Pacific Northwest, WA — I picked up the phone on a Wednesday morning, finished my coffee and hoped for a walk-in-the-park day. It was my job to answer the phone for a senior advocacy organization in rural Washington State, a job I’d landed after a layoff and then a stint in noxious weed control. Now I was learning about Medicare and Medicaid, navigating the sometimes-noxious weeds of a complicated system.
“Is this Jill?” asked the voice of Joseph, our ever-patient volunteer coordinator. Joseph was the local link between older adults and volunteers who provided supportive services. The help followed strict guidelines through the Older Americans Act which operates on a budget the size of what Medicare spends in a day. It was all we had. Joseph’s program provided older adults with meals delivered to their homes, including two frozen meals to get someone through the weekend. Some people who called didn’t have a way to keep the meals frozen because the power company had turned off their electricity. If the meals couldn’t be kept cool, the volunteers couldn’t deliver. The meals stopped and people went hungry, or they called Joseph who screened them for energy assistance and tried to get their electricity turned back on. Or he called me. The triangle of calls between his office, the energy company and myself often turned into a jumble. Usually the two of us could talk the energy company into giving the person “another” last chance.
“Morning,” I said. The coffee was just starting to kick in.
“Oh, good morning. Hmm, well, I’m calling about Anova. I’m afraid we have a bit of a situation again.” From the start of my time at the job, I’d heard about Anova Bentley and her personal, stubborn ability to survive more than just expired hand-outs. She was as strong as her southern Appalachian heritage, and as thrifty as a yellow Goodwill tag discount on Sunday. Her thick file in my desk took up more space than the others and my coworker wouldn’t make eye contact with me after she handed it over.
Anova was in her sixties, didn’t own a bra, and only fell into the local safety net when somebody pushed her over the edge. Then she called us. The day I met Anova, she educated me on best way to sell a motorcycle, guided me around the holes in her trailer’s floor, and hushed me in time for the end of a Golden Girls rerun. In the end, I would meet her request – yes, I would check on her energy assistance. Calls to another agency, funds reinstated, crisis averted. I’d make a note of my actions in her file and forget about Anova until she reappeared on the end of my phone, if she had minutes. If she didn’t, she still found her way back onto my caseload.
I could picture her wispy gray hair pulled into a ponytail high on her head, holding a green bottle of Rolling Rock beer, half empty. Joseph continued.
“Well, she got in a fight with our Meals on Wheels volunteer and he’s refusing to deliver to her. He called her house a public health hazard. She told him to get off the lot. I don’t think she has any food. Do you want to go talk to her?”
Usually, it was my job to drive to the trailer and ask Anova why she’d lost her temper. My funding covered transportation which was where I worked as an extension of Joseph. I was lucky to get out of the office – like the kid who walks you to your car to load your groceries and brings back the cart in the summer. I’d take any opportunity to get out of the office.
“Why did he call her a public health hazard?”
“Well, the trailer, not her,” Joseph chuckled. “Remember those holes on the porch? She finally put new Astroturf over it and you know, it made the whole thing look a lot nicer but then the volunteer said he didn’t think the steps were safe. We worked it out so that he would bang on the side of the trailer and Anova or her nephew – did you know her nephew was living with her? – anyway, they would come down the steps to get the meals.”
“Yeah, for a bit. But I guess during that rain last week, the dog refused to walk down the steps to go to the bathroom in the yard and they weren’t really watching it. I really don’t blame the dog – that yard doesn’t drain. I mean, she’s a really sweet pit-bull…‘Mama’ – did you ever meet her? But she wouldn’t go down the steps and just pooped on the porch, on the new Astroturf.”
I could see Anova’s lot in my mind with the brown minivan and her broken motorcycles, the whole thing surrounded by sun-faded tarps, broken flowerpots and plastic tubs. The rainwater puddled in the nooks and crannies along with food wrappers, dog hair and leaves. It was a birdbath, an urban estuary where acquired items sank back into the soggy earth.
Joseph continued. “So the dog soiled the new Astroturf and the volunteer told Anova it was a public health hazard. Anova…disagreed.” I knew he was putting it mildly. “I’m not sure I can get the volunteer to go back. He’s retired and has his idea of how things should be.”
