Tuesday, July 21, 2009

A Homeless Man And His Couch

On Monday afternoon the staff photographer and I walked a mile and change from the newspaper office to a nearby park, to cover a walk-a-thon some local groups had there. On our way back we took a shortcut through a side street where the city homeless often gather, and after we spoke to one man in particular I wrote this story here. Nothing political about it; just a snapshot-in-words of the city where I work.


We met Dennis Lorenzetti late on a Monday afternoon, as he sat on one of the granite benches by the bus stop on Bank Street. As we walked past he waved a small, faded photograph at us, obviously trying to get our attention. There’s no particular reason this homeless man should have caught our notice when so many more seem invisible, but we stopped to chat.

The photo showed his parents. Lorenzetti said his father died of Alzheimer’s and his mother of breast cancer. He also said his sister Lori had died in a car accident the night before (though we found no mention of her when we searched online). Lorenzetti said he used to live in Bristol, but now sleeps in New Britain since he lost his job two years ago.

We asked if there was anything we could do. He started to cry. “Give me my sister back,” he said. “Can you do that?”

No, but we could give him two dollars we had on hand. He said he didn’t want the money, though he did eventually put it into his battered wallet which, except for the photo and his social services card, was empty. Otherwise, his total possessions consisted of the clothes on his back and a filthy plastic shopping bag filled with aluminum cans salvaged from garbage bins.
He talked about many things: how he spends a lot of time in Central Park because he has no better place to go. The unfairness of the police who, he says, sometimes kick him out of the park although he has a legal right to be there. People who would kill him because he knows too much.

“I have problems with alcohol, I don’t deny that,” he said, though when we met him his eyes were clear rather than bloodshot.

We asked where he sleeps. “I sleep on a couch,” he said. “An old Puerto Rican man — I don’t know his name — he said he owns the building. I asked him if I could sleep on the couch, and he gave me a blanket and a pillow, too. Then he said ‘Wait right there, don’t move,’ and I thought he was going to call the police, but instead he came back with a big platter” — he held his hands more than a foot apart to show how big it was — “filled with chicken and rice and beans and bread and soda.”

We realized he was talking about an outdoor couch. We asked if we could see it. The question surprised him, but he led us through a few blocks of downtown streets to a litter-strewn alleyway between some old brick buildings. There we saw an incongruously colorful sofa with a blanket and pillow on it. The sofa hadn’t been there long; there was none of the rotting or waterstains you’d see had it been in a rainstorm.

There was no tarpaulin or waterproofing over it. We didn’t ask what he would do the next time it rained.

“I keep it clean,” he said, and sure enough the litter strewn through the alleyway stopped a couple feet from the sofa.

He wouldn’t let us take his picture, though he did let us photograph his bed. As we walked out of the alley some church bells started chiming.

“It’s like the voice of the Lord,” he said.

We turned in one direction to go back to our office, and he turned in another to go wherever he goes.

It rained the next morning. We returned to the alley and found no sign of Lorenzetti. His sofa and bedding were ruined.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Passport Finale: Rain, Snow and Gloom of Night

Isn’t it wonderful how far society has advanced from the Bad Old Days? Back then mentally deficient people had to become homeless street beggars, but now they can land good-paying jobs not delivering my mail for the U.S. Postal Service.

As mentioned in previous posts, for the past month people in my apartment building have been getting everybody else’s mail except their own. (In my own household, we had to call the credit card and various utility companies to determine how much we owed, since those particular bills never made it into our mailbox. We did, however, get credit-card and cable bills intended for various neighbors.)

Not getting your mail is bad at any time, and it’s especially so when you await the arrival of the passport you need to go on vacation in a couple weeks. Naturally, I became a tad upset on July 7 when I checked the state department and post office tracking sites and discovered my passport had allegedly been delivered June 29. I formally reported the passport missing, applied for a new one and later got a call from a passport office in Charleston, South Carolina, saying they’d FedEx a new passport to me. The next day, July 10, I came home to finally find in my mailbox the Priority Mail envelope allegedly delivered twelve days before.

