Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Why America Fails the Homeless

When my wife and I got to Washington D.C., I did not have a job. My job-hunt became 24 hour employment. I sent out dozens of resumes and talked to everyone (yes, I continued to do The Amigo Project). Finally, through my college network I was able to secure an interview. After meeting in a new suit with my potential employer, I was hired as an intern for no pay.

I am excited an lucky to have found work that will increase my opportunities for graduate school and future employment. This experience taught me the importance of presenting the best representation of myself that I can both on paper and in person.

But as I walk in the blistering summer DC heat to and from my new job, I see forgotten men and women in shadows. They reek, are grimy, and look like they are waiting to die. They pack their lives in shopping carts and move from one corner to the next, holding cups or hats for spare change. I decided to talk to them, and find out why they are homeless. These conversations surprised me and changed the way I view poverty.

I've found two things:

1. The majority of people are NOT homeless because they are lazy.

2. Many of them have special skills and previous work experience, and would happily take a job if given the opportunity.

So the problem is not the people; rather, it is their relationship to the modern job market's infrstructure that makes them uncompetative. Now, I agree there are several other factors for some, such as drug addiction or alcoholism. But the lack of computer skills and availability, combined with the lack of a permanent residence, significantly hurt their chances of finding employment. This is something we can change, and therefore something we should focus on.

That is why I have decided to create a database of homeless people. I will talk to the homeless and help them create resumes and profiles, which I will then post under categories based on job skills. My goal is to give each of these people the same competative advantages in the job market that others have, and maybe one day the database could be used to united the homeless with job opportunities that match their skills.

Either way, it is important to interview and build each a profile, as a reminder that society has not forgotten them.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Popcorn Popping

My lovely wife got us a one night stay at the Alaskan Inn up Ogden Canyon to celebrate the last day of classes for me...FOREVER! It was so much fun.

That night we were in laying in bed watching a movie when she turned and batted her puppy dog eyes at me. In a baby voice she said, "Can Bwocky get me some popcorn?"

I found myself walking into the front office, where there was a microwave and bags of popcorn by the front desk. I set the timer for 2 minutes and 45 seconds, then struck up a conversation with an older woman who works the graveyard shift.

"My wife and I are leaving in about a week, so we wanted to have one more night at our favorite bed and breakfast," I said.

"Where are you going?"

"Washington D.C."

"That sounds so much fun," she replied. "To just get out and see the world."

"You should too! Where is a place you would like to go?"

"I want to go to Alaska."

But you work at the Alaskan Inn, I thought, where every room has the Northern Lights hanging over the bathroom door.

"I want to take my daughter there. It's where she's always wanted to go, so my plan is to surprise her for her twenty-first birthday."

"Well you are a great mom," I said. "You must be saving up."

"Yup, I have about a thousand dollars saved right now, and I've got two years to save the rest."

It made me wonder how long it took her to save that thousand dollars. She must be working a lot of graveyard shifts. Have you ever wanted to make someone's day so bad it hurt? At that moment, I wished I was rich so I could buy her and her daughter an airplane ticket to Alaska. I wished I was an airplane pilot so I could say, "How about I fly you and your daughter there?" But I'm neither rich nor a pilot, so I did the only thing I could do. I encouraged her.

Tonight, before you lay your head down on your fluffy pillow and pull your blanket up to your chin, say a little prayer for the woman forgoing sleep to save enough money to take her daughter to Alaska.

She's doing it one hour, $7.50, at a time.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

A Real Life Ironman

I met a guy who is an electrical engineering/physics major in a line at the market. Listen to his reason why:

"When I was a kid, I used to play a video game called 'Megaman.'

The character had the coolest weapon--he could shoot pulses of electricity through his hand. I thought it was the coolest thing I'd ever seen, and I pretended I could shoot pulses of electricity through my hand as a weapon!