Joseph waited. We both knew the situation exploded when the volunteer insulted Anova.
“Does she still want the meals?” I asked. Her income consisted solely of Supplemental Security Income – about $710 per month. Earlier, she’d missed her six-month eligibility review required by the Department of Health & Human Services to keep her benefit. The difficulty for most clients was that DSHS required the review to be completed in person, over the phone or online. Most people didn’t have a working car or money for gas. They had limited cell-phone minutes and couldn’t wait on hold. Even fewer had a working computer or access to the library. Some couldn’t read and, when they saw the DSHS logo, they came to our office.
DSHS often cut off Anova’s payments but usually she had enough gas to get to their office, stand in line, and complete her review. It would be a few weeks but the state would reissue her checks. During that time, I delivered boxes of emergency food from a food bank nearby. I knew there would be questions about whether I had overstepped my boundaries – the flimsy plastic fork in the road between burnout and doing the right thing.
I told Joseph that I would visit Anova after lunch. It had been a few months since I’d been out to the trailer park.
The trailer sat on a lot to the back of the park. It fit in with those around it except that Anova had been there longer, collected more belongings. Hers was a rickety single-wide from the 70’s with metal siding flaying off and tires piled around the front to keep the flashing down and critters out. As the trailer settled, soft river dirt took over the wheel rims and the whole thing canted toward the kitchen. The rot in the floors probably started when water ran down the sides and gathered at a low point under the refrigerator. They’d moved the refrigerator around the kitchen over the years but only after the floor grew spongy and weak.
A little fence made of wood pallets surrounded her yard. A small stack of milk crates propped up a stack of scavenged wood next to it, next to the brown minivan. Beyond the initial welcome pile, weeds overtook a huge collapsed tent, bearing witness in the tiny yard and one of her most recent bouts of bad luck.
It started last summer when Anova chose to pay a bill other than her electricity. She only used her power at night and then only to watch TV. As long as she received a meal every day, she didn’t need the refrigerator either. She spent most of her time outside anyway. The county experienced an unusually warm summer so, when the energy company shut off her power, she simply set up a 10-person camping tent and moved out into her yard. She was as happy as a circus dog because she could see even more of the park than she could from her porch. Being a people-person, living in the tent gave her a cool place where she could talk with people right out her front door. Her neighbors respected her creativity and wished they had tents.
A month after she moved into the tent, a summer storm rolled into Puget Sound. Part of the county is a low-lying farm valley. The back of the valley butts up against the rolls of the North Cascades. Heavy clouds over the ocean lumber east, the wind pushing them into the foothills, using all her hands to try to heave them over the mountains. The clouds can’t handle the altitude, the compression. Piled against the mountains, they condense and drop their moisture. Meteorologists call it the orographic effect; it results in an average of 32 inches of rain each year, enough to soak a large tent and everything else in the yard.
With the rain cames wind. Anova slept soundly in her tent during this particular storm. Then half of the tree above her broke off and fell on the tent, specifically on Anova’s back. That was the end of tent-life. The branch injured her vertebrae and left her fragile. Her nephew, Kelly, came to care for her along with his dog, the beautiful demure pit-bull named “Mama”. The dog’s whole back-end wiggled when she greeted you, leaning in with her soft grey haunches.
I tried to call before I drove to the trailer that morning, a formality and courtesy but the phone went to voicemail.
Mama the pit-bull bounded out the door when I arrived, making it nearly impossible to stand while Anova cleared a place on the couch between pizza boxes and Christmas paper.
“How are you?” I rubbed Mama’s butt and she groaned. The five lazy flies circled around the dim room. I counted three television stands, five crutches and one ashtray. Kelly tried to get Mama to leave me alone but she just wagged and leaned harder.
“Sorry I haven’t called,” Anova said and settled herself back onto the couch. “We’ve been busy.” She swatted at the flies and we watched as they returned to formation. “My phone’s out of minutes.”
“Well, I figured you’d get ahold of me if you needed me.” I considered dodging the reason for my visit but knew that she knew why I was there.
