Archive | August 2011

chapter two

     Training sessions began on a cold, blustery night in January 1984 when the wind tossed me around like a boxer in a ring. I met approximately 25 nervous people, most young, middle class white women, all inexperienced in social welfare. We could have been mistaken for Mary Kay sales ladies without the pink caddies.

Dan Mears, who stood about five feet tall, was in charge of our training. What Dan lacked in stature he made up for in personality. He was gentle, kind and sharp-witted, even if he looked like a freshman in college.

Every Tuesday evening from 6:00 until 9:00, we trained for ten consecutive weeks at a large municipal hospital. The meeting room was like the back of an Elks Club but Dan’s warmth atoned for the dreary venue.

To get to know each other, we formed a large circle. Anti-smoking regulations at the time were as feeble as the city’s promise to make decent housing affordable for the poor. If I hadn’t found the program and the people to be so invigorating, I would’ve walked out after the first person lit up and puffed out a cloud of rancid smoke.

 

Behind the podium that opening night, Kawesh took over. For a little guy, there were no questions his powerful personality ruled.

“You volunteered for an extremely tough assignment. If you can’t handle this, bow out at any time.” He waved his stubby hand at the front door. “This job isn’t for everyone.”

When no one ducked out, including me, Kawesh introduced a social worker named Casey O’Rourke, a tender-faced young woman with a mop of frizzy blonde hair and a smile as sweet as butterscotch candy. I liked her more than Josephine Casselo, the social worker who interviewed me on the phone. Moody Josephine wasn’t there that night. I can’t say I missed her either.

Kawesh spoke to us volunteers like old friends at a high school reunion. “Welcome everyone to SCAN.” He took out a folder, turned a few pages then stared into the audience. “SCAN was the first agency that used volunteers to work with abusive parents. Our philosophy is to break their isolation and help them learn new ways of coping with anger. As parent-aides, you have a unique role. You’re not friends or therapists to the clients…”

My hand shot up and I asked, “What are we?”

Mears met my gaze and said, “I was just about to get to that. Parent aides will be a combination of friendly visitors and mentors.”

Referrals originated from Family Court. Instead of removing a child from abusive parents, the Court often sent them to SCAN for counseling instead. Courts across the country were under pressure to follow Family Preservation, a relatively new social welfare concept that insisted children were better off with their own families, even when they were abusive and/or neglectful. Family Preservation programs offered services, such as rental assistance, job training and child care to hold families together. Only when children were in serious danger did the Courts resort to foster care but in many cases, children were ultimately returned home.

Casey was professional yet congenial. “We used to be the new kids on the block, but our program has been fairly successful. We need new volunteers because the referrals from Family Court keep coming.”

Most clients, women on welfare, lived in crappy, run-down neighborhoods pockmarked by drugs, gangs and despair. They dropped out of high school due to pregnancy with bleak futures staring at them.

“Some clients have large families,” Mears said, “while others have one or two children. Sometimes dads are involved but many are absent.” He paused briefly to sip water. “Don’t let the racial composition of the clients fool you. White people and those with money are guilty as well.”

At subsequent meetings, we looked at pictures of young children mauled by their own parents. The chilling photos nauseated me. Was I was crazy to knowingly barge into someone else’s nightmare?

At one session, the guest speaker was an attorney who grilled us in the complexities of child welfare. Children were treated like property. Prison sentences were meted out for assaulting adults but counseling was ordered for beating children.

     One night in particular stood out. Mears played the part of a battering parent, berating Casey to the point of tears. I flinched watching them act out the scene. When he threatened to cuff Casey, I lunged forward to stop him, not the expected response. A parent aide wasn’t to stand in between mother and child, unless the child was in a perilous situation. How could an adult ready to swat a little kid not be life threatening? That night I left wondering if I could play the role I was expected to.

 

 

As a pre-teen, my family lived near a mentally unstable woman. She smacked her children around and left them alone for extended periods. I begged my mother to intervene. I thought the neighbor was a brute.

“Do something, please,” I said.

“No, we mind our business,” Mom said. Always one for outward appearances, my mother smiled and grinned at everyone. Mom acted like every day was Happy Days.

“Those girls play in the window,” I said. “Some day, one of them will crash through the glass and fall to her death three stories below. Then it’ll be too late.”

“It’s not for us to be involved,” my mother would say, clutching a prayer book.

“Then who is? Can’t you talk to her husband? The parish priest? Isn’t that what church is for?”

Until the family moved away, mommy dearest continued to beat her girls, especially the oldest one. That sweet blue-eyed girl took the brunt of her mother’s rage. As far as I knew, no one ever confronted the mother, her husband or asked the church to step in. Years later, I heard they adopted a dog and the mother whacked the dog too. At 12 or 13, I was still a child myself but I felt helpless to stop this woman’s warpath. I always wondered if this agonizing experience ultimately led me to SCAN.

At a later training meeting, Mears handed out a welfare application to review. “Study this. It’ll help you understand the enormous frustrations and difficulties our clients face.” An application for medical school was less cumbersome and asked fewer questions. So was a mortgage application.

