Monday, February 27, 2012

You're positive you want to know if your butt looks big in those jeans?

I'm a little jumbly in my head tonight. I was sucker punched a couple of times in the past week, and I'm waiting for the third blow. There's always a third, right? And I've been obsessing over contemplating issues of loyalty and the consequences of doing the right thing, when to stay and when to go, when to forgive and when to accept that trust isn't an option. Clarity is elusive though, so I'm going to tell a story about doing the right thing -- with regrets.*

Everybody is familiar with the Hans Christian Andersen story "The Emperor's New Clothes," right? (If not, go read it. I'll wait.) My story is a modern day version of that one.

Years ago my church allowed a woman who ran a gleaning organization to use our kitchen once a week to cook food and take it downtown to feed anyone who cared to come and eat. I'm not going to name the organization because I think they often do good work, and this story doesn't represent the norm. The woman who ran the local group -- I'll call her Sally -- would go around to grocery stores, bakeries, and restaurants and take whatever leftover or outdated food they would give her. Then a group of mostly kids in their late teens or early 20's would cook a meal and go serve it on the lawn of the main library. (It was a terrible pain in the ass for the library, but that's not part of the story.) It seemed like a worthy cause, and only cost us the use of our kitchen--at least in the beginning.

As time went on, Sally asked for more and more space in our kitchen. Soon she had filled the refrigerator, so she asked for donations and received two more that were stored in church members' garages. She also stored more and more stuff in our pantry and even branched out into our shed where the mower was stored. After a few months, the church had no space in either the refrigerator or the pantry, and big bags of hard, inedible bread often sat at the foot of the back stairs drawing ants.

We were also getting complaints from the neighbors about Sally's big old panel van, which was packed to the roof with stuff, being parked in front of the church all the time. It smelled rotten and looked worse, and our building sat in one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the city. The office administrator reported that Sally, who had her own key, had started sleeping in the church at night as well. All so she could cook one meal a week and serve it downtown.

I knew all of it, but I wasn't on the board and I wasn't on the kitchen committee, so it really wasn't my business. To be honest, I was deeply involved in the church -- my church -- and I'd heard rumbles, but the minister always said he would talk to her. I found it annoying that we didn't have space in the refrigerator for storing food when we had potlucks or other functions, but it wasn't politically advisable to complain about someone who was doing such good work. Feeding the hungry and all. Sally's mission trumped all other concerns, even though only one kid from the teen group cooked regularly with them. Nobody else in the congregation did.

And then one night all that changed. We'd had a potluck and my good friend GG and I were the last ones left cleaning up. We finished but the kitchen still smelled like ass. So we started to investigate. We found bags and drawers full of rotting produce in the fridge. It was so bad we couldn't tell what the food had been. It had liquified and grown mold until it was indescribable. We filled several big black garbage bags with the crap -- gagging as we did -- and scrubbed out the fridge. It was getting late, well after midnight, but we're both a little OCD about things like cleaning kitchens. And the kitchen still smelled like ass.

So we ventured into the walk-in pantry and turned on the light. The shelves were stacked to the max with all kinds of canned and boxed food. We checked the expiration dates and most of them were months out of date, but OK, they might still be good. In addition, boxes were stacked floor to ceiling in most of the floor space.

We decided to pull some down and see what was inside. We reached up over our heads together to lift the top box off one of the stacks, and as we pulled it down cockroaches started running down our arms and dropping to the floor. We dropped the box, screamed and started stomping. Let the horror movie begin. After the roaches had run out of that box, we opened it and found it full of empty, dirty food containers  -- yogurt, mayonnaise, whatthefuckever. We pulled down other boxes and they were all full of garbage. And roaches.

We started hauling them out.  We set them by the trash cans. And then we cleaned the pantry the best we could.

On Sunday when we came back, most of the boxes had been brought back into the pantry, and we were called on the carpet to explain why we had thrown out Sally's stuff. We explained, and we hauled that shit back out. And we unlocked the shed and looked in there. It was full to the top with boxes of old, unusable clothing. Her van? Also full of trash. It was a nightmare.

As I said, this happened years ago, long before Hoarders was on TV, but I'd heard of people with that mental illness. And Sally definitely had it. She had once been a professional, educated and obviously intelligent. But she spent all of her time now gathering unwanted food and finding places for her garbage. I believe she was homeless, but she was resourceful and she'd found a way to make her hoarding into a charity. She was obviously mentally ill and needed help. Or it seemed obvious to me.

