Tuesday, June 10, 2008


I had to be at a meeting in 15 minutes. More accurately, I had to run a meeting in 15 minutes. I wasn't in a mood to hear a story pitch from a person off the street.

When I shake her tiny hand it feels like a stunned bird. Her name isn't Arlene Red Deer, but it's like that. We sit down and she tells me a long story about a daughter done wrong and a grandbaby adopted away. I've heard tales like this before, sitting in this chair. A father who wants custody back but doesn't have the money for a lawyer. A woman on disability who is caught in the labyrinth of public health care. A down-and-out entrepreneur who is sure he has the Next Big Thing. An unemployed busybody with reams of paper outlining the corruption of various township officials three counties away.

They all go nowhere. What can we do? We run the checks and find nothing, like we know we will.

Arlene goes on to tell me of an arrest. She can hardly speak. I might be getting played, but I'm pretty sure I'm not. She's sober, she's scared, she's unfolding her life like an origami box, expecting me to crush it. She makes allegations that I have to take seriously because I'm listening to her and I seem to be the only human being who has listened to her today.

And I know that checking them out will get us nowhere.

"I'm a nobody," she says. And I know people have been treating her like one for a long time.

"I didn't used to drink," she says, wanting me to believe her, and I do.

"They've broken my daughter's spirit," she says. She holds her hand out to me, her little hurt bird hand, and crumples it and brings it to her heart. "And I feel like they're breaking mine too."

Later I run the meeting and ask myself who the hell I'm trying to fool anyway. The business wasn't ever about making a difference, and it sure isn't now.


  1. All I can say is ouch. You have such a beautiful way with words, even with such a bleak scene.

  2. Tamara9:48 AM

    This business IS about making a difference...just less so about making a difference for individual people who have nowhere else to go than it is for society as a whole. Sorry, I just read a dual biography of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller ... my faith has been minutely renewed and not yet fully crushed.

  3. Hmmm. Zero fun.
    When I was a La Leche League leader, I would answer calls from women who wanted information about breastfeeding, or to know when our support-group meetings were.
    However, once I got a call from someone like you described. Custody issues, drug abuse, etc. I said, numerous times, "I am a volunteer breastfeeding support person. Do you have any questions about breastfeeding?"
    I would say that in your position, you're even more of a sitting duck.

  4. I saw you doing that and wanted to ask you about it. I hate those things.

    I did have a funny one, though, with a guy who had invented a perpetual motion machine that runs on air - not wind, just air. He wanted to tell me all about it, but I could not publish anything because it was still top-secret.