The middle-aged, dark-haired woman sat quietly in the courtroom, in the row just behind the railing. Lorena Ramirez was dressed neatly in the finest clothes her money could buy, which meant a dress she could afford from the thrift store rack. However, the care she took with her appearance was that of a woman to whom grooming and dignity are important.
She listened quietly to the talk of people in suits using a lot of words she didn't understand. They stood with their backs to her and told the judge why Lorena's teenage daughter sitting at the defense table should go to juvenile hall instead of home with her. The girl had been truant and used alcohol and marijuana, but regardless, mom wanted to take her home.
Lorena's hurt didn't show, and her prayers were silent.
However, the worst was coming. Lorena tells what happened. "The judge, he said, ‘Stand up. Put your hands behind your back. Don't turn around. You're under the custody of the court.'"
Lorena's eyes redden. "Oh, my god. That was the worst pain in my life. I walked from the courtroom. There was a little room there, and I just couldn't take it, so I just sat on my knees and I cried, and I cried. I think that was the worst thing in my life, that they did that right in front of me. She was 15 years old. I went with her to court, but I went back home without her."
Looking back, Lorena explains her daughter's state of mind. "She would go out and she would be fighting people. She said that she wouldn't think about anything. It would take her mind off everything. The drinking would make her forget everything."
The difference between disease and poverty is that disease can be cured by pills. Poverty has become so woven into the human fabric that we accept it as "just the way it is." Even Jesus was fatalistic in saying, "For ye have the poor always with you." He didn't even say it first. Moses did.
However, we don't have to like it. George Bernard Shaw called poverty the greatest of evils and the worst of crimes.
Lorena Ramirez calls it "My life."
In another time, a woman poor as Lorena could have been a gin-soaked prostitute in Victorian London, an untouchable in Calcutta or a rail-thin Alabama sharecropper's wife in a flour-sack dress.
Lorena's historical setting is modern, but despair is a time-traveler.
Lorena is a 44-year-old mother of five: a grown son is on his own, but living with her in a one-bedroom mobile home are her four daughters - ages 20, 16, 15, 10 - and the oldest daughter's baby.
Her small unit is in a neighborhood just off of Imperial Avenue in San Diego. Lorena calls it a ghetto. Before drifting off to sleep, she can sometimes hear gunshots in the distance.
She supports the family with a minimum-wage job. She says food stamps and Medi-Cal insurance are lifelines without which she couldn't make it.
"I used to live in a three-bedroom apartment, and suddenly they asked me, they said I needed to move out because they were going to do some kind of project in that apartment.
"(Moving here) was an emergency, but I've been here already for three years. What I'm thinking, this coming year, I'm hoping I can move to at least a two-bedroom. Here, it's very hard. My daughter has the bedroom with her baby; I sleep in the living room with my youngest daughter. The other two girls sleep in bunk beds that are next to the bathroom."
Lorena's not an alcoholic or a drug addict or an immoral woman.
You nod knowingly: Well, there must be a reason ...
Yeah, there is. She was born into poverty, and poverty begets poverty as surely as wealth begets wealth.
Lorena married neither of the two men who fathered her children. She lived with one for 10 years, and the other for five years. I can hear minds slam shut on that. It's not that she didn't want a nice church wedding with flowers and being walked down the aisle and all that.
However, the guys she fell in love with didn't share the dream. And in the circles they moved in, that was OK.
So, what's a girl to do? The hormones are throbbing, the nesting urge is running full faucet, and "living together" is socially OK. The culture says a real woman has to have a man. Anyway, you're certain each of these guys will, in turn, love you forever.
Lorena explains. "I did say, ‘You know, we should get married. It's the right thing to do, because I'm Catholic and I do believe in that.' But they said no. It was not time. It was never time. I'm happy I didn't, because I didn't end up with none of them."
(Neither man is in the children's lives or contributes to their support.)
