Wednesday, February 17, 2010

52 A Brand New Day

When you lose your life’s purpose and what you have pursued for almost two decades, it’s tough to look at yourself in the morning. The job I had found was in sales as a yellow page salesman, probably only a notch or two above used car salesman. Perhaps at some level I had always been a salesman but this was the first time I realized. I had broken records during those school fundraisers, sold my mother’s burritos, recruited for both my high school and my college and been as avid of an evangelist as I knew how. So possibly it was inevitable that my first job after all this was going to be sales. During the nearly month wait until I started it, I found a temporary job mostly to pass the time because it didn’t really pay well. I became a valet driver which really means a valet parker where you make essentially minimum wage and then sprint back and forth hoping for a good tip. When I was in high school I had hoped to become a janitor and this was the closest to that I’d ever become and rather enjoyed it. It was winter in Arlington so it was cold but it was invigorating to at least have some activity. It may have been no more than when you feel like you’ve lost so much you’re willing to hang on to almost anything.

Eventually, I started my new job as a salesman. It was the first time I’d ever “sold” anything I didn’t believe in; not so much that I didn’t’ believe the yellow pages worked but simply that I didn’t care. It was entirely on commission but I worked as hard as I could on it and did very well. We had something called the “Rocky of the Week” and two of us tied for who got it the most, the company’s most established salesman and me. I was making tons of money by comparison to anything I’d ever made and I frankly didn’t know what to do with it. I was buying very expensive lunches most days. I bought my first car completely in cash (on an amusing side note, I actually showed up with several thousand dollars of cash at the dealership not realizing that cash typically meant a cashier’s check). Shannon had chosen to attend the University of Texas in Austin and we were waiting for later in the summer to move down there. When we finally did move down, we got our entire possessions on the smallest uhaul truck rental with room to spare. We moved into a luxury apartment that even had a backyard for puppy. With all the money I had made we bought several pieces of quality furniture in order to have more than the mattress and the chairs. For some reason the day that we started amassing more stuff it really depressed me, I was enjoying the freedom of not owning much.

I transferred within the yellow pages and my success continued in Austin. Shortly after I arrived there, I actually sold the spine of the yellow pages which paid enough commission to where I paid Shannon’s first semester and books with it with $18 left over. Easy come, easy go I guess…Still life was incredibly hollow and I wasn’t finding a replacement for all I had failed and walked away from. The first several months in Arlington and Austin were spent what can be kindly described as walking through the wilderness. It was a mind frame that I wouldn’t snap out of for a while but that goes beyond the scope of our story. Sadly, disappointingly, brokenly, I accepted that God and I were broken up that we were part of each other’s past and not likely part of each other’s future. I missed him but sometimes I missed Natalie as well and that didn’t mean that relationship was healthy.
The money was great but it was mostly piling up since neither Shannon nor I have ever been materialistic. But I had to constantly hear about Shannon’s social work classes and missed actively helping people. The best parts of me felt secluded and while I was the first to volunteer to help someone move or some small tasks, those were hollow. Eventually I started remembering my work with juvenile delinquents and headed to the Travis County Juvenile Agency and asked who they worked with. They gave me a couple of names and also mentioned that they were themselves hiring. I would apply with all three agencies and oddly enough the government one was the one that got back to me first and offered me the highest pay. As it was, it was still half of what I was making as a salesman so it was going to be a huge paycut. This was a tough decision as Shannon was going to stop working so not only would I reduce my income, hers was going to be disappearing altogether. No matter what I knew I wasn’t going to be able to keep up with that job as a salesman, it was a place where I was only working for money. I know we all work for money but it’s a rough life if that’s the only reason. My sales figure were so impressive at the time I left that the regional director (about three notches above my actual boss) called me into his office and tried to convince me to stay saying I was exactly the kind of employee they were always looking for. I thanked him for his kindness and shook his hand but passed on the opportunity.

