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Thanksgiving Dinner in the Park

November 28, 2004

Trees are everywhere and seem greener here than in most places and the air is fresh and clean. It doesn't matter that Los Angeles has the dirtiest air in the nation. Fifteen miles north, in Pasadena, the air is clean and the trees caress you. The moment you enter town, you can feel the beauty as much as see it. This is indeed such an enchanting place that the railroad Huntingtons, and the Chandlers of The L.A. Times, and the Pattons of young George, Jr., and directors from Standard Oil, and many others built their primary residences here.

With these privileged people came not merely a commitment to wealth and power but to culture and education. The Huntington Museum offers art treasures from both Old Europe and New America, and the Norton Simon Museum showcases a collection, anchored by Rubens and Van Gogh, superior to any acquired since World War II. Nearby is the former capital of live theater in the West, The Pasadena Playhouse, still a major venue. Also in the neighborhood is that powerhouse of scientific endeavor, Caltech. Go a little way on the other side of Old Town, the new district of stylish restaurants, shops, and galleries, and you will come upon the Rose Bowl, the Granddaddy of all big-game stadiums. And, of course, rolling through the heart of Pasadena is Colorado Boulevard, primary route of the robust Rose Bowl Parade.

A couple of blocks south of Colorado Boulevard, in an area of pretty brick and stucco offices and stores, rests Central Park. There are lots of trees in the park, and on this day there were more than two thousand people here. They'd come to eat Thanksgiving dinner, though lunch would've been a more appropriate designation since the feast was scheduled for eleven-thirty. As I examined the food stacked on long tables forming a rectangle, I was reminded of an older Patton, the one in a uniform adorned by two pearl-handle revolvers. Prior to battle, he'd have appreciated such a precise and thorough buildup of supplies. Bearing handwritten labels on plastic or aluminum covers, all the sweet potatoes were huddled together, and so were the casseroles and beans and green beans and carrots and corn and mashed potatoes and pasta, and turning left the green salads and fruit salads and cranberry sauce and potatoes and hash browns, and turning left again the pies and cakes and cupcakes and cookies and brownies, and left again, soldier, the coffee and orange punch and fruit water and lemonade and water. Secure inside the perimeter, on a special set of tables, were the culinary stars of the event, the turkeys. A team of surgeons was carving them up.

About seventy yards away on a small stage stood a female disciple of Patton. She had been issuing orders into a microphone and listing objectives, not all being met, and she stated, "I'm a pregnant mother who's been working sixteen hours a day for two weeks, and I need people to help me clean up from two-three to four p.m. We already have plenty of servers. Now we need volunteers to wash dishes."

Within minutes, she announced that the positions had been filled. I'd wanted to help but wasn't sure where I'd be during that period. I told a volunteer bright with red lipstick that I needed some stories.

"I have so much to be grateful for," she said. "I just saw a man here who lives in a park near our house. He can barely speak. I don't know what's wrong. I think he's got some sort of autism. These people need help and so often they don't know what they're eligible for. And many times they don't have any addresses where they can receive checks. The police are helping as much as possible. They regularly go around and talk to the homeless to make sure they understand all their options."

I'd been reluctant to approach the guests of honor, fearing they'd consider my questions intrusive.

"Hi," I finally said to a man in his forties. "Can I talk to you a little for an article I'm writing for my newsletter?"

"Sure," he said, shifting his cane to his left hand and offering me his right. One leg of his worn pants was puffed out by a swollen knee.

"Can you tell me why you came to Thanksgiving Dinner in the Park?"

"It's a nice, friendly atmosphere," he said. "I appreciate that. I was homeless a couple of years."

"You lived outside?"

Yeah, my wife and I and our son. We'd been living in a motel for a few years. I did repairs there. Before that I was a union plumber a long time, worked at Disney, Warner Brothers, Hughes. The manager at the motel jumped in my face one day. I told him to bleep off. And he said get the hell out. We were on the street. Most of the time, we lived in a parking lot. All we had were blankets, an ice chest, and a grocery cart."

"How did you eat?"

"I panhandled. Stood on a busy street corner near downtown LA and held a sign."

"How much did you make doing that?"

"I usually brought in between forty and ninety bucks a day. The average was about fifty."

"What did your sign say?"

"This is exactly what it said:
'Homeless Family Turned Down By Welfare
Honest to God!
Can You Put Me to Work?
If not. Can You Please, Please Help?
We Are Sleeping on the Streets.'

"Dennis Rodman stopped and gave me money one day. So did Whoopi Goldberg and Nell Carter. Johnny Depp, too. And David Bowie. And Sinbad, the comedian, you know. And Eddie van Halen. And Tiny Tim, when he was alive. Nell Carter's dead, too. She gave me the most, twenty bucks."

