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27 Nov 2013

Sniff the Cap: Drinking Wine to Forget My Liberal Guilt

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Meet Lea. She was expecting a care package from a friend in Colorado. The package had been mailed to general delivery and had not yet arrived. She wanted to use Deidre's phone to call her friend. Meet Lea. She was expecting a care package from a friend in Colorado. The package had been mailed to general delivery and had not yet arrived. She wanted to use Deidre's phone to call her friend. Deidre Pike

I feel privileged all year long, not just on Thanksgiving. Last night, hubby Dave bought a bottle of 2011 Tobin James Ballistic zinfandel, an old fave. The wine’s about $18, not terribly expensive.

For our budget.

It’s a jammy zin, without apology. As I enjoyed it, I thought back to a recent conversation with a fellow drinker about my age named Lea, 46.

Lea is homeless, or at least “in transition,” a less-permanent-sounding term. In September, Lea returned to California from Colorado, where she predicted there’d be five inches of snow by Thanksgiving Day. Lea camps out most nights. I spotted Lea sitting under a tree, drinking a 40-ounce Miller and smoking a hand-rolled cigarette. She had a worn paperback book open across her chest.

For Lea, the holidays are like any other day—although she has a slightly higher chance of getting a tasty meal. She was expecting a care package from a friend in Colorado. The package had been mailed to general delivery and had not yet arrived. She wanted to use my phone to call her friend.

I have a newish phone. I bought it because it has twice the battery life of other phones on the market. Choosing a cell phone and plan from the oodles of choices was rough. First World problems are the only kind I have.

A friend handed Lea a paper carton with what looked like mac-and-cheese. Lea drank beer with her dinner, noting that she was drinking in public.

“But I’m not breaking any glass or anything, and I'm not being loud or picking fights,” she said. Public is the only place she has to drink.

“I drink wine with my dinner most nights,” I said, in a lame attempt to connect.

“I like wine,” she replied, “but it’s too expensive.”

I thought of my embarrassing collection of wine, which lines a wall of our kitchen pantry.

This is how I justify my wine-spending habits. I don’t have a big-screen TV. My car is dented, high-mileage and paid for. Instead of paying for a gym membership, I go for daily hikes. I buy clothes at thrift shops. I pack lunches and cook in rather than dine out. That’s how I buy good wine.

Niggled by liberal guilt, I wonder how others reconcile privileged lifestyles in a world where so many starve, lack health care, lack housing, lack everything. Sometimes I think I could quit my college-prof gig and head to a developing nation to help. But I’m not the Mother Teresa type. I don’t like bugs or uncomfortable sleeping arrangements. I do like flush toilets and hot showers.

So to do my part, for now, I plan to devote some time, money and political attention to the needs of others. (You couldn’t call this noblesse oblige, because I have no noblesse. Maybe middle-class oblige?) I give a tiny bit of dough to an international agency that helps kids in Nepal obtain food, school and health care. But a person doesn’t have to look to distant nations to find poverty. Plenty of need is apparent right here at home.

I’ve been considering volunteer work in literacy education. I teach, so that makes sense. But recently I learned of a California street newspaper that could use some pro bono assistance. That’s how I ended up interviewing people in transition last week.

People I met:

• Mike, a middle-age man confused about why he wasn’t getting disability checks, who panhandled to get grocery money.

• Star, a 21-year-old who drove across the country from Pennsylvania with her husband, five other people, three dogs and no jobs lined up.

• Martha, born in California, who’d been recently assaulted in a homeless camp. No phone—so no call to the police. She had to wait until the next day to get to the emergency room. A gash on her face that needed stitches didn’t get them.

Overwhelming, right? (Who needs a drink?)

A bill has been working its way through the California Assembly that would create a Homeless Bill of Rights. AB 5 was approved by the Assembly Judiciary Committee earlier this year, but in May, the bill was put on hold, probably until early next year. The Appropriations Committee needed time to figure out how the state might pay around $300 million to build and operate an estimated 540 public-hygiene centers with showers and bathrooms—one in each city and county. That’s just one of the bill’s stipulations: the State Department of Public Health must “fund the provision of health and hygiene centers, as specified, for use by homeless persons in designated areas.”

(Follow the bill's progress here.)

The bill’s sponsor is Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, a San Francisco Democrat, who told The Sacramento Bee the bill would end laws that “infringe on poor peoples' ability to exist in public space, to acquire housing, employment and basic services and to equal protection under the laws.”

I’m no expert on solutions to help people in transition, but I think a bill like Ammiano’s is needed. That said, I’m not sure how I feel about building showers, aka treating the symptoms and not attacking the problem at its roots. It seems more logical for California to spend $300 million getting individuals into apartments with their own bathrooms and showers.

It’s an issue that I’ll be following. Turns out nothing pairs better with a trek through the California Legislature’s website better than a viscous Paso Robles zin.

If you’re looking to assuage some liberal guilt, you could write a check to Roy’s Desert Resource Center in Palm Springs. About 90 people in transition receive shelter there nightly. And showers: www.desertsos.org/RoysDesertResourceCenter.aspx.

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