“And if there are language issues?” I asked.

“We strongly advise people to bring along their own translators,” Mears said.

“What if an immigrant never got birth certificates for her foreign born children?” someone else asked.

“No birth certificate, no benefits.” Civil unrest or natural disaster in a foreign land wasn’t a valid excuse for lack of vital documentation.

Although training sessions were designed to explain the troubling patterns of child abuse, I fought nagging doubts. I wanted to contribute but wasn’t sure I was up for this challenge. SCAN needed me so I convinced myself to try. International Paper cast me aside like a pile of worthless bones at a fish fry. I devoted seven solid years to that company and loved my job. My corporate life faded away but I refused to accept secretarial work as my new career. Admittedly, I had no social service background to work as a parent aide but I had compassion, dedication and commitment.

Lying in bed that night, I tried to picture myself as a single mother, trapped in the throes of poverty. I imagined myself in a high crime neighborhood, living in a tenement infested with vermin, struggling to remain calm when confronted with a dicey situation such as lack of heat and hot water on a cold winter night. I had trouble falling asleep. My studio apartment with cracked walls in the basement of a decrepit brownstone suddenly seemed like a palace. The place needed repairs, lots of them, but living on West 87th Street made me feel regal. And safe.

Ultimately I was assigned to Casey’s supervision. What luck I didn’t end up with Josephine Casselo. She and I were like mayo slapped on a bagel – the combination didn’t mix. Meeting Monique in person was my next challenge.

 

Governor’s office

Governor Napolitano’s office, may I help you?” I said, greeting our first caller to Janet Napolitano’s office, former governor of Arizona.

“A spirit named Misty invaded my body. I need $600 to remove the spirit,” the woman said as if asking a friend for a handout. “The guide wants the money up front and no one will lend it to me. Not my mother, not my sister, no one. Can I get it from the Governor?”

No, I said. Psychological counseling was more prudent than a costly medium. She balked at the idea. Furious that the state of Arizona wouldn’t hand over $600 for spirit removal, the caller slammed down the phone.

That started a typical morning as a volunteer in Janet Napolitano’s office of constituent services. Every Monday I answered calls from residents, nearly all from Arizona although calls sometimes filtered in from California, Michigan and other states.

During my second week in November 2004, a caller asked for Janet. I didn’t recall meeting anyone named Janet. Quickly, I sorted through the people I’d met. There was Carolyn, Melodee, Ezra, Betty Sue, but I couldn’t remember anyone named Janet. So I asked, “Janet who?”

The caller shot back, “The Governor.”

The caller wanted legal advice from Janet Napolitano who had served as state attorney general from 1998-2002. Prior to that, she served as a US Attorney. I said the Governor didn’t give legal advice on the phone. The small business owner hadn’t paid rent and faced eviction proceedings.

“I suggest you contact a lawyer. The state can’t help you, I’m sorry,” I said.

In December, volunteers shared a holiday lunch with the Governor and I told that story. The Governor laughed.

            Sometimes it took seconds to determine a call was unrelated to Arizona. A woman wanted the Governor to “use her influence” to move up her passport request. She made vacation plans when the Bush Administration imposed stringent requirements on foreign travel. Deluged with passport and visa requests, the State Department warned citizens to apply months in advance because of processing backlogs. Some travelers shrugged off warnings and booked last minute travel plans anyway. Airline tickets to foreign countries without passports and/or visas were useless. Pressure tactics on our office didn’t work. Despite glowing comments such as – the Governor can do anything or I really like Janet – we told callers the Governor had no influence over the State Department. We suggested calling their Congressional delegation.

Another caller wanted the Governor for an urgent matter.

“The Governor doesn’t take calls from the public. That’s the purpose of the office of constituent services. I’ll try to help you,” I said.

“Tell her that God blesses her. He won’t bless you though because you won’t let me talk to her.”

I didn’t take it personally.

A man from out of state claims the state of Arizona is blocking his ability to work. Why, I ask. The irate caller received a traffic ticket in Arizona ten years ago.

“I paid it, of course,” he said. “You people didn’t get your records straight. When I tried to renew my license, which I need to drive, they said I owe the ticket. This is an outrage. I have a family to feed.”

“Did you call the Department of Motor Vehicles?”

“The phone lines are constantly busy.”

As a rule, I referred callers to the appropriate department for resolution. As an alternative, they could write the Governor for further investigation. This time, however, I wilted and offered to look into his problem.

“What county were you ticketed?” I asked.

“Solano.”

“Sir, there is no Solano County in Arizona.”

“It says right here, Solano County.”

I asked him to read the ticket. I moved to Arizona in 1997 so I wasn’t entirely familiar with the state’s geography but Solano County didn’t exist.

“Maybe it’s a town called Solano,” he said.

“That’s a big help. Let me do some checking and I’ll call you back.”