"How about Rodman?"

"He gave me twelve, Whoopi ten."

"What about Johnny Depp and David Bowie?"

"Those guys only gave me about three dollars apiece. But hey, man, I appreciate it. Only about one out of every two or three hundred will help you."

"How did you shower and things like that?"

"We'd go to fast food restaurants, hospitals, any public places. Here, meet my wife."

She and I shook hands.

"We'd go to the store and buy Mexican dinners for two bucks apiece, and take 'em to a hospital and use the microwave there. We looked like we were regular visitors."

"Why didn't you get work, since you were a union plumber?"

"I couldn't because of injuries," he said. "My knee joint is bone on bone from an old martial arts injury. I used to go full contact. Both my knees are arthritic. I'd still be on the streets if my grandmother hadn't died about a year-and-a-half ago. She had sixteen grandkids, so I got a one-sixteenth share, about twenty-thousand dollars. It took six months to get the money, then I bought a van. That's what my wife and I are living in. We sent our kid, he's ten now, up to Washington to live with my mom. He had trouble every day in school here. Now he's advanced and they want to skip him a grade. We're gonna go up there and live in a couple of months. I've still got enough to pay for about a year's rent. That'll give me time to get back into plumbing, maybe do some landscaping, and some real estate."

"You look pretty good," I said. And he did, except for a few missing teeth. I didn't need to ask where health care is for those on the streets. And I didn't want to mention I smelled a little alcohol on his breath.

"Thanks. I just gave myself a haircut last week. For seventeen years my hair'd been almost down to my ass."

"I appreciate your time," I said, shaking his hand.

I knew who I'd talk to next - the man in his sixties who'd been listening to us. His gray hair was neatly combed straight back and he looked like a former businessman distressed by significant but intangible difficulties.

"Sir, can you tell me why you came to Thanksgiving Day in the Park?"

"Poverty."

"Are you retired?"

"Not if I can get a job?"

"What kind of work did you do?"

"Sales and insurance."

"What happened?"

"Did you watch Frontline last week?" he asked.

"No."

"Did you read Fortune magazine last month?"

"No, I didn't see that one."

"It's all about Wal-Mart. They're turning the United States into a Third World country."

"How are they doing that?"

"They only pay their employees - and I'm talking about full-time employees - about seven dollars an hour with no health care. Then when the employees get sick, they dump them on the welfare system. I know lots of Wal-Mart employees - full-time employees - who are on food stamps and live in section eight housing. It's not only Wal-Mart. All our jobs are either digitized or sent overseas. It's greed and plantation economics. They're closing down the American Dream."

I shook his hand and said, "Good luck."

Staring up the long line, proud but wounded, he said, "Sure."

Next I approached a well-groomed lady in her fifties. In Spanish I said, "Good morning. May I please talk to you for a little while?"

"Yes," she said, smiling.

"Where are you from?"

"Guatemala City."

"How long have you been in the United States?"

"Eight months."

"Why did you come today?"

"A friend invited me to The Day of the Turkey. I've never seen anything like this."

"How do you like the United States?"

"It's enchanting, beautiful. In Guatemala we have many natural resources, rivers, lakes, hills, and oil. But life is hard because the government doesn't try to help people. The politicians rob millions and millions from the people. I'm very happy to be here."

To complete the rainbow of interviewees, I approached a young black man.

"Hi, can you please tell me why you're here today?"

"Yes, to get some food. It's a good charity."

"Where are you from?"

"South Africa."

"Are you a student here?"

"Yes, I'm studying film production at LA City College. After that, I'd like to go to USC or UCLA."

"Those are great film schools. Do you want to direct feature films?"

"No, I want to specialize in editing documentaries about the environment. I'm also interested in writing and photography. I'm particularly concerned about the destruction of forests."

"Yeah, the Bush administration is pretty bad about that."

"I'm not talking about the United States. The United States is way ahead. Your forests are well-maintained. You have controlled cutting. The environmental problems here are related to the emissions of gases. That's different. In Africa they're cutting down forests because they use wood to cook. They need to find alternatives. It's necessary everywhere to find a balance between human beings and animals."

"You look like you're in good shape," I said.

He didn't respond.

"I mean, lots of people here have problems, drinking and so forth."

"I'm fine," he said.

"Thanks a lot."

Turning, he looked up the long lines where two thousand people were now moving toward Thanksgiving dinner.

George Thomas Clark is the author of two books, Hitler Here, a biographical novel, and Outliving Flynn, a short story collection. Three Point Press, which grants permission to reprint this column, recently sold to Mastermind Books the right to publish Hitler Here in English in India. http://www.georgethomasclark.com/


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