A Glimpse of Danika: an Unexpected Day with a Homeless Woman

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On the morning of December, 4, 2016, my wife, Beth, and I went on a bicycle ride through our neighborhood. As we crossed a nearby park on a paved bicycle trail, we passed a woman standing next to a picnic table under a Ramada. On the table were a suitcase, sleeping bag and two canvas bags. Moments later, Beth braked and then turned to me.

“Do you think we should offer to help her?”

Trusting Beth’s judgement more than my own I replied “I was thinking the same thing, but I’ll leave it up to you.”

Beth turned her bike around and I followed her back to the picnic table where we both stopped.

“Excuse me, but do you need help?”

“I’m all right, thank you, but I could use some food. I won’t take money unless you have work that I can help with, and I would only use that money for bus fare or an emergency.” As we spoke to her, we learned that she called herself Danika. She was very articulate and polite.

Beth offered to bring food and Danika dictated a specific list of needs: flour tortillas; unleavened bread; grapes; and Passover wine. “I will understand if you don’t bring me the wine,” she commented. “I would only use it for Passover.” After finishing our bike ride, Beth drove to the grocery store. While she was gone, I sent her a text: “Maybe she would like to help put up Christmas lights?”

Shortly thereafter, Beth returned to the park with the groceries. As she spoke more with Danika, she discovered that she was headed to the library next, a 1.5 mile walk from the park. She would stash her belongings behind bushes for safekeeping so that she would not have to bring them along. She used a computer at the library to check her email, search Craig’s list for work, or catch up on current events. She also used that time to charge her Government Issue cell-phone. With no service contract, it was useless as a phone, but it worked adequately as a flashlight and allowed her to listen to music.

We decided to meet Danika at the library and offer more help. When we arrived, she was sitting out front talking animatedly with a sharply dressed woman. It was clear that the two women had made a connection and when we approached her, she matter-of-factly said:

“Do you mind coming back in a while so that I can finish my conversation with Audrey?” Danika can be rather blunt.

“Okay,” Beth replied, “we’ll just go into the library for a while.”

When we returned, she had just finished her conversation.

“How would you like to help me install Christmas lights on my home?” I asked.

“While you’re there, I can wash your clothes and you can shower if you’d like,” Beth chimed in.

“Can I wash my sleeping bag, too? It got wet from the rain a few days ago and it’s still damp. I’m worried that it will get moldy.”

“Of course.”

“That would be wonderful.”

“Our van is right over there,” I said, pointing. “Let me help you with your bags.”

“Thank you.”

The three of us carried her meager belongings to the van and then drove home. Once there, Beth began washing the sleeping bag while Danika unpacked her clothes. Meanwhile, I retrieved the Christmas lights from storage and untangled them while I waited for Danika. She joined me a few minutes later.

 “I’ve never done this before, so I apologize if it doesn’t turn out well.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll be happy with whatever I get. I’m just glad to have some company.”

As we worked together, I learned a little more about her life. She was from Los Angeles, and was abandoned by her birth parents at an early age. She had a brother and sister, whom she didn’t know. Although she was adopted, her birth parents were an occasional part of her life, which appeared to cause more harm than good by reinforcing memories of abandonment. Despite having an adoptive family, she carefully avoided discussing them.

She managed to graduate from high school and take a few community college classes, but frequently ruminated about her abandonment, eventually turning to the bible for comfort. She read scripture voraciously and that became a focal point of her life. Her new obsession with scripture made people around her uncomfortable and she became increasingly alienated. In January, 2016, she chose a life of homelessness, placing her fate in God’s hands.

The conversation flowed naturally and instead of feeling like I was helping a homeless person, I felt like I was merely spending time with a friend. After stringing lights, the last of the clothes were still not dry, so we offered to either make dinner at home, or take Danika to a restaurant of her choice. In her typical blunt fashion, she suggested The Cheesecake Factory, a fairly upscale restaurant famous for their cheesecake.

Having not showered in three weeks, Danika then retired to the bathroom. It took so long that I wondered if something had gone awry. After all, we knew almost nothing about her.

