Most Californians never meet their U.S. Senator. Unlike smaller states, we get to know our senators on TV or on the Internet. A few of us who work in government or politics can get to know them as professional politicians. My opinion of Barbara Boxer was formed late one night when she inserted herself into my life -- not as a politician -- but as a neighbor.
It was the 1990s and I was working and living on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. working long hours advocating for LGBT equality and health. I shared a place a few blocks east of the Capitol with my partner, Chuck, and two stray cats. Our entire lives were jammed into that 700-square-foot basement apartment. It was dark with old carpeting and low ceilings but it was home.
One night, I came home particularly late and more exhausted than usual. Chuck was out of town, so I was looking forward to just quietly collapsing on the bed and getting a few hours of sleep before an early morning jog to the Lincoln Memorial.
But as I approached home, I discovered our front door was open and the window next to the front door was smashed. Our place had been broken into and the robbers left with virtually everything. That is, they carried our lives out the door. We learned later they had parked a moving van in front of our house, which our neighbors assumed was there for a legitimate move.
I remember wishing they'd left my half-worn running shoes so I wouldn't have to miss my morning workout. Where would a store be open so I could replace the cat food that was taken? And I knew I would never be able to find some of the obscure music CDs that took me years to hunt down. Those were the days before iTunes.
The arrival of the police didn't do much to lift my spirits. They told me the chances of recovering our lives' belongings or of identifying the culprits were slim. But they spent a long time walking around the apartment, talking on radios about other cases, and asked me the same questions more than once. It was like being in a bad reality show.
Then -- it must have been getting close to midnight -- Senator Barbara Boxer was getting home from work accompanied by her twenty-something son. I had admired her energy and courage as a public official for years, but I was about to see her in action for the first time as a neighbor.
Seeing the commotion outside my place, she came to the door and asked if we were OK. I came outside and gave her my sad story.
The first thing she said was: "Well, you are safe and no one is hurt and that's the most important thing." I'm ashamed to admit with everything else going through my mind I had forgotten that simple, obvious, but important fact. She put her hand on my shoulder and asked if I was hungry or could use a cup of tea or anything. I kept saying I was fine and didn't need anything, even while wondering if the pair of slacks her son was holding in a dry cleaners bag would fit me for work the next day. But Barbara Boxer would not take no for an answer. So finally I said what I really needed was to get some sleep but our small apartment was filled with big police officers and I'd have to wait.
In an instant, the kindly, tiny Jewish mother transformed into the formidable figure I had admired on C-Span fighting and thundering for equality, the environment, and for individual rights. This time they were my individual rights she was fighting for.
She charged into my ransacked apartment and respectfully ordered the police out. "You officers have all you need; now this young man needs his home back."
I will never forget the sight of her marching those uniformed men twice her size out of my front door, or the feeling of gratitude that an awful night had finally been brought to an end by a great woman and a good neighbor. She reminded me of what was most important right when I needed to hear it most.
Today, the pundits are reflecting on Senator Boxer's decades of service. She is a truly great public servant. I hope this vignette reminds the senator's constituents and colleagues that at the core of that service is an incredibly warm and kind person.