"Finally I decided that I wanted to figure out how to do this for a living. So I looked for engineering companies that were trying to do it. I found one in Utah that shoots a laser through the air at a target. The laser ionizes the particles in the air, and creates a pathway. You then sent a pulse of electricity to the target on this ionized "street" your laser created. I called them up, and they told me what I needed to do to work there."

All I could think of was how much easier it would have been for me to pick a major if Ironman had come out two years before it did.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Musician

"What do you do?" I asked the bald man in glasses standing next to me.

"I'm working on a Masters degree in Music History."

"I hope you don't mind me saying this," I said. "But that has absolutely zero appeal to me. Why does it interest you?" I tried not to say this in a mocking tone, but in a way that made him realize I really wanted to understand the allure of music history.

"Well, my goal was to be a concert performer on the bassoon, but I got a recurring tendon problem, so I had to quit. I've always loved music, but I loved it so much more after I studied the lives of different composers and was able to take that knowledge into my listening. Music is constantly changing, and I like to study those changes."

"Like what kind of changes?"

"For example, there was a significant shift in music during WWII. Before the war, composers were very daring and innovative--new trailblazers. But the horrors and catastrophic shock of the war made composers nostalgic for the peace and good-feelings of the past. Their music harked back to older, more classic pieces. In essence, they became more conservative."

That night I turned on some classical piano music while I set the dinner table. I thought about how beautiful the notes are, then made a promise to myself to learn more about the composers' lives. Because every piece of music has hidden notes that make the piece what it is: the flats and sharps of experience, and the minor and major keys of life.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Before The Haircut

I met a little girl (about ten years old) as her mother was paying for her haircut. The little girl studied the prices on the sign, then asked her mother a profound question.

"Mom, why do boys' haircuts cost more than girls' haircuts?"

The mom didn't know the answer, so I chimed in.

"It's because girls have prettier hair than boys, " I answered. "For boys it's easy, they just use a pair of electric clippers."

The girl responded in a way unique to the innocence of childhood. Her eyes got wide as she declared with exasperation, "It's because boys think they can just get a razor and shave off all their hair and they think they look good but they really don't!"

It sounds like someone was a little upset about how long her haircut took.

The Stylist/Marriage Counselor

I really enjoy getting my hair cut. Stylists spend the majority of their time killing time with their customers while they cut hair. They are expert conversationalists.

"Have you ever had a man show up to get his hair cut, and his wife sits next to him and directs you?" I asked.

"Oh yeah, I've had that happen. And quite frankly, I can't stand it. I think men should be strong enough to take care of themselves." This made me feel a little sheepish because I quoted my wife's council verbatim when I told the stylist how I wanted my hair cut.

It turns out she has been married for sixteen years. I always ask for marriage advice from anyone who's been married awhile. It lets them act as a teacher, which makes them feel good. Her advice?

"I don't believe I should give advice about marriage because every couple should learn those important messages on their own. Plus, my advice might not apply to your marriage because every marriage is different."

Kind of like every haircut.

Friday, March 11, 2011

On My Walk

I like it when I need to wait at a stoplight in order to cross the street. There is always another person that has to wait for the same light to change, and he/she stops next to you. The weather is warming up, and the girl that stopped next to me was my first spring "sandal sighting."

"Isn't it nice to finally have weather that permits us to wear sandals?" I asked.

"Yes, it's the best. My roommates think I'm crazy, but it's warm enough to wear them."

"Well, it wasn't the sandals that made me think you're crazy, " I said jokingly "it's the crazy tie-dye shirt you're wearing!"

We started to cross the street.

She laughed as she said "Yeah, I get that a lot too. I like this shirt because it's not as colorful as other tie-dye shirts. It is made of more relaxed tones. Plus I made it with a companion on my church mission, so it reminds me of my service."

We talked for a while about missions, and she told me the most important thing she took away from her service was the importance of getting your priorities straight.

"That is the most important thing," she said. "I've felt that I am calmer and feel more peace now that I have the road map for my life prioritized. It's something I never understood before."