“So I got a phone call from Joseph,” I continued. She smiled. Also, Joseph had pulled quite a few strings for Anova over the years and she liked him, at least enough to put up with his questions and volunteers.
“He said that you had a run-in with the Meals on Wheels volunteer and I was worried you don’t have any food.”
Anova rolled her eyes at Kelly.
“That man told me my place is a public health hazard. We just put down new Astroturf .”
“I know. It looks nice.” I hadn’t noticed any sign that Mama had been using it as her personal outhouse. “So the volunteer didn’t like the carpet?”
“Well, Mama doesn’t like to go out into the yard to do her business when it’s raining.”
“I don’t blame her.”
Mama took her cue from our quick laugh, wagged her tail and tried to jump on the couch with me. She was a strong dog and I guessed that no one told Mama where to go.
“So she went to the bathroom on the new carpet out there on the porch and the man got all huffy.”
“He was rude,” Kelly added.
“So then what happened?” I rubbed Mama’s ears to keep her from climbing on me. She knocked an empty cereal box off the table with her tail, looked back surprised, then went back to pushing.
“We told him, ‘Of course, we’re not going to leave it like this!’” Anova adjusted her shirt and the flies darted out of rotation for a moment. “Who would do something like that?”
Kelly jumped in. “It’s not like you can just scoop that stuff up when it’s raining. That’s new carpet! You have to wait for it to dry.”
I raised my eyebrows. “That’s true…” I considered trying to scoop dog poop in the rain. “That would make a mess.” When something was new, you took care of it. That meant not cleaning up dog poop in the rain.
“Well, if I can talk the volunteer into coming back and knocking to deliver your meals again, would you try to put up with him? I don’t think he gets things the same way you do.”
They agreed and promised to be home the next few days, another formality since I knew they were out of gas. I weaseled my way out from under Mama.
“You need anything else?”
“A hundred bucks,” said Anova. “Just kidding. We’re trying to get some more minutes on the phone.”
I said good-bye and walked carefully down the rickety steps. Sometimes it was only their sense of humor that kept them in the black but for now they had a bit of an income and electricity to boot.
Summer continued on at a good clip. I filled up the weeks with community meetings and helping older adults apply for benefits. Often the only way to convince someone to apply was to explain that they’d helped their country long enough and now it was time to let their country help them. One morning in October, the phone rang.
“Jill? This is Joseph. I thought I should call and tell you that Anova has been given an eviction notice for two o’clock this afternoon.” He sounded worried. “I just got the call. They haven’t been paying rent for a while – she’s mad at the landlord. There’s not much we can do I’m afraid.”
“Did you talk with her?”
“Yeah. There is a possibility she could qualify for emergency assistance if it’s been a year since the last time we helped her. I’ll look into it but thought you should know in case she calls.”
“Thanks.” I made a note.
I was thankful that Anova at least was gracious enough to sign a release of information so Joseph and I could talk but there wasn’t much more I could do. Our agency didn’t hand out funding. I thought about calling Anova but she might need to save her cell minutes. Anova had mentioned once that she wanted to move to a friend’s property on the south side of town, out of city limits. Maybe she had something lined up that I didn’t know about. I hoped. The phone rang at 4 o’clock.
“Hi Jill, it’s Joseph again. We have a little situation.” He inhaled. “Anova came in and we were able to give her some emergency funds to pay her rent. We gave her a check but I just got a call from the landlord that Anova never paid her. We called our bank and the check’s been cashed.”
The survivor came out ahead again. Somehow Anova figured out how to get the check cashed.
“I’m guessing she took off with the money,” Joseph thought out loud. “Have you heard from her?”
This woman put the scrappy in scrappiest and somehow I respected her need to move on. I wasn’t surprised she hadn’t called. She knew that being in touch would put me in a difficult position. In spite of our relationship and probably others she cared about, she had to disappear and I doubted I would ever see her again.
The skies had opened and the rain poured as I drove home that night. It was getting dark earlier and my route took me home past a local church which provided free meals to the community. A brown minivan, though I couldn’t be sure in the rain, was parked on the street. I didn’t look closely and then stared ahead, turning in a few blocks to my house. I was off work now. Couldn’t help that it’s a small community. Sometimes, maybe it’s best to let people disappear.