“Do you think she’s okay?”

Beth shrugged “I hope so.”

After showering, Danika decided to dress for the occasion. Because she and Beth were of the same build, Beth selected some of her clothes for Danika to borrow while her clothes continued to dry. A top priority for Danika was that they be warm, so she ended up with black leggings, a grey, long sleeved t-shirt, and a cream cardigan sweater. Beth even let her borrow a colorful necklace and silver earrings.

Apparently, Danika had a small stash of make-up in her suitcase, and this was the perfect time to use it. She had not been to a restaurant in a long while. Once again, she disappeared into the bathroom for a considerable time to apply makeup.

Eventually, she descended the stairs and then paused at the bottom to pull on her calf-high, black, faux-leather boots that she had recently purchased at a local supermarket with money that she had saved. Afterward, she stood and announced “I’m ready.”

I was stunned by her miraculous transformation, but said nothing until after we had ordered our meal at the restaurant, at which time I could hold it in no longer. “Danika, you are the most beautiful homeless person I have ever seen.” She smiled broadly and thanked me.

During dinner, it became evident that Danika was a very bright and resourceful woman. She knew of several shelters, assistance programs and other options available to her, and had taken advantage of them whenever she was overly hungry, sick, or beaten by the hard life that she’d chosen. It also became obvious, from the tears that occasionally streamed down her cheeks, that she was tormented by demons that might be better faced head-on instead of smothering them with scripture.

Ultimately, Danika ordered more than she could eat: bread; an appetizer of hot wings (which I shared); and a main course: herb crusted filet of salmon, asparagus and beets substituted for potatoes. After months of light meals on the fly, it was impossible to eat it all in one sitting. We requested take-out boxes for the remainder so that she could eat it later.

After returning home, an awkward silence filled our home as Danika prepared for homelessness once more. She returned the jewelry to Beth and washed her makeup off so that it would not soil the layers of clothing necessary to protect her from the night-time cold. She carefully folded and packed her clean clothes into her suitcase but did not pick out any clothes to change into.

Beth informed me later that she struggled with the situation as the shirt and sweater were among her favorites. Ultimately, she decided that keeping Danika warm through the chilly Phoenix December nights was worth the sacrifice. Soon, Danika was ready to return to the park where we had found her. “You don’t have to take me back, I’ll walk,” she insisted, to which I replied “Nonsense. I’d be happy to drive you.”

In truth, this situation broke our hearts. How could we return this wonderful, kind person to homelessness? We could easily take her in. Our children had moved out. We had plenty of space and resources. Nevertheless, Danika was on a mission. She had placed herself at the mercy of God and was bound and determined to follow His guidance. This was an important journey of self-discovery for her, perhaps the most important thing she would ever do. Unbelievably, we both felt that it would be inappropriate to offer her more than we already had. Besides, she could have mental health or other issues that we were untrained to deal with.

Beth gave Danika our email address, said goodbye and then hugged her. Although I was driving her to the park, she hugged me as well and then thanked us both. Afterward, I loaded her belongings into the van and drove back to the park where we had met her less than twelve hours earlier.

As I helped to carry her meager possessions into the park, Danika stopped next to a colorful children’s jungle gym with a small roof sheltering a raised six by six foot platform. “I’ll sleep here,” she said, “The sprinklers won’t soak me in the morning.”

I set her suitcase and two canvas bags full of food on the second of three stairs and then watched in disbelief as she unrolled her sleeping bag across the vinyl-coated steel mesh. As she prepared for the chilly night ahead, I felt that it was time to leave.

“Danika?”

“Yes?”

“Please remember that you are not alone. If you need anything, don’t hesitate to contact us by email. If you need a safe place to leave your things, you’re welcome to store them behind the large pillar by our front door.”

“Okay.”

“Well, good night, and God bless you.”

“God bless you, too.”

With that, I turned and walked away. I held back tears on the drive home, feeling as if I had just said farewell to a daughter. When I arrived back home, Beth’s eyes were tearing up as well. I embraced her and we hugged each other tightly, both of us wondering if we’d done the right thing.

