Opinion: A personal holiday story

Shanice Joseph | June 2013

Shanice Joseph | June 2013

Shanice Joseph is a resident of Watts and a former member of the Intersections South LA Reporter Corps.

When I asked my little brother what he wanted for Christmas, I was surprised when he replied, “nothing.” In the history of my twenty-four years of living, I have never heard a child, especially one under ten years of age, say that they wanted “nothing” for Christmas. As much as I wanted to inquire more about what appeared to be a nonchalant and defeatist attitude toward Christmas, I had to start getting ready for work, so it would have to wait until later.

I have been a airplane cleaner for American Airlines at LAX for two years. Although my job is stressful at times, it financially supports me, my family and my education. I usually dread going to work and wanted to call off today, but I needed all the hours that I could get so I could buy everyone something for Christmas….or at least that was the goal until my brother declined the gesture.

I got into my mother’s car and sat in between my younger brother and younger sister for the ride to my job. As I looked outside, it appeared it was going to rain. “I don’t want to go to work,” I sighed for the four millionth time. I wasn’t looking forward to cleaning up international throw-up and picking up blankets that people threw everywhere onboard the plane. The thought of calling off again played with my head until my mom pointed out a homeless woman.

“You have to admire her dedication. Rain, snow or heatwave, she’s out here hustling,” said my mom.

My heart sunk in my chest knowing that my mother wasn’t exaggerating. This homeless woman really did stand all day, at this busy intersection (on a small island divider) for long hours holding up a sign, asking for change for survival.

“Yesterday when I saw her, it was pouring rain but something else caught my attention,” said my mom. “I was driving down the street when I saw this man and woman both pushing a stroller each, with a young girl walking behind them.”

“Wait this street?” I asked, looking out the window and frowning. It was a wide and busy street. There were not many lights. There were no sidewalks, but there was a bike lane that the family must have been walking on, and the speed limit was 40 mph. There was no way I was going to walk down this particular street, especially not in the rain or with three small children. The slightest turn of the wheel could seriously injure a pedestrian.

“Yes,” my mother continued. “At first, I wasn’t going to stop but it was raining hard, it was Sunday [meaning that the Metro bus was going to take forever], they had kids with them and none of them had on a jacket. They all had on light cotton sweaters or long sleeve shirts, but nothing rainproof. So, I yelled out my window, ‘do you want a ride?’ They hesitated to answer, but I pulled over anyway and they all eventually got in”

Now, here was something that wasn’t surprising at all. I love that my mother is so helpful, but I worry about her. She is always giving a stranger a ride somewhere. She has been doing this for as long as I could remember.

“They all got in. They were soaking wet like they had been walking in the rain for a while,” continued my mom. “At first they were quiet, but I start talking so the mother replied back. She explained that they had seen a flyer that said this building was giving away Christmas toys, and they went. It was a long line that went down the street. They stood in that line for hours and then it started raining. She said they tried to stand there as long as they could to get their kids some gifts, but the rain just got worse, so they had to leave.”

I shook my head. That was so unfortunate, but something told me my mom wasn’t done.

She saw my facial expression and continued, “I felt so bad for them that I start looking for things in the car to give them, because I didn’t have any money and I didn’t have anything in the car to give. I looked at the father and he was just so distant and maybe even disappointed in himself. So I asked them where were they going and it got awkwardly quiet, so I thought I said something wrong. I asked again and the father spoke for the first time since he been in the car. He said, ‘Western and Lomita,'” I frowned again.

My mother knew exactly why I was frowning and nodded her head slowly. “Yes they are homeless” she said, confirming my thoughts. Although, according to a recent article published in The Los Angeles Times, “13, 000, people fall into homelessness each month,” it still bothers me to hear such stories, especially when certain factors like children and the holidays are involved. Unfortunately, their situation is nothing new or uncommon. California has one of the highest number of homeless individuals in the country (over 20% of the state’s population is homeless,) and the numbers are increasing, forcing the state declare it as an emergency situation. It’s so upsetting that I would give up a lifetime worth of Christmas presents to solve the problem.

For some people, the holidays are the best time of the year, meanwhile for others it’s a heartbreaking reminder of how they have struggled financially throughout the year. Also, a lot guilt and stress falls upon the parents, especially homeless ones, for not being able to provide the necessities, let alone toys. I have witnessed the stress pass down from the parents to the children, which causes children to be selfless and either not expect anything for Christmas or not want anything for Christmas. I looked over at my younger brother and wondered if this was the case for him.

“Yeah, I felt so bad. The dad probably felt worse; he was probably beating himself up for standing in the rain and still not being able to get anything. To add insult to injury, no one wanted to pick them up and drop them off,” my mother continued.

“They are residing at a broken down motel which is in walking distance of Palos Verdes, one of the richest neighborhoods. All of these nice warm cars passing them by and not doing anything….but that’s another story. I just told you that to remind you of how blessed you are and how thankful you should be. The next time you feel like calling off work, don’t.  Some people have the hardest time finding a job or financially supporting their families, and you are complaining about the one job you do have,” she said.  My mom was absolutely right, I had no right to complain.

