The milk crate

Have you seen the man who sits downtown on a blue milk crate? He is a distressed-looking fellow, understandably, and spends his days asking for handouts from strangers who cross his place in time and space. I crossed his domain this week on my way to get a cup of coffee. I met his eye as he sat on his crate, looking up miserably. “Do you have any change?” he asked. I told him I would after I bought my cup of coffee. But the fact was I had a pocketful of quarters, more than I needed for a cup of coffee. I figured that I’d explained myself out of the potential transaction somehow and shed him from my life. Somehow it seemed easier to say that than to reach into my pocket and hand him some change. When I exited the coffee house, however, I crossed him again and he said, “Do you have change now?” What could I say? I had a cup of coffee in my hand. I reached into my pocket and handed him my remaining quarters. And I felt better than if I’d not seen him again and kept those quarters that would have just ended up in a pile on my bedroom dresser. “You’ve got a milk crate,” I said, pointing out the painfully obvious. He considered it, shrugged his shoulders and told me he was from Nevada.

This Sunday, Oct. 2 beginning at noon, the Chico Community Coalition and the Chico Peace & Justice Center will hold the first annual Martin Luther King Jr. Family Picnic at Community Park. Sponsors are calling it “A Celebration of Unity in Chico.” There will be food provided—barbequed meat and baked beans and drinks—but you are asked to bring your own salad, side dish or dessert. Other offerings include a cornbread contest and live music. Bring your own chairs and/or blanket and learn how you can help build the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial at the park. Donations will be accepted.

I think the increase in parking meter rates have been effective in fixing the downtown parking squeeze, though maybe not in the way intended. The doubling of the rates has dispersed parking from the downtown into the neighborhoods to the east and west. It’s harder to find free parking there now. Someone who lives on Fourth Street now places an orange traffic cone in the parking spot directly in front of his or her house, hoping to keep that place open. That strategy seems to work, though I have seen the cone tossed into the front yard of the house by a driver desperate for a parking spot.

When I think of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina, I picture a map showing a huge semi-circle of destruction reaching up from the Gulf Coast into the country’s underbelly. And while my life goes on pretty much undisturbed—other than the annoying intrusion of the nightly news reports of death and despair and higher gas prices—life there remains a chaotic, uncertain struggle. Who’s to blame for the slow and inefficient response to those who needed help? That may never be adequately determined. When the president said he was ultimately responsible, it was not a heartfelt statement. It seemed his true concern was not with the horrible suffering of the victims but more a trepidation over his fading approval ratings. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the national press has failed to capture his genuine concern and determination to fix things that are broken in that part of the nation. The first images we saw were of Bush’s uneasy look bathed in the soft light streaming through the window of Air Force One as it passed at 20,000 feet above the devastation as he headed home from a vacation so long that, as the New Yorker put it, even a French playboy would have been ashamed. My joke: He’s dropping packages of Top Ramen out of the jet’s windows to the poor folks standing stranded and starved on the roofs of their ruined homes. Bush is not a leader; he’s a kid who through privilege has come to occupy the highest office of the nation. And we all are poorer for this quirk of fate.