It sounds like she is a lot like her tie-dye shirt: before she left she was full of wild and disorganized color, throwing caution to the wind without a plan. Now, she still retains that spontaneous color and happiness she had before, but it is organized and softer in its tone.

Nice walk.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Man With Concrete Trophies

You would think people who are reading don't want to talk. But I've come to find those people focused on books are the most talkative. It's as if their brains enjoy a respite from the mental focus of reading. But you must always start the conversation at their book. If you talk about anything else, the transition will be too jarring for them, and they won't want to talk.

"Hey man, what are you reading?"

"Oh, it's a fantasy novel . . . the last one in the series. It's by a Utahn author, and I have absolutely loved it. There are so many deep metaphors and symbolism. I've got to finish it so I can get back to studying for school."

"What are you studying? English?"

"No. I'm studying Construction Management. It's cool because I get to do lots of outdoor stuff. I spent last summer digging ditches."

That didn't sound too much fun to me, so I asked him what the funnest thing he ever did was.

"Oh man, one time I was helping on the construction of a house and we had to drill two monster holes into a concrete wall. I got to take the drill and shove it into the concrete. When you pull the drill head, out pops a long, thick cylinder of concrete that used to cover the hole. I thought they were so cool, I took them home to put in my house as trophies. Unfortunately, my wife didn't want to put them on the mantle, so we compromised and now they are sitting on our front porch."

I've received some trophies in my life. Most have little plastic figurines on the top and say "Participation Award" on the plaque. But in life, we should create happiness in day-to-day living and find joy in small details. It is then, and only then, when life will award us more than a participation award.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Cleaner

It doesn't matter where you are. It matters where you're going.

I was one of the few remaining in the office trying to finish up some work as the sun set today. Usually everyone leaves around 5...right about the time when the cleaning people come in. A woman who wore headphones walked into my part of the office and began dusting the desks around me.

"Your workday is almost over!" I exclaimed. I could tell she wasn't used to people in the office talking to her as she cleaned.

"Do you like working on the cleaning crew?" I asked.

"It pays the bills. Every semester I start school by quitting this job. I always think, 'You know what? I'm done with this!' But I can never find another job, so I always end up begging my manager to let me back on the crew...and he always does."

"Well the hours are probably good for school. What do you plan to do?" I asked.

"I'm working on my Masters of Public Administration right now, so hopefully I'll be in the political realm making policy decisions in a couple of years."

Life is full of transitions. This woman will go from cleaning computers to cleaning up the country. The nation is in good hands. How do I know?

My desk is always dust-free.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Wearing The Hat With Pride

As I was leaving a college basketball game, I noticed this tiny old man walking out the same door as me. He was wearing an orange coat and a hat that seemed bigger than his head with the words"WWII Veteran. Served With Pride" in gold letters across the brim. I stuck my hand in front of him.

"It's always an honor to shake the hand of a World War II veteran."

His hand was seemed shriveled, yet was surprisingly strong. I asked him where he served.

"I served under General Patton," the man said proudly. I've read about Patton, but I've never heard what he was like from a first hand account.

"He was a terrible cusser, and all the glory went to him for everything," the man replied. "But he was an incredible general. He knew where to put every man to get the most out of him."

"I worked in military intelligence, and it was my job to spy on the Germans. But to do that, I had to cross Russia. The Russians detained me for five days in a dark room because they thought I was spying on the "Motherland." They said they were going to put a bullet in my head when the five days was up if I didn't confess. They fed me black biscuits and water, and I thought they were going to kill me. But they let me go."

I asked him where he served.

"I was one of the first into Austria and Rome. In fact, I was able to get a hold of a Nazi flag before they were all taken down. I keep it at home as a souvenir."

My wife collects snow globes. This man collects flags from dictators he helped overthrow. I collect conversations with people. Each one teaches me something new about the human spirit and uplifts me in some way. Some put a smile on my face, while others bring tears of admiration to my eyes.