My frame of mind and decisions for a while after the Marshall Islands were reflective of a man who had lost all he though he ever lived for but slowly if not destructively I started to get a more even keel. I started focusing on these juvenile delinquents, these kids who thought crime was the better way and started realizing that I wasn’t that different than them; I’d just been luckier. That luck can be ascribed to better parenting, or randomly better genes but I hadn’t chosen those either. In opposition to being a pastor where people felt the need to commend you on way too many things, this was the definition of a thankless job. The community generally thinks you’re being too easy, the kids are tough to get to care; the parents think you’re being too hard and it burns through a lot of people fast. But I believed in what I was doing and kept at it.

Not too long after I started, I got a phone call from Dr. Cruz’s attorney informing me that my closest mentor had been convicted of an inappropriate relationship with a juvenile, would have to register as a sex offender and that the next day was his sentencing. He asked if there was anyway I could make up there to speak on his behalf. I immediately agreed and the attorney again elaborated that he had been found guilty, that he had done this. I acknowledged that I understood and went down there to speak on his behalf. That night I stayed at Kisha’s house and we talked about the strange twists and turns of life. When I had originally visited Dr. Cuz, he had explicitly suggested that I should apply to replace him. I had shrugged it off at the time and changed the conversation but now Kisha again asked why I hadn’t done so. I again shifted the gears of what we were talking about but reflected on the fact that my mentor and I had also failed each other. She was also going to be testifying on his behalf in order to describe how in two years of working with her in a small closed office he had never come close to being inappropriate with her. I don’t recall why but the attorney had me go first and the district attorney and Dr. Cruz’s attorney took turns questioning me. Apparently Dr. Cruz had been willing to plead guilty for a medium level of sentencing but this small county DA wanted him to plead to something that came with a 30 year sentence out of 40 possible. This was a lot to ask of a man in his mid sixties. Again, by all accounts, this had been consensual and short lived though that doesn’t mean to minimize its inappropriateness. Actually, when Kisha and I had ridden up on the elevator to the court that morning, we had coincidentally ridden up with her. She and her family made some comments about Dr. Cruz that were tough to hear.

The DA was floored when she asked me on the stand what I did for a living and heard that I worked with kids. It was the only time she looked up from her paper of questions and in a surprised tone asked how I could testify on behalf of someone who had done this a juvenile. I think the question was not prepared and one of the rules my attorney friends tell me is to never ask a question that you don’t already know the answer to. I looked at the jury box and talked about the good influence that this man had been in my life and then ended with, “A man should have to pay consequences for all of his actions but he should be measured by the whole of his life not just his mistakes.” After I had said my piece, I looked at Dr. Cruz and we exchanged a knowing and heart breaking glance and that was the last time we ever saw each other.

Several people had been asked to testify on his behalf. Here was a man who had spent decades serving the church and helping lots of people and while there were plenty of people who testified on his behalf but one thing that struck me. While quite a few had at one point been employees of the church, the ones who spoke at his trial were all retired. I’ve never been more proud of Kisha, the only person who was still an active church employee who testified on his behalf. Dr. Cruz’s attorney apparently wrote down what I said and repeated it several times during his closing statement. Its impossible to know whether or not it made an impact but while Dr. Cruz did have to register as a sex offender and did get a 20 years probationary period but he only had to serve 4 years in prison. This was the maximum he might serve but he would be eligible for parole after three.

I went home that day thinking about the twists and turns of all of this. After heading to my office, I sat down and started working on some of these cases. Maybe there would be no faith element, perhaps humanity was all we had; maybe each other was where we needed to turn for measures of grace and kindness. I wasn’t so sure I wanted to be so connected to those who had heaven on their minds if their feet weren’t firmly planted on earth anyways. Faith and I had failed each other; the soundtrack of quiet desperation would be played over the rest of my life. But maybe, just maybe, it would all be okay. At that moment, I was likely rolling my eyes at God and He may well have been returning the favor.

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