42: The Mayor of Kirkland

42: The Mayor of Kirkland

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Volunteering & Giving Back

The Mayor of Kirkland

I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought; and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.

~G.K. Chesterton

Last summer I moved to a new city to live with my fiancé, giving up being a lawyer and academic for a job as a writer. I had no contacts so looking for work was hard. I spent my days aimlessly wandering around my new neighborhood.

That’s how I met Steve. I’d seen him plenty of times before — disheveled, with a scraggly gray beard, leaning on his cane and holding a battered cardboard sign at a busy intersection. His sign asked for help with food or rent — nothing fancy, and never for alcohol or drugs. I had a granola bar in my bag, so when I approached his corner, I opened the window and offered it to him.

He came over and smiled.

“Thanks, but I don’t have any teeth, so I wouldn’t be able to eat it. I appreciate the gesture though.”

Then the lights changed and I drove away.

With this in mind, the next time I saw Steve, I offered to buy him a coffee. He hobbled along as we crossed the street to a small coffee shop. I was essentially having coffee with a stranger, but Steve’s ready smile and friendliness made conversation easy.

Steve had lived in the area for about ten years and was well known to the locals. He told me about his friend the bus driver who didn’t let him pay the bus fare when he traveled. He told me about a woman with a dog that barked to greet him when they drove by. He told me that the owners of a local café gave him their unsold pastries at the end of the day. He was a local icon. Even as we chatted, several people waved to him as they went by. I jokingly called him the Mayor of Kirkland, because it seemed like he knew everyone in the neighborhood. He laughed and said he hoped the name would stick. There was more he had to do before his term was up.

We met a few more times when I drove by his corner. I talked a little about myself, but Steve’s stories were much more interesting than mine. In September, he told me he’d been homeless because he had an ongoing legal issue for the last thirty years and, as a result, his social security payment had been halved. The remaining amount wasn’t enough to live on, so he was forced to spend his days trying to make up the difference.

By this time, Steve knew I had legal experience, so he asked me if I could help him with this matter. I recalled something my mother often told me: “You have a set of skills and you should use them for good, to help people.” Something that might be easy for me — such as understanding a legal document or printing a form — would be much more difficult for someone without the right training or even access to a computer. What would take me a few minutes might take someone else hours.

I began by gathering information about Steve’s case. He owed about $67,000 in taxes and had been charged interest on his outstanding amount for the past thirty years. He had about $700 per month deducted from his social security. Whatever small amounts he could pay back went to paying off the interest, which was accruing faster than he could repay. For him, this was a hopeless situation; the amount he had left was barely enough to live on. I made some phone inquiries. A court clerk directed me to a form requesting the court change his order, and once we had notified the court of our intent, the ball was rolling.

As the months passed, I threw more time and energy into Steve’s case. I made phone calls on his behalf to collect materials, contacted his caseworker, printed out his forms and helped him complete them. When we met to discuss his case, it was as if a heavy weight was lifting off his back. Steve was already an upbeat guy, but I could still sense his growing optimism. He started describing me as his “little ray of sunshine” and telling his friends, so that the local bus driver would tell me what a great job I was doing, and the mailman would thank me for helping Steve. In early November we filed the forms with the court — all two hundred pages of them. After that, all we had to do was wait until the court date.

It was a blustery December morning when we met at the conference room I had reserved at the local library for us to use for the phone hearing. As I wasn’t acting for Steve in any official capacity, he did all the talking during the hearing. He told the court that a payment reduction would help him pay for rent and groceries and that, in the future, he wanted to mentor homeless youth so they wouldn’t have to go through the same thing as him.

After a quick consideration, the magistrate returned with her decision. The court forgave $57,000 of what Steve owed, and his payments were reduced from $700 per month to just $100 — which meant he would have enough money to get his life back on track. There were tears in Steve’s eyes when he heard the decision.

As he grasped my hand and thanked me, I couldn’t help but feel a little wistful. I was proud of what I had done, and happy that I used my time and effort to help him. But it would also mean that I wouldn’t see him as often anymore. When I told Steve this, he grinned. “We’re friends,” he said, “and friends make time to see each other.”

Then, with a wink, he added, “Besides, the mayor’s still got to do his rounds.”

~JC Lau

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