The man omitted a few salient points. He paid the ticket late on Friday afternoon, not years ago. The county clerk, who worked alone in a rural part of Arizona, didn’t have time to process his credit card payment until sometime later on Monday or Tuesday. Because I called on behalf of the Governor’s office she offered to rush through his paperwork.

“Take your time,” I said. “This guy lied. Process the payment at your regular schedule. I’ll call him back and tell him it’ll be done today or tomorrow.”

When I confronted Mr. Late Payment, he sounded miffed. I reminded him that Arizona wasn’t responsible for his inability to renew his driver’s license. He was. I vowed that I wouldn’t make any more calls for constituents as many only told us bits and pieces of the truth.

Hard luck cases often found their way to our office. Sometimes we could help; sometimes we could not. A woman who lost her job called with a pickle of a story. The Department of Economic Security denied her unemployment application because of identity theft. To qualify, the caller had to file a police report then request an administrative hearing. She would probably qualify for benefits but the process might string along months. In such cases, there was nothing we could do. What a double whammy – she loses her job then runs up against a thief who stole her identity.

 

Now and then the calls were absurd. “What’s the name of the Governor’s psychic?”

“Excuse me?” I said.

“The Governor’s psychic. What’s her name?”

“The state of Arizona doesn’t employ a psychic.”

“That’s not what I heard. It’s a waste of taxes.”

“Where did you get that information?”

The caller hung up. I wanted to know who spread that rumor so we could squash it.

 A woman called in a panic. Her husband, a heart transplant patient, had been receiving AHCCS, Arizona’s version of Medicaid. His application for Social Security Disability was recently approved thus edging his income over AHCCS strict limits. The state just paid for his heart transplant but would no longer cover life saving rejection medication because Social Security. Social Security Disability recipients don’t receive Medicare for another two years. Another volunteer worked the phones for several hours that morning, trying to find a solution. The Arizona Heart Hospital that performed the surgery kept an emergency pharmaceutical supply. After we came up empty, the hospital offered to supply the rejection drugs unless another arrangement could be made. No matter how we tried to calm this woman, she was sure her beloved husband would die.

The governor sometimes traveled to Mexico to promote trade with Arizona. Trade created jobs at home and in Mexico, increasing tax revenue. Not everyone saw it as a boost to the economy A woman with a chip on her shoulder the size of a Buick said promoting trade with Mexico violated the US Constitution. As she rattled off parts of the Constitution I politely interrupted her and said, “My shorthand skills are limited. You’re free to write to the Governor either through email or snail mail to express your views.” She shrugged me off and reminded me that promoting trade with Mexico was illegal and that Janet Napolitano should not make any more state sponsored trips to “that” country.

Parents and family members often asked Gov. Napolitano for help with their children’s tuition, medical expenses, dance lessons or summer camp. One woman owed back taxes and wanted the Governor to kick in towards her unpaid balance. Others represented charities and wanted the Governor to make a contribution. Undoubtedly, the Governor had her own charities but that was her business.

Self-important people wanted to convey ideas directly to the Governor. I offered a sound alternative, such as contacting the head of a particular department but to some, that wasn’t good enough. They insisted on talking directly to Janet Napolitano. If I couldn’t produce a direct line or personal email they threatened to report me for insubordination. Some did just that and I got chewed out for being nasty. I defended the state of Arizona and I defended Janet Napolitano but I was never rude.

A volunteer returned a constituent’s call by leaving a message on his machine. He called back and insisted it was Janet Napolitano who had called. I assured him it was not.

“Sir, it was someone from our office,” I said. “We call everyone back in a timely fashion.”
“No, the Governor called me. I want to speak to her.”

“She doesn’t return these calls. That’s what we do.”

“I’ll just wait for her to call.”

I said to myself, he’ll be waiting for a long time.

One woman called for the Governor’s personal intervention in her husband’s criminal case. Recently sentenced to a long term for his third drunk driving conviction, the man would serve a long time. The single mother of two feared crushing poverty without his income. “What am I going to do? I can’t make it alone.”

“I’m very sorry,” I said. “The Governor can’t undo his sentence. That would be illegal. I can refer you for public assistance. That’s about all I can offer.”

I heard sniffling. “Please don’t do this,” she pleaded. “I need him.”

There was a strong chance she would drift into poverty, maybe even become homeless, but the state couldn’t intervene. Some situations left me feeling like a heel.

Illegal immigration framed Gov. Janet Napolitano’s tenure and thrust her into the national spotlight. Local and national television invited her to discuss immigration and how Arizona confronted it. In Washington she pressed former President George W. Bush for National Guard troops and an increase in Border Patrol agents. In 2007, she signed a controversial state law that would sever the license of a business that knowingly hired undocumented workers. Intense pressure built from citizens, the legislature, local officials and the business community to deal with illegal immigration. No matter what the Governor did, someone would be unhappy. Take the man who called to complain about the Governor’s state of the state address. He said it didn’t include immigration.

“Sir, it’s only 10:00 a.m. The Governor hasn’t given the speech yet,” I said.