The next day, I contacted a friend who cares for battered women. She provided a list of organizations to contact. One in particular stood out: the Salvation Army’s Project Hope, a mobile outreach program that provides housing, food, bus tickets, resume writing, interview clothing, work clothing, furniture, bedding, proper identification, and referrals to other community agencies.

I printed out their information and delivered it to Danika later that day. The following day, I contacted the Salvation Army and informed them of Danika’s location and situation. Now, it will be up to Danika to remain homeless or find purpose in her life.

***

Update: On December 7, Danika vanished. I hope that a Project Hope driver convinced her to accept their help and then delivered her to a safer and better life, however, I may never know for sure. Either way, I hope that our few hours of kindness made a difference that she will not forget and that someday, she will be able to help someone in a similar predicament.

***

Image courtesy of Paul Goyette, Flikr.com

Danika’s name was changed to protect privacy.

An Engaging and Thought Provoking Listen

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Roughly fifteen years ago, my daughters landed their first acting roles at the Ahwatukee Children’s Theater (ACT) in a “Muppets” version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Talented stage actor Michael Rubino, a co-founder of the theater, played Scrooge in that production. Michael took on other challenging roles during the years that my daughters performed there, always bringing passion, professionalism, and vitality to each.

Months before I finished writing the final manuscript of The Road to Amistad, I invited Michael to narrate the audio book. He had never narrated before, but with a long acting history and a penchant for challenging roles, the offer intrigued him. That brief conversation sparked a fire and in short order, he began producing audio books for Audio Creation Exchange (ACX), an Amazon affiliate. By the time I published The Road to Amistad, he had narrated five books and set his sights on becoming a Platinum Producer, which requires having published twenty-five.

When I first approached Michael, I had no idea his sixth audio book would be so remarkable. Michael brought each character to life with unique quirks, accents, softness, or gruffness, and consistently reproduced those characters chapter after chapter. In addition, he occasionally included unexpected sound effects that always brought a smile.

I’ve read The Road to Amistad countless times, but Michael’s wonderful narration made me laugh, cry, and beg for more. Because I know him personally, he allowed me to listen to each chapter as he finished it. I waited patiently at my computer each night for the next amazing installment, sometimes until well after midnight.

Thank you, Michael, for your incredible creativity, talent, and dedication to producing a quality audio book second to none. It has been an honor working with you and I wish you the best of luck on your journey to becoming a Platinum Producer.

To learn more about The Road to Amistad audio book and to listen to a sample, click here.

Together or Alone?

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This morning, I pondered the differences between my two novels: Detour from Normal and The Road to Amistad. Joined at the hip in many regards, these novels are nonetheless as different as night and day in a certain respect: one is about being alone and the other is about being together.

In Detour from Normal, I was thrust from normalcy into a life of cold, heartless professionals and the tragically mentally ill. A normal person in my place would feel frightened and alone, and many of the experiences I described are from a solitary perspective. Instead of feeling terrified, I felt at peace, and at times, blissful. A mysterious process had freed me from judgment, expectations, worry and fear.

That mindset allowed me to befriend people who were toothless, foul-smelling, crippled, rude or unable to communicate—people I would never associate with before. My best friend was a drug addict recovering from his eighth relapse who had lost his job, savings, car, home, wife and family because of addiction. Through different eyes, I found these people funny and interesting, and for those among them who felt frightened and alone, I became their guardian angel. It was an immensely freeing experience and I could not help but imagine what the world would be like if everyone could live life as I did then.

The Road to Amistad explores just such a scenario. People from all walks of life were spontaneously freed from their mental prisons and introduced to my world overnight. Unfortunately, their changed mindset more often than not led to heartache as family and friends demanded the return of their absconded loved ones.

A few managed to avoid that struggle and find a unity of spirit with others like themselves. Friendship and trust thrived regardless of former walls that separated them. They were magnets to each other, formed strong friendships and accomplished great feats together. None among them ever felt separate or alone.

