• Happiness is a comforter by the dumpster, a bagel and a hot cup of tea

    by Erika Fiske

    Lee is not your typical Pacific Grove resident.  He’s 6 feet 4 inches tall, very thin and African-American.  At 40 years of age, he looks like a young basketball star.  He’s also homeless.

    Although his family has been a part of Pacific Grove since the days when African Americans weren’t such a rarity here, Lee sleeps behind a downtown dumpster. Despite the recent cold, foggy nights, Lee says he’s warm beneath his thick comforter.  And sometimes he’ll start his day by dropping in at a local coffee shop for a cup of tea and a bagel.

    Lee was born in Hawaii and is of Samoan and Jamaican heritage.  He and his mother moved to Marina when he was six. His father, a Navy man, died of a massive stroke and heart attack 22 years ago. Not long ago, Lee’s mother also had a stroke, and a few weeks ago Lee himself suffered a mild stroke and was placed on blood thinners and morphine.

    Despite the recent losses and sadness, Lee doesn’t wear his troubles on his face—troubles that began when he returned home after a few days of looking for work and realized something wasn’t right with his mother. “She was talking different. My aunt came over and said, ‘Your Mom had a stroke,’” Lee said. “I had three days to get everything out of the house.”

    Lee’s mother, who worked at Fort Ord until it closed and then the Defense Language Institute, wound up in a care facility after her stroke. His grandmother’s death in March of 2011 made matters worse, when her home had to be sold several months ago.

    “The house was sold in September. My grandmother had a lot of loans on it,” Lee said.  His grandmother was well known in the area. Born in 1934 in Toledo, Ohio, she lived most of her life on the Monterey Peninsula, serving many years as a Monterey judge, lawyer and nurse, until she was incapacitated by diabetes.

    “My grandmother’s ashes are in the water right down this street,” Lee said, pointing toward the Bay from his seat in The Works coffee house and bookstore.

    Among the places Lee has called home over the past few years was Veterans Memorial Park in Monterey, where he joined the Occupy Monterey movement and camped on the hillside—until the city disbanded those campers. Today he walks the streets of his home town, Pacific Grove.
    It’s hard to believe Lee was once a chef at Pebble Beach—for nine years, in fact. Lee attended Le Cordon Bleu culinary school in San Francisco and then worked at Pebble Beach, until he was laid off in the ‘90s. After that, he worked with temp agencies, and in 2009 he helped with the care of his grandmother, who was bedridden.

    Just a few weeks ago, Lee collapsed on the stairs at a local movie theater and hit his head. “My insurance was only for Stanford Hospital, so I was flown to there,” he said. “I had internal clots.”

    Lee believes the grief and stress he was going through—because of his grandmother and mother—led to the stroke. Since then, his weight has gone from 197 to 152 pounds. “I also have a blood disease I was born with,” he added. The blood thinners prevent clots and the morphine kills the migraines. But the meds interfere with Lee’s sleep behind the dumpster and ruin his appetite.

    “I go to sleep around 5 a.m.,” he noted.

    Lee grew up attending a Baptist church on Pine Avenue, but that church doesn’t seem to be part of his life anymore. “Me and the pastor don’t get along,” Lee said. “And in these last years, the church didn’t help my mother.”

    Now Lee goes to St. Mary’s Episcopal Church for food. But despite the economy and hard times, there is a future for Lee. Someday, when his mother is gone, Lee will receive an inheritance from his deceased grandmother. And when he does, he plans to move on to Alabama or Texas. Lee likes warmer temperatures.

    “I was born in the heat, and I’m used to the heat,” he added, smiling again.

    But Lee will always remember growing up in cool, foggy Pacific Grove. He’ll probably always remember the dumpster he now calls home. And he will definitely remember the two women who’ve been most important in his life—his mother and grandmother.

    “‘I Love My Mom’ is tattooed on my chest,” he noted, a wide smile crossing his face.  “And I have my grandmother’s and my mom’s pictures with me.”

    And that’s seems to be enough for Lee—the pictures, a thick comforter, and maybe a steaming cup of tea.

    posted to Cedar Street Times on August 31, 2012

    Topics: Homeless Chronicles

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