“Oh,” he said, in a thick foreign accent.

“Well, she better include it.”

“I bet she will.”

Undocumented citizens from Mexico in search of jobs and a way to escape grinding poverty streamed across the porous US/Mexican border. For years immigrants entered the US for low wage jobs as laborers, construction workers and in agriculture. Most raised families and blended into the community. Their children attended school and ate at McDonald’s. When gang violence involving Latinos tore apart neighborhoods and the US economy soured, demand for immigration reform increased. For hard-liners that only meant deportation. Our office took calls demanding the Governor seal the border with troops. Others wanted an electrical fence. One man called and said he had a simple solution. “Shoot everyone who crosses the border and ask questions later.” A woman called and demanded to know why the National Guard couldn’t stand “shoulder to shoulder” along the entire border. I always said I’d pass along your comments to the Governor but once in a while that wasn’t good enough. They wanted immediate action to quell their anger.

“What’s she doing to do about it? I want those illegals out and I want them out now.”

Even children got into the act. A grammar school child wrote a letter where he suggested digging a moat between the US and Mexico and filing it with snakes, scorpions and other “creepy things.” Some people unabashedly suggested emptying animal shelters of unwanted pit bulls and using them to attack undocumented immigrants as they crossed. The venom in people’s voices scared me. I hoped the US never followed the genocide in Rwanda.

Some calls amused me. A woman with a thick Slavic accent wanted a phone number in the Phoenix city government. I didn’t like enabling people but I looked anyway.

“Do you have a phone book at home?” I asked.

“No, only one from Bucharest,” she said.

I chuckled. “May I suggest you call Qwest and ask for a phone book. They’re free.”

“Good idea, I’ll do that.”

A man asked me if I’d heard about the Rumsfeld report. “Excuse me,” I said, totally caught off guard.

The Rumsfeld report, he said. “Have you read it?”

“Please elaborate,” I said.

He supposedly obtained a copy of a confidential arms report that was vital to national security interests. “I’m prepared to sell missiles to the state of Arizona.”

“Missiles!” I exclaimed. Missiles, I repeated. I could hardly believe this. Only the Armed Forces buy missiles, I said. Arizona isn’t in the market for weaponry, no matter how cheaply you can sell them. I hung up and immediately went into Melodee’s Jackson’s office, the department director. I told her that if the Governor approved, I could get a sweet deal on missiles. We both laughed.

A man calling himself an apostle wanted to speak to the governor. He offered a cure for one of the many droughts that plagued Arizona.

“Speaking to Gov. Napolitano personally isn’t possible but you can leave a message,” I said.

“I have to talk to her,” he said.

“Sir, I can give her your ideas,” I said.

“Then the drought will continue and it’s your fault.”

On a relatively peaceful day with mostly routine call, an irate man calls and wants to talk to the Governor. No bank will approve a loan on a condemned house. He wants the state to lend him the money.

“The state doesn’t lend money,” I said.

“It’s a great investment I’ll have to pass up,” he said.

“I guess you will,” I said.

“Can’t you put me through to the Governor?”

“I can’t do that but I can pass along your comments.”

“I really need the Governor. She’d agree this is a good deal.”

The conversation ended with me passing along his comments about the fabulous deal that slipped through his fingers because Arizona wouldn’t lend him money.

The rich and famous sought help from Governor Napolitano too. A relative of a high ranking official in the Bush administration asked me if I recognized her name. I did. She asked to speak with the Governor. I handed her my usual response and I offered to help.

“It’s personal. I’d like to talk to her,” the woman said. For security reasons, the caller shall remain anonymous.

“The governor doesn’t take calls from the public.”

Convicted of a DUI she wanted the Governor to intervene. I asked if she had a lawyer. She didn’t like the deal he arranged and thought the Governor might smooth something more to her liking. The Governor never intervened in criminal cases. I told the Melodee, the office director. The governor’s chief of staff call her attorney, warning him never to call again asking for special favors.

The governor’s office received many letters from children. Melodee said the governor enjoyed reading their letters. Once in a while, the Governor picked out letters and called the children personally. That must’ve really thrilled the children when they heard, “The Governor is calling.”

Each child who wrote received a Kid’s Pack containing information about the Governor, state history, Arizona landmarks, and how to remain safe.

For years, I volunteered in a homeless shelter as a pet therapist with my adopted dog Luke. I met a 12 year old girl named Lacy who adored Gov. Napolitano. I told Lacy I volunteered in the office and would have a Kid’s Packet sent to her. Apparently someone called the homeless shelter to verify Lacy’s last name and address. At my weekly visit, Lacy was ecstatic. She honestly thought that Gov. Napolitano herself had called. Usually honest with the kids I saw no reason to let her down. So I didn’t.

Stories spread that the Governor sent tech jobs overseas, which was not true. A group supposedly representing hi-tech workers flooded our office with thousands of e-mails and faxes blasting the Governor for being un-American by stealing their jobs. Melodee called one of the letter writers and was surprised he hadn’t written the letter. He belonged to a computer list serve and someone used his name without permission. Still, we had to log onto the computer perhaps 3,000 letters angrily denouncing the Governor for sending hi-tech jobs overseas. What a waste of state resources.