Nowadays, it is difficult for me to tread the line between alone and together. I have a wife, children, friends and a full-time job. There are many rules and walls that impede me and I have limited time and resources.  It would be easier to abandon my vision and rejoin my former world, but I don’t want to close doors—I want to open them. I don’t want to be alone—I want to be together. I want to be part of something big.

I hope that you will read both Detour from Normal and The Road to Amistad and open your mind to possibilities that are ours for the taking. If my message rings true, press the button; twist the throttle; swing; jump; do whatever it takes to begin your own journey, and as you go forth, spread the word so that you may do it together instead of alone.

Kissed by a Hobo

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I stopped to pump gas at a Circle K in Tucson a while back and as I pulled up to the pump, I noticed a homeless man pushing a cart full of his meager possessions toward me. Hoping to discourage him, I left my door open blocking his way as I entered my credit card information at the pump. I didn’t want to say no to this man, but that’s what I normally do in such situations, not because I am uncaring, I just didn’t what to support a drunken lifestyle, believing that by withholding my generosity, I will somehow change his life for the better. Not to be deterred, the man made his way around the pump and caught me just as I reached for the nozzle.

“Excuse me, but could you spare eleven cents?” I scoffed at his request. Who would beg for eleven cents? “I’m eleven cents short to buy a boodie.”

“A  footy? “ I asked, clueless of what he was talking about.

“No, a boodie.”

“A booty?”

“No, you know, a boodie.” He repeated louder in frustration. “One of those big beers.”

“Oh.” I said, unable to make the logical connection. I reached into my pocket and pulled out what little change I had. “Looks like I only have two cents. Tell you what…” I paused, realizing I had no idea what was in my wallet. I pulled it out and opened it to reveal a five and a one dollar bill. I reached for the one and pulled it out. “I’ll give you a dollar.”

Before I knew it, the man wrapped me in a powerful bear hug. He was so happy that you’d think I’d offered him a million dollars. “You are so kind.” He said, hugging me even harder. Despite my reservations over hugging a hobo, I returned the hug equally strongly, laughing at the absurdity of the scene. Then, he did something really over the top: he kissed my head.

A dollar means nothing to me. I make that much in minutes at my job. I probably have a hundred dollars in change sitting in my piggy bank at home from emptying my pockets every day just so that I don’t have to lug it around the next day. It accumulates like dirty laundry until there is enough to warrant me bothering with it.

Eventually, the man stopped hugging me and with tears in his eyes, thanked me once again before continuing on his journey, clutching his dollar close to his heart. I proceeded to pump over fifty dollars of gas into my van in roughly the same time as our total interaction. I replaced the nozzle, screwed the gas cap on, and headed to spend another thirty dollars on pizza with my wife and children.

Surprisingly, that hobo’s hug and kiss made my day. I wished I’d given him the five instead, or even both bills. After he left, I realized that this is his life. I wasn’t going to change it one way or another with money, but maybe I could make a difference by treating him like a human being for a moment, by sticking around and listening to his stories. I can only imagine the places he’s been and the things that he’s seen. Perhaps talking with him would make a bigger difference in my life than his.

I’m crying as I write this thinking of the unfairness of it all. That hobo is equally the miracle that I am, blessed with the same extraordinary machine and unlimited capacity to thrive and succeed at anything he wishes. The only thing that makes us different are the beliefs and thoughts that fill our minds and the choices we make because of those thoughts. We are all capable of so much if only we knew how to get out of our own way.

Image courtesy of Vit Hassan, Flikr Commons

An Email from Tunisia

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Recently, a young blogger from Tunisia emailed me on Goodreads requesting a copy of Detour from Normal for review. My first thought was: “What do I have to gain by spending $30 for costs and shipping to send a book to a total stranger in Tunisia?”

Then, I remembered a salesman that rang our doorbell not long ago. When I opened the door, he entertained and pitched me so convincingly that I bought his product, despite the fact that I didn’t need it. I wrote back and asked the kid to sell me on the idea. The next day, I received a reply.