This conversation was one of the latter.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Bambi The Sand-Crab Hunter

I'm standing on the Seal Beach Pier, looking down at the waves as they wash up. Suddenly I see a man bolt out into the receding surf in his running shoes. He scoops up a huge pile of sand with his hands, and runs back up the beach before another swell comes. Then he throws the sand on the ground while him, his daughter, and his little pink-collared pug sift through it. Naturally I'm curious, so I ask why.

"Our dog loves to hunt sand crabs," says the older man in the soaked shoes.

"Her name is Bambi," says the young girl.

"But I call her Bammers," retorts her father. He runs back into the surf when he spots the crabs as they burrow into the sand. Then he tosses the pile in front of his dog and him and his daughter watch as Bambi jams his nose into the beach and digs ravenously, stalking the little crabs. When she finds one, she gulps it down and waits for another one.

"Bammers loves seafood," the dad tells me as him and his daughter laugh hysterically at the dog's antics.

I love watching people find joy in little things like Bambi on the prowl.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

My Wife's Turn

Learn a couple of phrases in as many languages as you can. Saying something in a stranger's native language always makes their day.

We were at a gas station today and went in to get snacks while my dad filled up the car. I noticed the gas station attendant was reading a newspaper filled with squiggles and dots instead of letters.

"Excuse me, is that Arabic? My wife is learning Arabic, and i would love to hear her talk to you."

My wife popped up and spoke some Arabic, and the man opened right up. He is a Christian "Copt" from Egypt, and his mother and sister still live there. We immediately asked if they were okay after the recent protests, and he said they were fine. Then he started talking about how people of his religion are treated.

"Copts are not treated well, and are discriminated against by the Muslims. They used to take our wives and daughters. Now Muslims think they are superior to all other religions, and if you belong to another religion, they look down on you as inferior. I am so thankful to live in this country where I am free to be whatever religion I want without being treated as a second class citizen."

I paid for the water and M&M's and said the only phrase I know in Arabic, "Itsharuffna! (Nice to meet you)"

His face beamed.

The Beach

Most people learn their calling in life because they're passionate. But some find it because they're angry.

Take the guy I met today. Kristi wanted to go take pictures of the pier as the sun was setting. There was a photographer there attempting to take a photograph of a moving kite. He told me he was a professor of photography at a local university, and he had been a photographer with the OC Register for a number of years. We started a chat, and I asked him the question I pose to anyone who is an artist: "What got you into it?"

It turns out his photography all started with a trip to see the legendary runner Carl Lewis.

"My wife and I went to the 1984 Summer Olympic games in Los Angeles and were on the second row at the track and field championships. I could see Carl Lewis about to walk directly below me out of the corner of my eye. I picked up my 40 dollar camera and started taking pictures...but I could not get a good shot of him! He strolled right past and I couldn't focus. Right there I told my wife, 'The first thing I'm going to do when I get home is buy a nice camera so this never happens again!!!' "

The next day he bought a nice camera and was hooked. He didn't miss the sunset off the Huntington Beach Pier tonight, and my guess is if he ever sees Carl Lewis walking by... he'll be ready.

Saturday, February 26, 2011


Most of the time I talk to people because I want to. But sometimes, I talk to people because I have to.

Such was the case tonight on an airplane from Utah to California. I get nervous during turbulant flights because of a bad experience I had a couple of years ago. And it helps me to talk to somebody and tell them how airplane flight works (if you are ever bored on day on the internet, I suggest you look up "Bernoulli's Principle." Fascinating).

Tonight was one of those flights, so I turned to the second-grade girl sitting next to me flippling through a Justin Bieber magazine.

"Excuse me, can I ask you a favor? I get really nervous when it's bumpy...can I talk to you?"

She took off her headphones and nodded her consent. I told her all about how an airplane flies, which didn't impress her much. Then she told me about herself. It turns out she loves Justin Bieber and can sing all his songs by heart. Her favorite is "Baby."