Another rumor spread among Christian churches that the state planned to give preferential treatment to Muslim students in public schools. Our office was deluged with form letters angrily demanding that no such action be taken. None of this of course was true.

Someone called from California and didn’t get the response they wanted. She said, “I’m calling Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger from California. He’ll help me.”

 Sometimes, we sorted through the Governor’s mail. Prisoners sent dozens of letters asking for a way out of jail. Nearly all proclaimed innocence. A few said they’d join the Army and serve in Iraq if the Governor released them from jail. Others swore they found religion and if released, they’d serve God and never again get in trouble.

Out of all the letters a handful of prisoners really were wrongly convicted. They had to pursue their cases through the criminal justice system, not the Governor’s office. Some letters made me laugh, others I felt like shredding and a few were clever such as an inmate serving a life sentence in California on a three strikes you’re out offense. If the native Arizonan had committed his crimes in our state and not California, he’d be eligible for parole in a few years, not serving life. He asked Gov. Napolitano for a transfer to an Arizona prison so he could be released in the near future. I fell out laughing. There was no way that would happen. Too bad he wasted his talent and would spend his life in jail.

 The 2008 presidential election was a tumultuous time. Gov. Napolitano campaigned for Obama, much to the disappointment of Clinton supporters. Some called and said that Janet Napolitano owed her political career to Bill Clinton who appointed her as US Attorney in 1993. They felt she was obligated to support Hillary. Some female callers insisted they’d never vote for the Governor if she ran for national office. Other callers wanted to know how much of the state’s money the Governor spent stumping around for Obama. I told them all the same thing.

“Her trips are paid for by the Obama campaign,” I said. “No state tax dollars are used.”

After Obama won the election, a woman called and was just furious. She could hardly speak.

“How do I sell my citizenship? I don’t want to be an American anymore.”

 Each Christmas, children from Valley schools were invited to sing songs in front of the Capitol tree. Family and friends sat in chairs. The children added a festive touch to the often testy mood at the Capitol. Sometimes the Governor’s office had children from across the state make ornaments for the tree.

On the day of the tree lighting ceremony, a large crowd gathered, including school children, their families, state employees and visitors. The media surrounded the tree and waited for the Governor to make her grand entrance. She lit the tree to a hearty round of applause. Then, she made a short speech and wished everyone a happy holiday.

One year we helped send out the governor’s Christmas cards. I had access to addresses of famous politicians from across the US. No state funds were spent on the governor’s Christmas card project.

In mid September 2007, I left that Monday as usual around noon. I said good-bye to Melodee who was finishing lunch. Before she headed out for her after meal smoke, I said, “See you next week.”

“We’ll be here,” was her typical response.

The next Monday she wasn’t. During a casual dinner with her sister she collapsed and never regained consciousness. She died September 21st. At her funeral, which was attended by hundreds, I cried as the Governor talked about their special friendship. Melodee Jackson and Janet Napolitano formed a friendship around twenty years earlier when Melodee was head of the fledgling Arizona Democratic Party and Janet Napolitano, an attorney in private practice, served as their legal counsel. Melodee was a wonderful human being who served the state well for many years. The office was much duller after she passed. I missed her wisdom, her caring, and her concern for Arizona and all the people who lived here.

 Janet Napolitano resigned in January 2009 to become Secretary of Homeland Security. Perhaps the only noticeable difference in the office was the missing artwork. Donated paintings of the Governor were gone. Employees removed anti-Bush signs from their cubicles too.

On that first Monday, a woman called from a downtown light rail station saying “I have to pee” and there are no public restrooms. I want Gov. Jan Brewer to know.”

Others demanded to speak with Gov. Brewer just as they insisted on talking to Janet Napolitano. When we said the Governor doesn’t take calls, their response: Why not? People wanted the new Governor to intervene in Workmen’s Compensation cases the Industrial Commission turned down. They wanted grants from the state to supplement their income. The nature of the calls didn’t change even though the administration switched from Democratic to Republican.

Lee and I were the only two hold-outs from the Napolitano administration. Due to differences with the department manager, still a Democrat, we left the office in the spring of 2009. Serving Arizona for all those years was a rewarding experience for us both. A day at the office was always a challenge. Calls were mostly ordinary but some tested our resolve. We referred people to various government agencies. We listened to them complain. Once in a while, we hung up on rude, obnoxious offensive callers. But the experience uplifted us in ways we didn’t expect. We met lots of interesting, fun and sometimes crotchety people. Public service made us proud to call Arizona home.

The cattery

 

Volunteering in the cattery at the Arizona Animal Welfare League is inspirational, sometimes tiring, always entertaining and makes my day.