Except that it wasn't obvious to everybody. The person in authority, our minister, was instead angry at GG and me for trying to interfere with Sally's good work. He attached such stigma to mental illness that he couldn't accept that she was sick. To him, it was a terrible insult to say, "This woman is mentally ill and we need to stop supporting her illness. It's making us sick too." He became quite angry, and because of his  true compassion for her, he couldn't see how sick she was. And the same with other people who believed in what she was doing and hadn't seen the awful mess GG and I had cleaned up. Because the mess wasn't there any more. Just the story.

I suppose we could have just let go of it .... I mean we could have just let things go and let somebody else deal with it eventually. We could have just continued to clean the kitchen and throw out the trash and spray Raid around. But neither of us are programmed that way.

So we pushed it. We went to the board and insisted on taking our kitchen back. And eventually, as the neighbors' complaints to the police escalated and the trash continued to come into the building, they had to vote to tell her to leave.

I don't have to tell you who the bad guys were in this situation, do I? Yep. I lost friends over it. Good friends, in fact. The minister was mad at me, and he let other people know how cruel I'd been, how lacking of compassion. He thought I was horrible for saying she was mentally ill. People who didn't know the whole story, or who liked the idea of other people feeding homeless people downtown from our kitchen, were mad.

And yet some people were relieved because, although they didn't want to confront the issue themselves, didn't want to get into a conflict with the minister, didn't want to stop Sally's "good work," they also wanted to use our kitchen again. They didn't want Sally sleeping in the church and filling every space she could infiltrate with trash. So they whispered their thanks.

Oh, and Sally didn't get help. At least not from us. I'm not sure what happened to her, but she didn't get help for her mental illness from us.

It's a thankless job being the kid who calls out that the emperor** is wearing no clothes. And like all fairy tales, we don't get to know what happens later .... the rest of the story ... until it's too late. 

Well, I know. The child's parents told him to shut the fuck up. And he probably insisted, and a few people continued to see that the emperor's dick was hanging out. But most of them didn't really believe what they didn't want to see. And once the procession was over, most of them thought nothing had really been wrong. Surely the emperor wouldn't go out without clothes on. And the emperor, well he certainly couldn't believe he'd been so stupid as to parade around in his naked glory. Nobody wants to believe he could be that stupid. I wouldn't be surprised if the child were spanked and sent to bed without his supper.

And that's when the child has to wonder if it was really worth telling the truth. Or if maybe he would have been better off pretending the emperor wasn't strutting down the street, balls to the wind, ass hanging out, naked as the day he was born. Maybe it would have been better not to have pointed out that Sally was sick and needed help, but not the kind we were giving her.

I've been in that position so many times I don't even want to count. Go ahead. Ask me if your ass looks large in those pants. Some of us just have to tell the truth, and then worse, do something about it. I can't even count how many times I've wished I wasn't that person ..... and then the next time a situation comes around, there I am, shouting from the crowd, "Oh my god! The emperor is buck naked and walking down the street! Am I the only one who can see his weenie? Anybody? ..... Anybody? ...."

Have you ever felt regret for doing what you knew in your heart was the right thing, especially after the consequences started coming in?

It's hard to tell sometimes whether telling the truth and then pushing for change is worth the personal consequences. In my experience, the suffering can last much longer than I ever would have imagined as other people close their eyes and remember the emperor wearing fine robes as he paraded down the street. I've always felt sorry for that child who saw the emperor's nudity. How much better if he could have just seen a scrap of clothing clinging to the man's loins so he could have kept his mouth shut and enjoyed the fucking parade.

* Elvira has been watching Hoarders because it makes her want to clean. She keeps telling me about these crazy people who save all kinds of things like dead cats and their own shit and I really wish she wouldn't.
** Just to be clear, the emperor isn't our minister in this story. He was doing the best he could too, and with great compassion toward Sally. The emperor just represents the situation.


  1. I get it. Really, I do. I've been there many times, and will probably be there many times in the future.

    Some of us can't be part of the unquestioning masses. It's not in our makeup.

    There are great personal losses, yes-- but in the end, I can go to sleep at night with a clear conscience and my personal integrity intact.

    1. I guess you're right. I never see the black and white though. I always think there must have been a better way.