"I don't believe in coincidences. I believe in the curlicued whimsy of fate," says Sam Tyler, the character actor Jason O'Mara plays on my favorite new television show Life on Mars. He's accepting the philosophy of a ditzy post-hippie who's adopted him when he lands in 1973 after a car accident and a bump on the head transports him from 2008.
Was it coincidence or the curlicued whimsy of fate that landed me on the same doorstep of a man I had canvassed just weeks earlier? What are the odds? There I was with eight other people this past Sunday, standing out in the warm fall sun--the only nice weather we had had for days--while the Seth handed us our packets. Randomly. Those left over from canvassing the day before. Randomly. Our partners were chosen. Randomly. And then, while my partner drove, I divvied up our lists. Randomly. And looked down at my list only to find not only was I in a neighborhood in which I had traveled before but I was about to knock on a door I recognized.
"Hi," I said, as Richard G. opened his front door. "Remember me?"
Leonard Mlodinow, author of last summer's bestseller The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives might not have been surprised, nor was Richard all that weirded out. So, even though I was a little perplexed by the whimsy of fate, I just decided to go with the kismet of it all and sat down in one of the chairs outside his front door. I asked him how he had been.
"I'm pretty much leaning toward Obama at this point," he said.
While that hadn't been the question, I was glad to hear it. The last time we had spoken, Richard had been a clear undecided. Intelligent, thoughtful and torn he was also a man clearly down on his luck and looking for a way out. I promised him the office would send him some literature and I was disappointed to hear that they hadn't. But Richard wasn't bothered. He had been doing his own research.
"McCain's gone so negative," he said. I nodded. "He doesn't say anything about what he'll really do."
While Richard leaned up against his house and I took a load off, his kids wandered in and out of his small subsidized apartment, his son taking out the garbage ("that's his job), and an older daughter getting on her bike to ride around the complex. He has custody of his three children and struggles mightily. A few moments into our conversation much younger woman stood at the screen door.
"That's the ex-wife," Richard nodded at her. "She comes by to visit the kids."
Richard doesn't look good. Even though only a few weeks have passed the lines on his face seem more pronounced but his mental energy is unflagging.
"I've been writing letters," he said. "But no one wants to listen to me. I have ideas, good ones, but I can't get anyone to pay attention."
I might be warned off this man and his "ideas" if I hadn't spent time with him before. He's smart and serious and terribly embarrassed at where he's ended up in his "drunkard's walk," the series of seemingly "random" events that caused him to lose his house and be on the dole.
"You wanna share?" I asked? "Or are you keeping them to yourself."
"Sure," he said, smiling. 'I'll share. What do you see all along the highways?"
I thought a moment. "Billboards?"
He shook his head, smiling again. "Tires. Especially truck tires."
I agreed. I had dodged them many a time, especially the retreads eighteen wheelers are so fond of.
He then outlined his plan to charge tractor-trailer trucks a fee of some kind for every tire. "Someone has to pick them up and dispose of those tires," he said. "That revenue could pay to fix and maintain the interstates. Especially Interstate 81 which is so heavily traveled and is a mess. They want to build toll booths! Imagine the expense of toll booths at every exit. It would take years to recoup that expense."
"This amounts to a tax, you know." I said.
"Yes," he said, "but..."
I finished it for him, "it's a usage tax, like on cigarettes or alcohol..."
"And, he said, you could collect it at weigh stations, or, he said, from the big trucking companies. Of course independent drivers would squalk, but..."
"It's a good idea," I said. "It's a start."
"And," he said, "I also have an idea how to get us out of here."
Here is subsidized housing, of course. Where Richard and his children live uncomfortably since he became disabled and lost his house. Richard used to be a long haul trucker and a law enforcement officer. He quit high school to join the Army where they had him finish school and then take some college courses. He was involved in special operations which he can't talk about and we shared stories about that because my husband was also in special ops (Navy) during the same war (Viet Nam) which he can't talk about.
"Shoot." I said.
"Okay. I get government benefits, including food stamps and social security for my kids. But the government wants you to work. I want to work. However, if I go to work, my benefits are cut by the amount of money I make. So it's a vicious circle and I can't get out of here. Now, when you work and get Social Security, they still let you get your benefits up to a certain ceiling. I think that they should let you keep your benefits for at least two years, and let you bank the difference so that you can save enough money to get out of subsidized housing. People here work, most of them, and the rest want to. But if you get a job, your benefits get cut so you can't get ahead.
"Listen, when you apply for a Habitat house, they assign you a financial advisor who helps you work things out. They could do the same here. They could give you someone to help you put the money in the bank, invest it in something, monitor it so you wouldn't spend it, help you save it, so that at the end of your two years you would have something. I know people don't always know how to save, but if someone was to show them how, I think they would do it. And then, at the end of those two years, the benefits would go or would be reduced and people could then have enough to move to their own place and out of government housing."
I admitted it sounded like a plan. The beginnings of one, anyway, and workable with some other checks and balances. A truly compassionate way to both educate people and help them off the dole and make them get a leg up into the working and perhaps middle class. Is anyone listening? If they are, contact me, please.
"I've written letters to all my representatives and senators. They wrote me back but said they didn't have time to think about this now. The only time they have time to consider stuff like this is in an election year but still I can't get an answer back where I think they even listen to me."
Richard's eldest daughter banged out the front door again.
"Your father's a pretty smart man," I told her, something no teenager wants to hear.
She cocked one eyebrow at me, glanced at her father and then rode off on her bike. He laughed.
I got up out of my chair and told Richard that I had to finish my rounds and that I knew my canvassing partner would wonder where I had gotten to. I handed him some literature. I showed him where Obama's website was and urged him to log on and perhaps blog some of his ideas. I told him that I thought if Obama became president there just might be a chance that some of his ideas might get a listen to. And I told him I would do what I could.
Richard is just an ordinary man, stuck in an unlucky place. Someone I might never have met if not for luck, chance, or what might be called a series of unconscious twists, turns, choices, encounters, decisions.....who knows? But he's an intelligent and proud man who only wishes to be able to turn his life around. Even those whom fate has swept to the sidelines haven't lost their belief in the American dream.
I wonder how author Leonard Mlodinow would calculate the odds on Richard G. Truth is, there but for the curlicued whimsy of fate go I.
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