I made the discovery after business hours on Friday, so I called and left a message with the passport folks’ South Carolina office. That Monday they called at work to tell me my original passport was invalidated, so I needed the new passport plus I had to send my old one back.

Through all those days, I frequently called my post office to complain. I got repeated promises to speak to my mail carrier and call me back. Nothing ever came of this. Last Thursday I called again, recited the same litanies and added “What, exactly, do I have to do to get my mail delivered? That’s all I am asking at this point. You guys blamed the problem on a hard-to-read mailbox label; we changed the label so it has our name and address in HUGE black waterproof letters. It hasn’t worked. We’re still not getting our mail. Today I got mail for two different addresses. Even if your guy simply can’t read a mailbox label, couldn’t he at least figure apartments A-2 and C-3 don’t share the same mailbox?”

That afternoon I came home to find a Fed Ex note on my mailbox. Turns out the company makes deliveries to my residential neighborhood between eleven a.m. and noon, on weekdays. Coincidentally, “between eleven a.m. and noon on weekdays” is exactly when most Americans with jobs aren’t home. I’m one of them. So I had to go to the Fed Ex depot, over an hour’s drive from where I work and a half-hour from home, which furthermore closed before the time I usually get off work.

I arranged to get all my work done early that morning, and on Friday afternoon journeyed through the wilds of semi-rural western Connecticut. At last, 19 days after the post office delivery confirmation claimed to have delivered it, I had a valid passport in my hand.

My passport wasn’t the only thing the post office lost. There remained the matter of my missing birth certificate, which the state department mailed out a couple days after my first passport. What happened there?

The Carolina passport office called again to say my birth certificate had been returned to them. According to “the computer,” the caller said, my address doesn’t actually exist.

My building’s divided into six apartments, each labeled with a letter-and-number combination ranging from A-1 to C-2. The woman said “the computer” couldn’t handle letters in the address because the apartments were actually numbered 1 through 6.

I said nothing. I took a long, slow, deep breath. I exhaled it in a Sigh Of Infinite Resignation. Then, finally, in an utterly exhausted voice, I said, “Then I simply don’t. Know. What to tell you. I’ve lived here since 2004, and my address has been [letter]-[number] all this while, and it never was a problem until last month.”

The birth certificate arrived in the same Fed Ex envelope as my passport.

So I got those two documents in hand last Friday. But what of the third missing mail item – my moderately expensive eBay package?

That same Friday, I found in my mailbox the little pink slip you get when there’s a registered-mail package you must sign for at the post office. Hooray! Of course, it was also stamped “FINAL NOTICE” in big red letters, despite being the first notice I received, and I had to pick it up immediately or else they would ship it back to the original sender, but since I’d arranged to take off work early to get to the Fed Ex office anyway, I also made it home before the post office closed. Finally, I had my missing parcel.

So the three items I knew to expect in the mail are finally safe in my possession and I suppose it all turned out all right. Unless I get arrested for skipping state or federal jury duty. I’ll tell the cop I never got the notice but he won’t believe me, because the notice had been entrusted to the U.S. Mail.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Passport Update: Dead Woman Walking

So I filled out the official form swearing that no, the post office never delivered my passport to me; no, I'm not lying when I say that; yes, I understand it's illegal to have two valid passports at once; and yes, I promise I'll return the first one if I find it.

This all happened in the little passport office attached to my nearby post office. The passport guy, after making sure my forms were correct, assured me, "They'll have it out for you tomorrow! Don't worry, you'll be able to go on your vacation!"

"I'm not worried about the state department mailing out my passport in time," I told him. "I'm worried about the mailman delivering it when they do."

"Don't worry," he assured me again. "It'll be sent Fed Ex."

See? Even official auxiliaries of the Department of State know better than to trust the U.S. Postal Service when something really has to get through. After taking care of that, I tried complaining with some postal people but only got a runaround.