I arrive early, around 7:00 a.m. when shelter operations are in full swing. Volunteers already walk dogs, especially in the sizzling summers when heat limits outdoor activity. Workers are busy hosing down kennels and dogs or cats lay on the operating table for the spay/neuter surgery in the clinic. Maintenance workers mend broken doors or cages so our budget stretches just a little longer. There’s always something to do at the Welfare League. As a volunteer I devote my time to cats and the wash. I love cats. For some odd reason tackling the mammoth load of laundry soothes me.

Each dog receives fresh bedding daily. Comfy blankets, beds or towels are scattered around the cattery. The clinic uses linens so dogs and cats can recover from surgery on something warm and fluffy. Laundry piles up and seems to have a life of its own. Workers and volunteers keep it from growing out of control. We pitch in to fill or empty the machines then fold and stack it on shelves. It’s a thankless task but the animals, many of which scraped by on the streets, appreciate the comfort.

Before entering the cattery, I stop by the laundry room. Cats love their comfort. I load my scooter with a stash of cuddly beds so that cats can be cozy as they await homes with scratching posts, indoor living, crunchy kibble and plenty of love. Sometimes I take dog beds but cats don’t mind. Once I unload the pile of clean linens I greet staff and other volunteers. I pick a room to clean then pile my walker with disinfectant, litter scooper, and rags. If the room doesn’t already have an ample supply of linens I take them too. Next, I greet the cats. That’s important. They expect a warm welcome from me. Otherwise they’re insulted. I can’t work around cats if they feel snubbed.

I always check the adoption board to celebrate cat adoptions. Honestly I don’t remember lots of cat names. My short term memory took a whacking from a pedestrian car accident in 1994 but I rejoice when our feline friends leave for forever homes, even if I can’t remember who they are.

Then I look at the alumni board. Letters and photos about cats in new homes tickle my heart. I’m happy that our cats are happy. That’s what volunteering is all about.

I then turn into the high priestess among cats for about two hours when a gaggle of homeless and sometimes tattered cats own me. I usually clean the same room but I’m flexible. If staff needs me to clean another, I’ll do what’s needed. Some cats linger in the cattery longer than others and we develop a relationship. I get to learn their likes and dislikes. I also learn which cats may be depressed and need a little more TLC than others. Some cats do not adjust well to congregate living. Others do just fine as long as they have access to food, water and a cozy place to sleep. For the lonely cat, I tell her she’s special. I might hold her on my lap and brush her. She needs reassurance that we’ll protect her and do our best to send her into a safe comfortable and loving home. That’s our promise to all our dogs and cats.

I remove dirty linens, shake out litter and debris from linens the cats can tolerate for another day. I spray disinfectant on the chairs, wiping them down thoroughly. I spray the walls, careful to clean bits of hairballs and vomit. I sing to the cats as I clean. Now and then I break up hissy fights. Maybe they don’t like our litter brand or they’re frustrated because they’re not used to sharing space with so many cats. I plead for calm and understanding. Our shelter I say isn’t your permanent home but it’s one heck of a second choice. Please try and understand. Sometimes I think they do.

Here’s an example. I had just entered a porch area and stumbled over a dog cage. I cursed the person who left a dog cage in the cattery and then sat to massage my throbbing big toe. It hurt so much tears crawled down my cheek. I cried even more when about ten cats scooted through the cat door and swarmed around me for comfort. Cats I didn’t even really know shared my pain and showed me they cared. That special moment will last forever.

Sometimes there are cats in cages for medical or behavioral reason. I thoroughly clean each cage although sometimes the disinfectant makes me sneeze. Cats are fussy and like a clean environment so I deal with the sneezing. It’s my duty to live up to proper feline standards. I give them clean bedding, scoop their litter and give clean water. If need be, I fill up their food bowls with fresh kibble. I scoop poop and freshen communal litter boxes. Yes, sometimes it’s stinky but poop is part of animal shelter life. Bits of litter of course get on the floor. So do hairballs, cat fur and cat food. A clean shelter is not only mandatory for the animals but it inspires people to adopt. I love when cats, especially older or disabled cats, leave for good homes. Before leaving I hand out snacks and fresh toys. I say goodbye cats. I hope you all find good homes.

The car accident of 1/6/94 took away my working career because of disabling brain and spinal injuries. Volunteering at the AAWL and other non-profit agencies allows me to be whole, to be part of the community that often rejects people with disabilities. Cats don’t care I’m not perfect. They love me anyway just as I love them. Volunteering with homeless animals fills me with purpose and rewards me in ways I never thought possible. Thank you cats. You’re the greatest.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Two – Emmy

Chapter Two

     Morning dew dampened the ground. Pockets of dark clouds shaded the mountains, partially obscuring the rising sun. A slight chill pricked the air. Blowing winds whistled through the towering pine trees.

Standing next to Harriet, Angel threw her head back and snorted over and over. Her big belly was empty and she ached for a bucket of crunchy grain, a sweet apple, maybe a bag of carrots, or better yet a flake of hay.

