I had a lovely visit, not so long ago, with a new friend here in Vallejo. I found her conversation to be both cogent and delightful. The gin and tonics she prepared, not your garden variety. No, it seems that I fell in to the hands of a self-taught expert of sorts, and her cocktails helped sort out a few things for me. Our conversation naturally fell upon those things we have in common, none more than this lovely town we live in. I use the word town specifically because we both agreed that living here feels more and more like a town and less like a formal city. Not to say that our City is not being professionally run, since I have no details to suggest otherwise. No, it is just that . . . For example, every morning I can be found walking my dogs. Being a quiet person I tend not to emotionally venture beyond the neighbors on my street when, well, being neighborly. But I have noticed, when out walking, that when I kindly wave at others who are either walking or driving I often receive an unexpected warm reply. We may not have formally me but we are neighbors and we greet each other as such. This, by my definition, happens in a town. Less so in a city.
I am going to stop here and tell you that you may find the tone of this piece different from the others I have written. Something disturbing happened recently in Our Town and I just cannot seem to shake it. I find that I need your help to process this event, and I apologize if you find the following uncomfortable or too weighty to bear with your morning coffee.
Let me back up and explain my thinking so that you more readily understand my current state. Life was great in Vallejo when the Navy was here. Lots of money, lots of people spending money and the rising economic tide lifted all boats. We were a working town. Work happened here. Dirty work, with factories and trains and lots of things the Navy never told us about. Vallejo made money. But Vallejo got used and sometimes abused. Then the Navy left us, like an old mistress with a tarnished reputation, who had given her all, with barely a thank you. The city went quiet, the tide receded and our reputation began to spoil leaving this threadbare mistress on her virtual knees begging to be rebuilt only to be rebuffed again and again.
Recently a company has come to town looking to build a factory. I must tell you that when I initially heard the news I reached out to the architecture firm charged with the planning and development of the project an dplaced my company’s name in the hat for construction work. I did not know then what I know now. I did not know about the campaign contributions. I did not know about the large mounds of slag to be left uncovered. I did not know about the emissions from ships and trucks and smokestacks. I did not know about the noise, and I certainly did not know that the wind would blow all of these things over and into the lives of our most vulnerable neighbors. It feels like that company came to Vallejo expecting a mistress with a certain reputation. But something had changed.
This mistress has decided to stand up. So many of our neighbors have stood up and spoken their minds, at Planning and City Councils meetings, pointing out these and many more potential impacts to our community. Even though the majority of us would not be effected in any substantial way, Our Town came together to speak up and help those who have traditionally been put upon. Now most of you know my long history with V-Town, if not please take time to read my first article. I became a full time citizen 16 years ago, and well, kept to myself. It was not until I began reading and hearing about our brave neighbors, each lifting just a little weight to help us all, that the notion of Vallejo being a Town began to form in my consciousness. A town where neighbors are warm, and wave, and look out for each other. It was these neighbors who convinced me that I must find my own way to be a Good Neighbor.
But as I said earlier, I came across something this week in the Times Herald, that disturbed me so that I cannot seem to shake it, and it happened to two of our neighbors. A woman named Starla and her friend Jay were sleeping when they were attacked by a man wielding a machete. Jay’s leg was severely injured as was Starla’s arm. They were both injured so badly that each may end up losing their limbs. The police came, they found the man responsible and provided emergency care until the ambulances arrived to spirit Starla and Jay to the hospital. The story does not end here I am afraid. You see our neighbors, Jay and Starla, do not have a permanent address. This happened while they were sleeping in their tent trying to stay warm and dry, just like you and me. Listen please, I understand the discussion that we are having as a community with regards to our neighbors who live on the rough. It is a hard life undertaken by some of our most vulnerable citizens, and I have few if any answers as to why this life is the one they are living. I know what it feels like to live in a neighborhood with tented neighbors and I openly, and embarrassingly, admit to a slight bias and discomfort around this topic. But today, I refuse to look away.
On the many days that I commute into Berkeley and Oakland I am often met at the off ramps of I-80 by threadbare mistresses, literally, begging only to be rebuffed again and again. The saying, “But for the grace of God go I,” runs through my head so many times throughout the day that I committed to having it tattooed on my forearm so that I would see it in the mirror every morning when I wake, and every evening before I lay down to sleep. You see, I live in Vallejo, it is where I can afford to live. I work with my hands and make enough money to feed, and clothe, and house myself with just a little left over. I am forever cognizant of the fact that I could be only one bad accident away from having to live . . . without a permanent address. (In truth I have a support structure that would probably never let that happen if anything so severe happened to me. Starla and Jay obviously do not.) Yet the thought still haunts me.
This factory company that wishes to come to our town will do so by taking advantage of our most vulnerable neighbors. Starla is a woman of color, without a permanent home or means of self-support, statistically making her the most vulnerable of our citizens, and now she needs a prosthetic arm. I am now going to ask you to do something that I have no right to ask. I am going to ask you stand up on more time and help one of our neighbors. A friend of Starla has established a GoFundMe page to help with her recovery and medical costs and to buy her a new arm. This morning I donated to her site and I am asking you my neighbors to help me help our neighbor by donating however much you can for her recovery.
www.gofundme.com/2nu6e5qs, “Vallejo Woman Assault Recovery Fund.”
My relationship with God is a personal one. One that I do not speak of much or at all. I was humiliated and ashamed at the hypocrisy I discovered in the behavior of the church leaders where I learned my first lessons on humanity. Thankfully it was not an entirely wasted experience. I took away a few key lessons which have become touchstones in my quest to be a better human being. Today I am choosing to be vulnerable with you and share an important saying that helps to guide me when I am confronted with my inner bias and discomfort.
I am my brother’s keeper.