Offering Gratitude…

I went out to feed the ranch cats this morning; Pancake, Waffle, Flapjack and The Other Feral Cat, Quattro. Then got some water for them, 25 degrees this morning. Since its Thanksgiving, I gave them an extra treat, a small portion of high end soft cat food.

Much ravenous scarffing ensued.

Got beautiful Thanksgiving note from Friend which prompted me to think of Thanks Giving.

For the latter part of our years together, Linda and I would sort of huddle down at home and try to make the Day one of introspection leavened with food and football and, often some Holy Day tree trimming using many Christian symbols in honor of the basis for the upcoming celebration, also quite a few homemade Buddhist-related decorations in honor of the Tradition within which we practice(d). The beginning of the Holy Day season for us was offering gratitude for the life we had been given, a second time, freely.

One day at a time.

My friend’s message stirred a memory of one of the many turning points in my life. They’ve all been positive, but often I couldn’t see that at the time of the turning of the wheel within.

During the Winter/Spring of 1982 I was living as a homeless drunk on the streets of San Francisco. It was one of the wettest Winters on record for S.F., and it was the logical conclusion of a wild, careless and reckless life, that did have some high points and a modicum of success in worldly ways, as well as a strong undercurrent of spiritual longing. All subsumed into a life of selfish behavior that injured and hurt many people, including myself.

One morning that Winter, I was standing in line on Golden Gate Avenue, ostensibly to get into St. Anthony’s Dining Room which was one of the compassionate outreach programs within the City (Glide Memorial, another), that helped the homeless and destitute. At that time the culture of street people was a little different than todays’, mostly in numbers and latitude by authorities. There was an astounding amount of help available.

I was not aware of it, as such, because I had given up and didn’t really care about much of anything. At that point I was sleeping on layers of cardboard on the concrete side ramp entrance to Commerce High School on Van Ness Ave. and was often cold and wet, always dirty and begging for enough money for Short Dogs (Round pint bottles) of Thunderbird wine and Pall Mall cigarettes. I had lost interest in food and was standing in the breakfast line at St. Anthony’s mostly to bump into one of my wino cronies who may have a morning bottle of wine tucked into his sleeve.

As I was in line during a slight drizzle a Seagull, on a parapet above me, let loose with a glob of poop that hit me on the shoulder. (Splat! Not a pigeon, for sure.) I had a moment of clarity. I turned into the doorway I was standing next to and opened the door into a small office staffed by four ladies at desks, who looked up slightly startled, but not worried (after all they worked for St. Anthony’s and may even have been nuns associated with the church, they had a certain quality), who asked politely if I needed help.

I said, ” I don’t want to do this anymore, how can I get out of it?” That may not be an accurate quote, but that was certainly the gist of it and as brief as whatever I did say.

One of the ladies, started writing on a half sheet of paper and said, “Go to the Ozonam Center on Howard St.(I think), and give this note to Lucy (I think)”.

I found it and saw it was a cavernous room filled with about a hundred “street people”, there was a counter where coffee was offered along with a tray of donuts cut in quarters (to feed the multitude), and guy standing behind a bowl of loose tobacco and a stack of cigarette papers. He was there to see that people didn’t take too much and deprive others, and also to roll a cigarette for you if you were too shaky; and I was. There was a sort of corral in the center which contained a desk with some small cabinets, several chairs, and a small white haired woman, somewhere in her fifties or sixties, with a nose that had been broken at least once. Lucy. This is the moment I recognized later as the beginning of a new life.

She did an “Intake” interview with me, it was only in retrospect years later, as my sobriety and meditation practice started to deepen, that the import of the process that day became clear to me.

Lucy, had been a street person, incarcerated and generally knocked about in life but had been sober for some time and ran this drop-in center for street people, (Run by the good folks of the St. Vincent dePaul Society) with a combination of iron will, compassion, and respect accorded to her by the clientele because she had once been exactly like them. I once saw her stop a slashing knife-fight in progress across the room, by shouting and telling the two men cutting each other, to drop their knives and go outside and wait for the ambulance. They didn’t drop their knives, but they stopped and went outside, separately.

She had strength based on composure, not merely will.

She did the paperwork on me and explained that if I wanted to, I could stay overnight in a bed if I took a shower;  that during the rest of the day and night I could have all the chicken soup and sandwiches I wanted and in the morning, would be transported to the “Sally” (Salvation Army Adult Rehab Program), if I wished.

As she did the paperwork she asked me where I slept. I said “On the ramp at Commerce High.” She wrote NKA on her document, I asked her what that meant; she said “No Known Address”. That was my first awakening to my reality at that point. I had become a person who lived nowhere and there was a group of letters to describe my condition. A bit further on she said, “How old a man are you?” I had to stop to try and think and count on my fingers and guess 35. It was only much later I realized the deep impact that question had on me. That impact had to do with the compassion and respect she accorded me by asking how old a “man” I was. I had stopped thinking of myself in that way. If she had said ‘How old a “wino”, “bum”, or “fuck-up” are you?’ I wouldn’t have winced.

Her using the word man, shifted something inside me.

I left the next morning and came back at least a half dozen times more and she was always kind and gave me vitamin pills on my way out.

It was to be about another year and a half before I finally could accept (still grudgingly and with negativity) all the help that was being offered to me and managed to get sober and stay sober (and clean) on the 21st of June 1983.

Because of that little initial, yet vast, experience and all the help freely given to me by so many kindhearted and compassionate people, I am able to be in a little cabin in a  remote area of Oregon, living on a small horse ranch ensconced for the Winter to do a retreat and hunker down for a period of time to see what directions the Spring and Summer point out to me. Thirty-four years after I was prepared to die on the streets of the City because of despair and just plain old giving up.

The practice of Zen Buddhism along with other life changing “Programs”, has given me a modicum of peace and arising joy that surpasses any quest for happiness and self-satisfaction that I ever pursued. In that process I married a woman who was also doing the sobriety/drug recovery journey and we had 28 years together (4-5 of them terrific; 3-4 very difficult; and rest in between. In other words, the national average. She passed almost three years ago and I miss her in that bitter/sweet way we accommodate all realities that are just hard to bear initially,  and I continue to make mistakes based on ignorance and erroneous views.

Yet, I continue as a human, as a man. One who most days does his best.

Zen Motto:      Hope for the best. Expect nothing. Do the Possible.




2 thoughts on “Offering Gratitude…

  1. Edward F Florence

    Damn, Helmut, in my opinion this post is your very best ever, hands down. Intimate, yet clear-eyed and objective, revealing the very best and some of the worst of what we all recognize as our shared human-ness. Sweet, sad, and inspirationally uplifting all at once. It is forward looking while also peeling back the curtains that keep us from facing the reality of our present moment. A fine piece of writing that really connected with me. Thanks for writing it, which I imagine was not easy and for posting it, which clearly took a lot of guts. A wonderful and much appreciated Thanksgiving gift.


  2. Joseph mugaku Engum

    A very tender moment of reflection… thank you Helmut, I look forward to spending more time with you and your writings. Your new dharma friend in Pendleton.. Joe



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