excited to see Santa just because.

Growing up, we become like Ralphie, letting marketing schemes pollute our minds, turning manic and ravenous in our lust for toys.

Then you have the Old Man. The dad, like many adults, is occupied with the world throughout the movie. Christmas is just another day that he has to take time out for. Gifts really don’t mean much anymore at all; instead, a can of Simoniz is just as swell. He was once a child though, so he thankfully hasn’t forgotten what is important to children like Ralphie. So he gets Ralphie a Red Ryder BB gun, thus completing the cycle of life.

There is no confirmation email, no indicator light to tell you that you have gone from “Ralphie” to “The Old Man.” It sort of just happens. One day, it truly does feel much better to give than to receive.


It was the holiday season of 2004, and working at Hollywood Video, we were quite busy. We always ran deals on previously viewed DVDs: 2 for $20, 3 for $25, etc. The rentals were flying off the shelves as well; movie companies loved to release their home media around the holiday season to maximize profits.

This time of year always brought out the grinch in my coworkers and me. Kids running around; the store a mess more than usual; people stressed because they have family over, they’re broke, they’re tired, and here is this teenage kid telling them that they owe late fees. These people always made work laborious.

The hot movies were usually major blockbusters and, especially, children’s movies. Shrek 2 was the hot movie this holiday season, and as such, was always out of stock. Customers would get legitimately angry if we didn’t have something in stock. “My kid has been waiting forever for that damn movie! Isn’t there anything you can do for me?!” (“Sure, let me wave my Hollywood Video magic wand and conjure up your DVD for you, one sec.”)

The worst was always the customer who swore we had some in stock “in the back,” as if we were hiding the movies from the customer for our own devious reasons, rubbing our hands together when the customer walks out defeated, laughing a menacing laugh that only true evil incarnate could laugh. It’s like they believed, truly believed, that we wanted to hear them bitch and moan.

It was Christmas Eve, and I was working the morning shift. I had requested to work the day on Christmas Eve, and the night, if need be, Christmas Day, since that worked with my schedule. Hollywood Video was ahead of its time in being open for 365 days; a true capitalist pioneer.

At least at our store, it seemed the customers came in waves rather than a consistent stream. After the morning rush, there was a lull around noon. My manager had excused herself to go get some lunch – probably some meal from Carl’s Jr., with a side of extra chicken tenders. Such a perfect meal for someone who was a recent recipient of the famous lap band surgery. The next worker would be coming in around 1 p.m. or so, probably so my manager could leave earlier than her time on the schedule.

As I’m leaning against the middle counter, watching A Charlie Brown Christmas on the TV above, a man comes into the store. I had never seen him before. When you work at a local joint, like the local video store, you tend to remember faces more easily.

I smile his way, a little wave, just a quick acknowledgment of his existence. He smiles back and heads over.

“Hey, uh, was wonderin’ if you got any Shreks left?”

“Sorry man, all out. I can call the other stores if you would like?”

“Oh, uh, none huh? None in the back room there?”

He let out a quick little chuckle with that last question. I wasn’t amused. Still, I told him to wait one second while I check. I didn’t always do that for customers. I mean, what’s the point? I knew there wasn’t any back there. This guy seemed nice though, innocent. Besides, no one else was in the store.

Rummaging through the boxes on the floor really quick, I predictably didn’t find any Shreks. Ready to head back out to bear the bad news, I saw something out of the corner of my eye.

There was shelving in the back where we kept all of the concessions. Often times, we would hide stuff there that we wanted to potentially buy later. I noticed that a box of Dots candy had been torn open. No one ever bought Dots, so this stood out to me. I looked in the box, and, not unlike the scene in Pulp Fiction where Vincent Vega looks in the briefcase in Brett’s apartment, a glowing luminescence filled my face with the glory of a pristine copy of Shrek 2.

I didn’t even think about the possibility that I was potentially about to offer one of my coworkers’ hidden stash, I was just so excited to be able to give this guy good news. I burst out of the room and exclaimed that we did, in fact, have one in the back. His face swelled.

“Is that a new copy?”

“Umm, yeah? It’s a new copy of Shrek 2, never opened. These are hard to get right now! I would suggest grabbing it, it won’t last, I can guarantee that.”

At this point, a couple came in with their kid in tow. They looked exactly like the type to want to steal this guy’s copy of Shrek 2. The dad made his way over.

“Excuse me, would you by any chance have Shrek 2 in stock? Previously viewed or new, it doesn’t matter.”

I looked nervously at the first guy. His head hung low as if he was witnessing the decimation of his kid right there at my hands.

“Sorry, we are all out.”

“Ah shit, really? My little girl has been crying about that fuckin’ movie for weeks now. I figured I’d get it for her for Christmas, and just forgot. I’ve checked all over this side of town, you gotta help me here.”

I noticed the first guy had started to stealthily make his way out of the store. I called out to him to wait one second, until I was done with the other guy. He looked weak, but stood by the drop box.

“Again, sorry. I just checked in the back a little bit ago, and there were none. I can see if we have one in the drop box?”

“How the hell is that going to help me? Babe! Babe, c’mon let’s go! They don’t have it!”