“Well, Mr. Ken, when I first read the information on your book, I said to myself: ‘This is definitely a book I should read before dying.’” The young man described his love of mystery, madness and engineering and went on to say: “…and guess what sir, your book matches exactly what I love and I’d be extremely happy to have it.” He informed me that he would have bought it online, but that he was only seventeen and not allowed to do so, and that the local libraries only carry books in Arabic and French. His email ended with this statement: “I don’t have any means of getting the book but from you, sir.”

Part of my message in Detour from Normal is that the internet erases all differences of race, culture, language and belief and connects us as human spirits with the same basic dreams and desires. How cool is it that a seventeen year old from Tunisia won me over just like that salesman? On top of that, this young blogger has nearly 400 followers already and his blog is barely started. He must have something positive going on.

“Good for him!” I say. I’m supporting his passion and encouraging him to keep connecting with humanity, breaking down barriers as he goes. I hope there are many more young people in the world equally willing to fearlessly broaden their horizons by contacting someone separated by oceans, continents, language, culture and beliefs, and become part of their world, if only for a moment.

Mohamed, your book is on the way.

 

Image courtesy of Giuseppe Bongiovanni, Flikr

Sashi and Alisha Come to Life

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A few years ago, I dreamed of a small disabled child rescued from certain death by an elephant. In the dream, the child and elephant become best friends and share many adventures. When I awoke, I rushed to my computer and recorded the dream. Months passed. In early spring of 2013, my youngest daughter, Hailey, announced that she wished to volunteer for a month in Nepal. Not being ones to stand in the way of our fearless adventurer, we scraped money together for the trip and allowed her to sign up. In June of 2013, our 16-year-old daughter flew unaccompanied around the world to Nepal.

For two weeks in a small town not far from the Chitwan Jungle, Hailey stood beside surgeons in a teaching hospital, asking questions as they operated. The conditions there appalled her. With no air conditioning, the operating room was sweltering. Sanitizing instruments between surgeries involved a few squirts of Windex, time permitting, otherwise, they rinsed them with cold running water. Hailey’s next assignment involved teaching English to young children near Kathmandu, but first, she and other volunteers seized an opportunity to explore the Chitwan Jungle.

During her adventures, Hailey posted Facebook updates religiously. Imagine my surprise one day when a photo of her riding an elephant bareback arrived on my timeline. The synchronicity was clear. I dusted off the story and approached it with new zeal. Characters broadened and took on names: Sashi, a real elephant in Nepal, and Alisha, meaning “protected by God.”

Public speaking always frightened me. A character in my newest novel wanted to improve his speaking skills. Perhaps sharing that journey would benefit me. In mid 2013, I joined Toastmasters. I survived the first few speeches, but the requirements for the next speech stumped me. That speech involved vocal range and variety. Wondering what I might present, I thought of Sashi and Alisha. I dusted off the story once more to fulfill the speech requirements. When the time came to present, I stomped like an elephant, hissed like a snake, and blew like the wind. I spoke feebly as a sickly Alisha and thunderously as powerful Sashi. As I delivered that speech, I realized that Sashi and Alisha had come to life. At that moment, I decided to publish Sashi and Alisha.

In mid-October 2014, my editor informed me of an opportunity to pitch a children’s book to a publisher for ten minutes on November 15th. Having been through several rounds of editing by then, the manuscript of “Sashi and Alisha” was ready. I knew nothing about pitching children’s books, but was up for the challenge. To my dismay, I learned that the pitch required a full mock-up of the book–with artwork! I am not an artist by any stretch of the imagination. I’m an engineer: I create mechanical drawings with Autocad, and electronic schematics with Altium. In a pinch, I can draw something crude with Microsoft Paint.

As I wondered what to do, I realized that Nepal was a beautiful place. I searched the internet and found a treasure trove of photos of Nepal, many from the Chitwan jungle. The solution was obvious. I just needed a mock-up. This wasn’t a book to sell. I needed something convincing enough to get me to the next level. For the last two weeks, I worked long and hard downloading images, cutting, pasting, and manipulating. I’m happy to say that it resulted in an unexpected work of art that I’m very proud of. Today, I’d like to announce that I finished the mock-up! This image is one of my favorites from the mock-up. Wish me luck with my pitch on 11/15!

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