As a footnote, Lorena adds, "I had a good home. My mom, my dad, they got married before they lived together, and I was the first child. They always showed me how to be responsible, be respectful."
We live in a time when the social/cultural mooring line is broken. We don't occupy the same anchorage. The old rules don't apply. Customs and standards travel from people to people like spores on the wind. Things that used to be no-no are now, "Whatever!"
So when we consider Lorena, 10th-grade dropout, unmarried mother, etc. and etc., we don't have to be approving to be understanding. She did some things that were stupid but acceptable in her social milieu. She wanted to be middle class and "respectable," but what's the mysterious secret to finding that?
All of that is hindsight. Today, Lorena is a pleasant, hardworking, law-abiding, patriotic American who wants the best for her children and worries when any of them gets sucked into the vortex of hopelessness that swirls around their lives.
Lorena is afflicted by a condition of unknown cause called vitiligo, which is a loss of the pigment melanin in the skin, most often happening to dark-skinned people. It results in white splotches on the skin. It is neither progressive nor contagious, but it attracts second glances.
Added to everything else, Lorena doesn't need vitiligo.
Lorena worked for 18 years for the Salvation Army until a staff shake-up cut her loose. Currently, she works for the Baras Nonprofit Thrift Store on University Avenue in Hillcrest, where she is well-regarded.
"She is hardworking, dependable and a pleasant person to have on our staff," owner Carol Baras says.
I ask Lorena how she's doing financially. She says her monthly rent is $610, but she won't be paying it for two more days. She'll pay a $25 late fee, but will avoid being delinquent.
"It's OK," she says. "As long as I pay it Monday, they don't kick me out."
It has to be tough for Lorena's daughters or any young person to hunger for success when in your own home you can't blink without bumping into a sister, and there's a line to use the bathroom.
Outside the home, a beckoning gang doesn't ask a kid to conjugate a verb or to stock shelves for minimum wage after school. And ingesting the right drug can turn a loser into a winner.
Despite their temptations and pitfalls, Lorena says her girls are doing better. Her 20-year-old is finishing high school and taking a college class. None of the girls has joined a gang, and that alone is to be thankful for.
The oldest daughter has told Lorena, "Mom, I just thank you for not giving up on me all this time."
One girl is due to come home from the county rehabilitation facility. Lorena says that daughter is doing "way better, way better, and that makes me very happy to hear."
A few years ago, I was riding with a close friend in his luxury auto. He was talking about people on welfare and how it was their own fault. He capped his argument by saying, "I started with nothing, and look what I've been able to do," waving his hand to indicate considerable holdings. "There's nothing to stop them from doing the same."
I frowned and said, "Why do you belittle yourself?"
"Belittle myself? What the hell are you talking about?"
"Look," I said. "You've worked hard and you're damned smart - actually, more shrewd." (I wasn't going to puff him up too much.) "By saying anyone else can do the same as you is to belittle what you've accomplished.
"If just anyone could do what you've done, that would make you just ordinary, and knowing you, I don't think you'd like that much.
"So give others a break for being just average humans. No one grows up dreaming of going on welfare."
"So, what's the answer?" he asked.
"I don't know if there is one."
Somewhere among our readership, some guy is rustling the paper and growling, "Come 'ere, Alice, and read what this bleeding heart Dickey guy says here."
Bleeding heart? Me? Moi? Not this slow-dance son of corn country.
Lorena's race is a marathon, and way down the course she can see lung-bursting hills looming. However, her pace is steady and patient, and she's trained herself for the distance. She knows there is no place to stop and rest.
She says of her life, "This is hard. It's very hard. But if I get sad, if I get depressed, if I give up, my kids are not going to make it. We can't give up. We can't."
I doubt anyone has ever told Lorena she is a brave woman. If so, that oversight is hereby corrected.
Fred Dickey's home page is freddickey.net. He believes every life is an adventure and welcomes ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.