“What! Sonofabitch!”

The lady was rummaging through our previously viewed movies table, making a mess, trying in vain to locate the movie they knew was not there. The couple stormed out with their kid trailing behind. The kid looked at me like she was just happy she wasn’t the one that had got yelled at that time. I then noticed my manager’s car parking outside; she went somewhere else.

“Hey, sorry about that. I didn’t want to give your copy away to them. Why didn’t you want it?”

“Well…I never buy new movies. Too expensive man. Your store’s dope ’cause you have good deals on older movies. It’s okay bro, thanks for lookin’ out.”

Here was a person who had never bought a new movie due to economic reasons. Then, I thought about how cool it would be for that person to get a new movie, the first one ever, and give it to their kid. This had to happen.

“Look, I’ll be honest, the previously viewed Shrek 2’s probably won’t go on sale for a bit since it just came out. Tell you what: You come back tomorrow after 5 p.m.; I work again tomorrow. I can’t do it now, because my boss is coming back. But, come back, and I’ll sell you this movie as part of the deal we have going on for the older movies.”

“Really? Thanks bro. I may not have time to come in though. Is it ok to come in a little after 6?”

“Sure thing man, I work all night!”

With that, he extended his fist for a brotherly bump, and I obliged. I then hid the movie under a stack of other movies under the till. Before leaving for the day, I snuck the movie to the employee bathroom/stockroom/junk closet, and hid it amongst the debris.

It was Christmas Day, and upon arriving at work I was in good cheer. The night before was another fun night with my immediate family, and the day that was just passing was a nice day amongst my Mom’s side of the family. I had forgotten about the deal I made with the Shrek guy, but sure enough, sometime around 6:30 p.m. or so, he came in.

Christmas was always strange to me when working at Hollywood. It got packed, and we always wondered why people were at a Hollywood Video rather than with family celebrating Christmas. I guess it never dawned on us to ask why we were at a Hollywood Video as well (holiday pay, obviously).

I was out on the floor when I felt the timid tap on my shoulder.

“Hey bro, I’m here.”

“Oh, hey! One sec, ok?”

I raced over to get the key for the stockroom, then started over to get the goods. Along the way a woman asked me: “Do you have anymore Shreks?” “No, sorry.” “Are you sure?” sigh “Yes.” I got to the door, and put the key in. That same lady had followed me. “Oh, is that the back room? Is there any Shreks in there?” I wanted to say, “Actually, there is a Shrek in here! And you aren’t getting it! Wooooo!” I just said no, went in, shut the door, and grabbed the movie.

I didn’t know if that lady was out there, waiting for me, waiting to see if I did indeed get the movie, as if she knew somehow that this guy’s copy of Shrek 2 was in there. I peeked out; the coast was clear. I started walking over to the guy, who was perusing the previously viewed movies. It was then that I realized he had brought his daughter with him. Surely the movie was for her, and I couldn’t spoil the surprise, so I snuck over to the counter.

The line was getting pretty big at that point, so I called out to him, and told him to just get in line when he was ready. After wading through customer after customer, the Shrek guy came up.

“So, did you pick out another movie as well?”

“Yeah, figured I’d go with Bad Boys 2, haven’t seen that one yet.”

“Good choice, that was a funny movie. Good action too. I noticed your daughter. Is that who the movie is for?”

“Yeah man, my princess. She was down with the first one. I took her to see this one and now she just wants to have the DVD, ya know? I liked it too.”

After ringing him up, adjusting the pricing in the computer so that it would be about the same as a 2 for $20 deal, and putting the movies in the bag, his daughter came up.

“Daddy, are you done? Can we go home and open presents now?”

“Yes baby, but first we have to go to your mom’s house. She has presents for you too.”

“Aw, I don’t wanna go to Judy’s house! I just wanna go home!”

“Listen, we will be home later, ok? You have to go to your mom’s, you know that.”

I walked them over to the side of the store, past the theft detectors, and handed him his movies.

“Hey bro, thanks again. You have no idea how much this means to me and my girl. Now to go deal with my ex….”

That last statement was filled with an exhaustion only people that have to deal with ex’s can understand. I bade him farewell, and got back to work.

Later that night, I couldn’t help but wonder how Shrek guy’s daughter reacted to opening her gift to see a brand new, not previously owned, Shrek 2 DVD. I like to imagine that the Shrek guy fooled her a bit, put the Bad Boys 2 DVD on top of the Shrek 2 DVD, wrapped it up, and gave it to her. She tore open the gift, was puzzled and a little disappointed at the DVD that lay in her hands, then, realizing there was another underneath, exposed the brand new DVD of the movie she loved more than the whole world, hugged her daddy, begged to put the movie on, and fell asleep half way through from all the hubbub of the day.

Either way, I couldn’t help but realize that the best part of my Christmas in 2004 was when I was able to do something for someone else. Ever since then, I have been so much more pleased giving than receiving.

Santa doesn’t die, he doesn’t ever go away; he lives in all of us. We are taught how to be Santa, and when the time comes, we take up the mantle. That’s what the true meaning of Christmas is.