So it looks like I'll get another passport in time to leave for Canada, but in the meanwhile I still have my passport and birth certificate in someone else's hands; the post office swears they delivered them, but can't say who the recipient was or where he is.

I have already accepted that within the next year I'll receive a huge bill for a maxed-out credit card I never applied for or a Mexican laetrile farm I never bought. If I'm extra-unfortunate (50/50 odds), the FBI and Interpol will raid my workplace and arrest me for international arms smuggling, and they'll even have the passport stamps to prove it.

I shall protest that 37 witnesses, three of whom are legal adults, can place me at a children's ceramic painting class in Plainville, Connecticut at the time Zimbabwe received the alleged nukes, and furthermore there's an article about said class under my byline in the newspaper archives.

And none of this will matter. I'll still be screwed.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Mad Props To The U.S. Postal Service Part Two: Lost Passport Edition

I mentioned two weeks ago that the post office has been putting people's mail in the wrong boxes at my apartment building. I also mentioned waiting for my U.S. passport to arrive, so I can return home after a trip to Canada next month.

Today I checked the state department's tracking page, and learned the passport was mailed almost two weeks ago. Then I checked the Priority Mail tracking number and learned the passport had been marked "delivered" on June 29. So I will have to report it as stolen, in which case it will no longer be valid, and I have to apply for a new one, which probably won't arrive in time for my vacation.

Thank you, United States Postal Service, for your outstanding commitment to customer service and national security. I guess you lost my birth certificate and the package I ordered on eBay, too.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Apparitions In Providence

I have never believed in ghosts, but many who do have sworn to me that cameras are an excellent way to detect proof of “This blob of light wasn’t there when I snapped the picture!” they say. “Sometimes the camera picks up on things you can’t notice yourself.”

And they’re right. It happened to me yesterday, on the Fourth of July.

My boyfriend and I went to Providence, Rhode Island, to catch the downtown Waterfire show and then watch the fireworks over the harbor from our hotel room. (Side note: turns out fireworks are a lot better when you don’t have to crane your neck back to see them, but can look straight ahead.)

Waterfire is this performance-art thing Providence occasionally hosts at sunset. There’s a shallow river encased in concrete running through the city, and when Waterfire events are held, metal braziers filled with firewood are mounted on the river in the downtown area, bonfires burn from sunset through midnight while ethereal music blasts from speakers built into the river wall, and you get to walk through a downtown lit almost entirely by firelight.

In the hours before sunset, some techno-rock-rap band combo gave a free concert while people waited for Waterfire to begin. There’s a grassy hill sloping down to the riverfront, and most spectators reclined on the grass to watch the band below. Jeff and I got there early enough to find seats on the edge of one of the concrete stairways, and once we settled in I took a photo of him with out digital camera.

The camera’s screen is barely two inches wide, so you can’t make out most details in a picture until you expand it to full-size on a computer. When we got home today and unpacked our things, I went to my office to send off one of my mind-numbing but lucrative “I shoulda been a tentacle porn actress” editing jobs when I suddenly heard Jeff start laughing, and call me into his room.

“Come in’ere. Check this out,” he said as I walked in. He’d been uploading the pictures from our trip, and clicked through several shots of one or more of us at the concert. “See this picture?” he said, as this one appeared on the screen:

“Sure,” I said. “What’s so funny?”

“Check out my shoulder,” he said, and zoomed in on the photo. At first he started zooming in on his shirt, and I thought the denouement would turn out to be some small discoloration, so I tried thinking of something warm and supportive to say to a significant other who finds “A dark spot on a shirt after nine hours of running around doing touristy things” was laugh-out-loud funny.

But I worried for naught. He adjusted the controls, and I saw that I had taken a stunning photo of the classic Rhode Island hospitality that’s made “Family Guy” such a popular documentary series:

Lucky for me I didn’t take that photo at work. The editor would’ve yelled at me because I didn’t get their names for the caption.
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