“Must you make so much noise at this hour?” Harriet yipped as her eyes popped open. Slowly, she rolled over and arched her back. Stretching her lean body, she said, “I’m not deaf.”

“I want my breakfast and I don’t know what to do,” Angel said, oblivious to Harriet’s snippy mood. “My people served me a good breakfast every morning. And plenty of it, too.”

Harriet mocked Angel. “My people served me a good breakfast.”

“They did, every day. Filled my drinking pail with fresh water. Cleaned out my stall. Brushed my coat so I looked beautiful. Got me new shoes when I needed them. Called the vet if I was sick.”

“Are you quite finished yammering? If you hadn’t run away, smarty-pants, what’s her name would probably be serving your breakfast as we speak. Instead, you’re stuck out here with me.”

Angel’s eyes shifted downward. “Poor Emmy, I wonder how her mom is? And I didn’t run away. I got lost.”

A chip cracked Harriet’s attitude. “It’s been so long since anyone rubbed my tummy or held me close. There’s nothing to purr about anymore. What I wouldn’t do for a can of cat food or my own litter box.”

“What happened?”

“What happened you ask? I’ll tell you what dreadful things happened. Pay attention,” Harriet said, baring her fangs. “My owner’s brother, Mr. Yucknut, stranded me here in the freezing cold.”

“That wasn’t very nice.”

“Of course it wasn’t nice,” Harriet said. “My owner Candace was the best, like your Emmy. She treated me like top cat, an honor, of course, that I deserved. One night she didn’t come home. Highly unusual for her. I was worried, but I’m a house cat, what could I do?”

“What did you do?”

“What did I do? I nearly starved. My litter box overflowed. The sink water tasted like swill and our house was as cold as an icebox. I worried myself sick. Days passed when finally the front door opens. Yippee, I meow, she’s back. No, it’s her brother with the salami breath. Ralph dirtied our furniture with his grubby hands looking for Candace’s phone book. He flipped through the pages then called someone. My Candace was seriously injured in a car accident and was in a coma. I was stunned. My poor Candace. Fish face grabbed me so I hissed at him.”

“Didn’t he get mad?”

“I figured he would but he took me to his house. Immediately, I grew suspicious. He told Candace cats were only good for target practice. On top of that, he lived in filthy surroundings, completely unfit for a fine cat like me.”

Angel and Harriet ambled towards the woods, nestled at the foot of an enormous range of snow-capped mountains. Along the way they chatted like old friends.

“Every Friday Candace broiled fresh salmon for us. I skipped the baguette, tossed green salad and rice pilaf. Ralph bought me no-name cat food. Some days I ate, some days I didn’t. Instead of cat litter, he used shredded newspaper scattered in an oil-soaked cardboard box. Sometimes he flicked cigarette ashes in my water bowl. If he came home in a foul mood or in a drunken stupor, he whacked me.”

“Couldn’t you run away?

“I kept hoping Candace’s best friend, Lucy, would come for me,” Harriet said. “If Candace had to leave me, which hardly happened, I stayed with Lucy. Every time the phone rang, I wondered if it was Lucy calling about me. Mostly Ralph argued with people about money he owed or what time to meet at the bar.”
“Why did you come out here of all places?”

“I didn’t have a choice,” Harriet said with a yowl that raised her hackles. “One night, Ralph staggered through the front door. As soon as I smelled his beer breath, I sensed trouble. He staggered towards me and swatted my head. So I sank my teeth into his hand. I was only protecting myself from one of his beatings. After chasing me through his apartment, he snatched me by the scruff of my neck and shoved me into a box that smelled like his dirty feet. He drove for a while then flung the box out the door.”

“Oh my, I’m sorry.

“You should be sorry,” Harriet said. “Soon as I clawed my way out, I sat on a mound of snow, shivering. I shouldn’t tell you this because we hardly know each other, but the great Harriet was scared. That was a first. Realizing I was on my own, I trembled even harder. I wished he had shot me.” For a few seconds Harriet stared at Angel. “I’ve made do ever since.”

“Why didn’t you find help?”

“There’s not much out here. Even if I found my way home, I wouldn’t’ live with Ralph again.”

Angel snorted with joy. “Come with us. Emmy will like you, I’m sure of it. We live on a big ranch with plenty of room. There’s a cute dog named Minnie. She likes everyone.”

“Cool it, big girl. What makes you think Emmy wants a cat? Besides, I can’t live with just anyone. I have my standards. I’m sure you understand. As promised, I’ll help you get home, but that’s all,” Harriet said. “It’s hard for me to trust people, even your Emmy.”

“If you saw Emmy’s sweet face, you’d love her as I do,” Angel said, as a patch of grass distracted her. “Mind if we stop? I’m hungry.”

“Good idea. While you nibble on grass, I’ll hunt for rodents or birds. Cats aren’t vegetarians.”

Angel watched Harriet slither around tree trunks and clusters of bushes, ready to stalk prey. She trusted Harriet would find something to her liking and come back soon. Harriet’s appetite for mice made Angel sick, but she related to the cat’s gnawing hunger pains. Angel might have to break down and eat mice too.