Her favorite subject is math, but when she grows up she wants to be an artist because she loves to draw. It was hard on her during this vacation becuase the family only brought one pen, so she had to share it with her brother.

This weekend was her first time skiing! She was getting off the chairlift on her first day, and the best way to stop is to do the pizza move with your skis, which I guess means you twist your skis into a pizza slice.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

In Line at Taco Bell

Compliment someone on an article of clothing today.

*Back of the line at Taco Bell.

"Hey man, that's a sweet hat. Where'd you get it?"

"Thanks! I picked it up at Plato's Closet. It was cheap because I think it's a knock-off of the Dragon Eyewear logo."

From there we talked about everything, from our majors (he's an electrical engineering major) to the anti-social behavior of the Talmage building (where math majors live), to what I should get from Taco Bell.

"Go with the Beefy Crunch Burrito. It's only 99 cents."

So I got that, and I was happy I listened to him. Until about an hour later when I got sick.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Tackling at Midnight

I get to meet a lot of people who love their jobs. Today I met someone who is perfect for his. I was waiting in line at a checkout counter when I heard the loud "thud" of a heavy object landing on the little conveyor belt thingy. I looked down to see a one liter of Mountain Dew staring up at me...at 7:00 at night.

"Whoa man, you got a long night ahead of you?" I turned and asked. Then I saw the guy who threw it down. He was a huge Sasquatch of a dude with giant arms. And he was wearing a nurses outfit. I almost laughed out loud at the hilarity of this contrast. He replied in the affirmative, so I asked him where he worked.

"I'm an overnight nurse in the psychiatric ward of the mental health hospital." His name tag verified it.

"So what do you do all night?"

"I tackle people."

I started to laugh, until I saw that this guy wasn't kidding. He literally tackles patients all night. Some try to escape, others have tantrums...and he tackles them. Which is perfect for him, because he looks like a football player.

I guess today's lesson is that sometimes we choose our job, and other times our job chooses us. Okay so there's no lesson. He gets paid to tackle people--that's sweet.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Art Store and The Wife

I have a rule: if you meet the owner, even if it's to complain, always compliment the establishment he owns.

Today I picked up a custom frame I had made at an art store downtown. The man running my credit card was older, and I learned by meeting him that he was the owner.

"I've never been here before...usually I go to Michael's," I told him. "But I am so impressed with the cleanliness of your store and the friendliness of your staff. the lady that took my order was the nicest person, and was so considerate to both our needs and budget."

"Do you remember who it was that helped you?"

"I don't remember her name, but she was a nice older lady."

He looked at my order sheet. "Was her name Luanna?"

"Yes! That was her."

The store owner smiled. "She's my wife!"

Compliments are special because they make someone's day no matter how small they are. But compliments that make a whole family's day? Those are even better.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Top Gun

It's not everyday you meet members of both the earliest and most recent generation of American Soldier. This weekend I had that privilege.

I always shake hands with veterans. Last night, I saw a frail old man at a restaurant who wore a hat that said, "WWII Veteran." The hat made me realize I was wrong about him being frail. I shook his hand and thanked him for his service. Then my wife and I went to a Bed and Breakfast for the night (needless to say, I really wasn't in the mood to meet anyone new ;) )

The next morning we found about 7 inches of snow on my truck, so I had to borrow a broom to get it off. While I was using the broom, I talked with the guy who was waiting to use it. He had taken the weekend off to spend the night at the Bed and Breakfast with his wife before he had to report back to Hill Air Force Base.

There is an astounding contrast between the two men. One was old and wrinkled, while the other was vibrant and young. One needed help to get to his car, another had the strength to push snow off his with a broom. One wore a veteran's hat to cover his white hair, another sported a recently cut flat-top.

One full of possibilities with so much potential in front of him, the other with past realities; his potential achieved. One fought in WWII, one fought in Afghanistan.

Both equally deserving of our respect and gratitude.

