Every year I promise myself that I will look back on what was accomplished with a somewhat less critical eye than I generally approach everything else. It’s a year’s end resolution that I fail at regularly.
Two experiences in the past few months have made the self-imposed task more difficult to ignore.
The first came in September. After several months of talking with local residents of manufactured home parks about their varying hardships, I was poring over a trove of documented problems at a Keizer park with a pair of women. One of them began questioning the point of trying to hold the property owner to account given a history of apathy.
“This is different,” the other resident told her. “Now there’s someone listening to us.”
A few days after reporting on the problems, the owner sent out dozens of contractors to fix the problems. Despite the positive outcome, it’s that small exchange between two people unaccustomed to being heard that keeps replaying over and over in my head.
A month later, I was taking a break between interviews and sitting under a tree providing shelter from a light rain when a large passenger van pulled into the long driveway and headed in my direction.
As the driver approached, I realized I recognized him. My eyes got wide and a smile broke even wider across my face. Wiz pulled up right next to me and hopped out of the driver’s seat.
Wiz and I met in October 2016 when he and some of his friends were rousted from a growing homeless encampment under the awning of the Roths building. At the time, it was nothing more than an empty shell. I asked if anyone wanted to be a voice for the people who were being displaced and Wiz offered to share his story.
In the three years since, Wiz and I became friends. He drops by the office regularly to check in or when he needs to share some of the burden of what he’s seen living in the streets. I’ve tried to be his Jiminy Cricket, a constant voice urging him to make contact with those that could help him put a roof over his head. We hug whenever he departs and I worry when the absences grow longer than usual.
Wiz told me getting the van was a possibility, but I’ve seen enough sky-high goals – Wiz’s, others’, my own – dissipate into the ether to deter continued blind faith. I only realized in retrospect how hard he’d been working toward that moment. Earlier this year, he quit drinking on his own. He told me about it 70 days in. He worked with the courts to get his license back.
I have no doubt that Wiz pulled into the parking lot thinking he’d found another lost soul, sitting alone and wishing for invisibility, that he could use his new wheels to help. The sight of him driving up in the van was redemptive.
Once Wiz was out of the van, we hugged and shouted at each other over the blaring stereo system and hugged again and shouted some more. Somewhere in the midst of the euphoria, Wiz said, “If you hadn’t seen me that day, listened …”
He trailed off because my body language shifted. My natural reaction to this type of gratitude is – always – deflect, deflect, deflect.
To Wiz, it hadn’t mattered so much that I’d written about him in the paper, it was the too-often underrated acts of seeing and listening that he saw as having a throughline to the moments we shared outside his van three years later.
This is what seeing and listening accomplished in the past year: they helped make the world of dozens of people in a manufactured home park a little bit safer and – along with some incredible kindness on the part of others – helped another man kick the bottle and put a roof, of a sort, over his head.
All it took was a willingness to see and a humble ear.
(Eric A. Howald is the managing editor of the Keizertimes.)