Standing in the Dark Winter Rain
And just like that it was over. Done. Finished, for most of the people there. Some had been standing outside in the rain for more than an hour.
As a defeated prole in a post-modern American breadline, this iPhone-era forgotten man queued up just days ago in the predawn winter rain for a shot at some precious and stabilizing home energy relief.
My wife and I have somehow managed to keep our mortgage payments current on a small home in southeast Portland while I pull down $9.50 an hour at my day job which provides no health insurance, no benefits, and no overtime 99% of the time. Her monthly retirement/disability check is similarly way below average. Somehow these wages and benefits are not enough.
I fully understand there are millions across the nation scraping by on far less than us. In many ways, we are truly, sincerely blessed. But that fact is decidedly cold comfort when the gas and electric charges are desperately overdue, and the $250 in bills staring me in the face might as well be $250,000.
So I came across the local 211.org web site, and its hope-inducing long list of agencies that provide a wide range of social and economic assistance. I called about a dozen Portland area groups offering gas or electric help, and no one, not one, had anything for anybody who wasn't already disconnected. Well, I fully expected the 5-day shut-off notices to be in mail that afternoon. And I now needed to call my wife's doctors to request medical hardship letters to forestall the ugly arrival of the utility terminators.
When I tried all those agencies again the next day, by some kind of urban miracle coincidence, the energy assistance hotline at Self Enhancement, Inc.(SEI) in north Portland had updated. A woman's voice mechanically informed me that NW Natural gas and PGE electric funding were indeed available. She said to arrive on site, with a flurry of documentation, for a 9am opening. Not leaving anything to chance, I got up at 5am and raced over in my 21-year-old Subie wagon to set up shop by 5:30.
"Touchdown!" I yelled out when I drove around the corner to find absolutely no one at the unsheltered door guarded closely by a locked down 7-foot tall commercial-grade dumpster. I had brought along a folding chair, large Wal-Mart umbrella, and a thrift-store portable radio. "Hopefully OPB will go at least an hour or two before their morning broadcast gets recycled," I thought to myself in the dark cold downpour. Then I'd switch to KBOO community radio, KPOJ progressive, KMHD jazz, or the local sports channels. Arts and entertainment for the huddled masses, for sure. Hey, we don't ask for much.
Within 45 minutes, another tired soul had wandered over, and then the crowd really filed in after the dawn light broke. There were three dozen or so people behind me by the time the door opened around 8:00 with more walking up all the time. With the line of men and women, children and seniors of many ethnic backgrounds snaking around the walls of the entry hallway, a worker finally walked up to the front and announced they would be taking only the first 13 in line for the morning's intake.
And just like that it was over. Done. Finished, for most of the people there. Some had been standing outside in the rain for more than an hour. I buried my face in the clipboard form I was handed, cowardly refusing to make eye contact with the people who had not made it into the lucky 13 slots. We were all unwitting players in a cruel lottery with fearfully high stakes.
Inside the agency doors, the walls were lined with chairs where everyone settled into completing the forms. "Write the amount of your rent on the very top!," we were instructed. Once the big wall clock struck 9am, a clerk directed the lucky 13 to file in behind a worn out floor tapeline. A palpable feeling of desperation momentarily shot through the room as all the form holders behind me scrambled to reconstruct the order of the original line-up. No one was going to be further back than their initial slot. God knows what might be the next announcement.
There was, in fact, some bit of confusion when a lady behind me was actually called in for her interview prior to me, the first in line. I shook it off, and figured to just wait my turn, whenever that was. By 9:45 nothing had happened, and I started to get nervous because my wife needed me to get home to drive her to an 11am doctor's appointment in Vancouver. Since we have no cell phone, (yes, a home landline, but that's it), I asked to borrow the phone of the woman next to me. She very kindly let me use her iPhone (I kid you not), and my wife said to not worry, that she would reschedule the appointment.
Eventually I was called inside and awarded very generous credits that more than covered my outstanding utility debts. I cannot thank the good people at SEI enough, and let them know that. I had no other options to pay my gas and electric bills. None. As I left the agency, I made a point to walk back to the people in line next to me (How much did you get?!), let them know what happened, and sincerely wished them luck. We, the working poor, were definitely all in this together.
Back in my aging Subie, I remembered the long lines back in college, waiting sometimes for several days for decent concert tickets. Then after graduating halfway into Reagan's deplorable first term, I stood for hours in a line that twisted through ruined downtown blocks in rust-belt Peoria, IL. just to pick up an application for a furniture warehouse position. Man, you couldn't get a job in a car wash back then in the Midwest.
I've come a long way since then, worked many jobs, seen fantastic places around the world, and hope to experience a lot more. But for now, my family needed help from our community. And I gladly accepted the kind offer from the incredible people at SEI. I call that socialism with a human face, but I'm sure my conservative GOP friends call it something else entirely. 
by Lawrence J. Maushard, a journalist and author in southeast Portland.
An edited (not by me) version of this commentary with a different headline appeared in the Op-Ed pages of The Oregonian on March 3, 2012 at
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