Friday, February 18, 2011

New Career

If you've ever been in an LSAT prep course, you know the average age of the enrollees is between 21 and 26. That's why I was surprised when I heard a question posed to the teacher by a gruff voice. I turned to see a balding, grey haired 55 year old man in a dirty green shirt. It was a simple question, and the class slowly began to turn on him when he couldn't comprehend the answer.

"Come on old man..."

"He's got it all wrong..."

"It's so simple..."

I knew he could feel the tension in the room, so during our break I introduced myself.

"What kind of law would you like to practice?" I asked.

"I think I will know my second or third year into law school," he replied. "I've thought about bankruptcy law...anything but divorce law. They make a lot of money, but they have to go through hell everyday to get it. I want to use my degree in finance."

"Oh! Did you just graduate?"

"No. I graduated about 30 years ago." A little awkward silence, but I pressed onward.

"Why did you decide to come back to law school?"

"I used to be a general contractor, but when the housing market tanked a couple of years ago, my job was pretty much done-for. This test is going to be tough, but I know I can do well enough to get into a good school."

The look in his eyes said it all. He lost everything when the economy collapsed. Now he is a 55 year old going back to school for a career change, trying to take a test designed to challenge bright young minds in their mid-twenties.

There is a silver-lining to the "Great Recession." Beneath all the money and wealth we accumulate there is a brave and determined spirit. Sometimes money covers and stifles it like a blanket over a fire. The recession was terrible, but in some it rekindled the guts and grit that our wealth once covered.

I'm rooting for this guy. You should too.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

A ringing bra.

When I went to buy a snickers bar at the gas station, I had no idea the cashier's phone would ring... from her bra.

*Awkward silence*

"Miss, I think your bra is ringing."

She reached into her chest and pulled out her cell phone.

"That's a convenient place to carry your phone!" I thought she was eccentric until I heard her response.

"I've kept it there since after my dog-mauling."

...Dog mauling...?

"About 2 years ago I was attacked by two pitbulls. They scratched me up and broke both my arms. The doc put my arms into casts with slings around my neck. I couldn't reach down with either hand, so the only way I could reach my cell phone was if I put it in my bra.I'd just stick my hand in my shirt and grab it."

She went from being eccentric to being ingenious.

"After my arms healed, I just kept my phone in my bra out of habit. It's a pretty good place to carry one...I never lose it, and nobody dares to try to steal it."

A pitbull attack, two broken arms and a bra with a ringtone. I almost forgot to take my Snickers.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Amigo is Back!

This blog is all about other people, but I think I should write a little about why I was gone, and what happened.

People have asked me, "What happened to The Amigo Project?" Well, actually, my dad was the only one that asked. But I'm sure a couple of people were thinking it! I replied to him that I was too busy with school, internship applications, yadda yadda yadda. But a couple of days ago I realized something:

I'm stale.

Stale like year-old tortilla chips. I had lost my crunch. My wife is usually there to warn me when this happens.

Mathematics is a beautiful subject, and I can't explain how much it fascinates me. But it's like being in a dusty museum all day with only your thoughts to keep you company. Eventually you will become dusty too. I did.

I was reading a beautiful book named "Man's Search For Meaning" by Viktor Frankl last night. The first words of the preface caught me off-guard: " Dr. Frankl, author-psychiatrist, sometimes asks his patients who suffer from a multitude of torments great and small, 'Why do you not commit suicide?' "

He does this to see what really gets his patients through the day. I asked myself a variation of that question last night (I didn't ask about suicide--mathematics is a dusty museum, not a dementor). What do I wake up for in the morning? Is it the study of the financial markets? Is it foundational topology? Game theory? I struggled with this question.

Then I woke up one morning and it dawned on me. Suddenly I knew what gets me out of bed.


I love people. I love their stories. I love to learn what makes them tick. I love their senses of humor, their passions, their vices. I love hearing it face-to-face.

I love The Amigo Project.

So I'm back. But enough about me. I want to talk about you.