Emmy unlatched the kitchen door to let Minnie into the fenced yard. While the dog took care of business, Emmy scooped kibble into Minnie’s dish, a ritual she followed every morning and evening. Next, she emptied out the dog’s water bowl, rinsed it and refilled it with cool, fresh water.

Scratching at the door caught Emmy’s attention. “OK, Minnie, here I come. Your timing is perfect.”

The minute Emmy opened the door, Minnie blew past her, sniffing for the food dish. Emmy watched her down gulp down the food in less than a minute. The dog licked her lips over and over, as if to plead for seconds.

Minnie, swishing her tail, followed Emmy around the kitchen. Emmy tapped the dog’s nose and said, “As long as you live with us, you won’t ever be hungry again. No more food until dinner. You’ll look like a sausage.”

In the chilly pre-dawn hour, their neighbors drifted into the kitchen to plan the day’s search for Angel.

“Morning everyone,” Bill said his nose wiggled from the aroma of fresh coffee. “My daughter and I appreciate your help.”

“That’s what neighbors are for,” Gwen said as she opened a bag of fresh corn muffins and laid them on the kitchen counter. “Bill, hand me a platter, please.”

Bill shrugged. “I haven’t seen one. Want me to ask Tammy where they are?”

“No, don’t wake her for that. Mind if I look around?  Tammy has several platters I know of,” Gwen said as she rummaged through the cabinet. “I’ll find one in just a minute.”

“You’re so good to us, Gwen,” Bill said.

Gwen smiled as she yanked a platter off the top shelf and returned to handle food she left on the counter. “Careful everyone, they’re just out of the oven.”

Bill removed a quart of orange juice out of the fridge and poured it into glasses. While the neighbors noshed on breakfast, he consulted a Park county map for strategy.

“Emmy and I will go on horseback to check out areas you can’t see from the car. We’ll ride along the creeks and back trails. I have a feeling she’s down there.”

“The rest of you fan out and drive up and down the roads.” Bill stopped for a quick headcount. “OK, there’s enough for three cars. Someone should be able to find her.”

“Please, do your best,” sad faced Emmy said as she clutched her father’s hand. “She’s probably scared.”

“We’ll find her,” Gwen said.

Bill slid the map aside and stood. “OK, everyone, let’s move. Meet back here at noon.” He chuckled slightly. “Gwen will cook lunch. Isn’t that right Gwen?”

Grinning, Gwen nodded that she would.

“Before we leave,” Bill said. “I want to check on my wife one more time.”

Muted sunlight had trouble peaking through the slate gray afternoon skies. A slight wind stirred the pine trees. Angel roamed in a circle, fearing Harriet may have ditched her. Concerned another storm might be brewing, Angel surveyed the area, longing for safety. Suddenly a loud screech caught Angel’s attention. She figured the yowling came from Harriet. A small rock snagged the horse’s hoof and she stumbled.

“Ouch,” she said, limping along. On horseback rides with Emmy, whenever debris ever lodged inside Angel’s foot, her father or the local farrier took care of the problem. Now, what would she do? There was no sign of Harriet.

Desperate to remove the pebble, Angel scraped her hoof against the ground. Nothing happened so she tried again. Frustrated, she whinnied, dragging her hoof across the dirt.  The tiny stone wouldn’t budge. Oh Harriet, where are you? Angel thought. Maybe the cat could claw the stone out of her hoof?

Pain ripped through Angel’s foot. She panicked, reared back, thrust her legs forward and landed on the sore hoof, further wedging the stone.

“For crying out loud, stop that,” Harriet said, scooting towards Angel. “I’m gone a few minutes and look what happens, you fall apart. What’s the matter now?”

“Something’s in my hoof and I can’t get it out,” Angel said. “It hurts too.”

“Stop fussing,” Harriet said. “You’re such a baby. Be glad the great Harriet is here.”

Harriet edged closer for a better look. She ordered Angel to lift her foot off the ground. Sliding in between Angel’s hoof and the dirt, Harriet said, “Whatever you do, don’t stomp on my head. Looks like I can snag the rock with my paw.”

“Hurry up, it hurts.”

“Quiet, a cat with my prodigious skills works best in silence.”

In an instant, a stone the size of a nickel fell from Angel’s hoof. The horse immediately perked up. “Thanks Harriet, you’re a true friend. I’m lucky to have you.”  Angel bent down to rub her head against Harriet’s side.

Harriet ducked. “Control yourself. We’re not that chummy.” Peaking over her shoulder, the cat’s stomach fluttered as she stared into the trees. “We have bigger problems. Let’s get out of here. Now.”

“I’m not finished eating,” Angel said.

“Who cares? A black bear chased me but the great Harriet escaped. I smell him on our tail. Follow me, I’ll lead us to safety.”

“Oh my,” Angel said, fearing the worst. “Won’t he catch up and hurt us?”

“The great Harriet will protect you.”

 

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