When we arrived at my job, I managed to change my attitude and turned to my younger brother once more. I asked again what would he like for Christmas and he paused as if he was thinking. My mom looked at me through her rear view mirror and said, “I heard someone say, as we get older our Christmas list get shorter because what we want, money can’t buy.”  It was an interesting concept. However, my brother smiled as if a light bulb had clicked over his head.

“I want some Pokemon cards, and you have to play Pokemon with me,” he laughed. I smiled back at him, “Sure, we can do that.”

It wasn’t much, but sometimes the bare minimum, be playing cards or a kind gesture like giving a family a ride out the rain, was something people greatly appreciate.


First person: Does my Watts neighborhood want me to get pregnant?

A college student asks why she gets so little support compared with young women who have children

Shanice Joseph and her mother

Shanice Joseph and her mother

If I were to get pregnant, I would know just where to go for help: the local offices of Women, Infants, and Children, the federally funded food and nutrition program; Planned Parenthood; and the Family Resource Center. All three are places where I stood in line for hours with my siblings as a child growing up in Watts. But finding local resources to pursue higher education is harder. As one of the few community college students living in Watts, I can’t find a place to print out an essay or get college-related advice.

When I ran into a friend who grew up in the same low-income housing development as I did, she said there was an easier way than to struggle through college. “You should get pregnant,” she told me. “Girl, the government will take care of you, trust me.”

I didn’t think much of her idea. But she was right about one thing: In my community, there are many resources for young parents, and barely any for college students. Just on my own block, I recently counted a total of five programs for mothers my age or younger.

Click to hear Shanice Joseph give an “audio intro” to her neighborhood, produced with Kerstin Zilm.

[Read more…]

First person: Caught in chaos at LAX shooting

Editor’s note: Intersections Reporter Corps member Shanice Joseph was at LAX the day Paul Ciancia, 23, opened fire in a shooting rampage that killed a TSA agent. Ciancia recently pled not guilty to 11 federal charges, and is slated for a Feb. 11 trial in Los Angeles.

Terminal 3 at LAX. Flickr/Mike Ambs

Terminal 3 at LAX. Flickr/Mike Ambs

The Los Angeles International Airport was the last place I wanted to be on Friday, Nov. 1, 2013.

It wasn’t like I was boarding a plane for a fabulous and much-needed vacation to the beaches of Jamaica. I was there at 11 a.m. to attend yet another long training for my new job.

I woke up early that day and quickly remembered why I needed a job in the first place: I needed money for the bus. I managed to collect $1.20 — 30 cents short — and hoped for a nice bus driver who would let it slide.

As I left, my grandmother asked where I was headed. When I said “LAX,” her usual smile thinned into an unhappy straight line. She is going through chemotherapy and has to see a doctor five days a week for 18 weeks. Since I’ve been busy with job training, I have yet to escort her. I can’t afford to miss my training and lose my job with G2 Secure Staff, a contracted company for American Airlines. As a “cabin agent” I’m responsible for basic cleaning — closing windows, organizing magazines, dusting off seats, picking up trash and sweeping.

My grandmother understands the predicament. She is pleased I found a job. But most importantly, she wants me to continue with college. One of her dreams is to see me graduate, and disappointing my grandmother is not an option. How can I balance work and school?

On the bus to LAX, I considered the bright side. No, I didn’t have a dime to my name, but I did get a nice bus driver, and for once I would arrive early. I had been looking for a job for some time now, and was lucky to find one that fits my schedule at Long Beach City College.

But I was still preoccupied. Although I would love to focus solely on school, my family and I need the money the new job would provide. Somehow, I would have to balance working full time with being a full time student.

While I racked my brain, a guy sat next to me in a uniform similar to mine — probably a coworker. I wanted to ask him about the job and the company, but he was busy on the phone, talking so loud I heard him over my earphones.

“Wow, really?” he said. “So I guess I don’t have to go to work today.”

Why? That just seemed so odd.

The LAX police department. | Flickr/

The LAX police department. | Flickr/yekefan1

I soon found out for myself. Around 10 a.m. my aunt texted me about a “shooting in progress at LAX.” I found it hard to believe, knowing that LAX is one of the safest places in Southern California. It wasn’t until I looked out the window and saw LAPD, LAXPD and FBI cars speeding by that I thought something must be terribly wrong.

Sure enough, as soon as I arrived at the LAX City Bus Center I got a call stating that job training was cancelled.

I stood beneath five whirring helicopters, surrounded by chaos and confusion. I was scared. I sat down to try to figure out what happened.

Supposedly, a 23-year-old man had opened fire in Terminal 3, killing a TSA agent, wounding several others and causing the widespread panic that I was witnessing.

For 17 years I have lived in Watts. The neighborhood is supposed to be one of the most dangerous in California, but it never fails: I see some of the craziest things once I leave Watts.

I wanted to cry because I have a low tolerance for more chaos than what is already on my plate. But on the bright side, I was okay. I felt confused but I was sympathetic for the victims, especially the family of the slain TSA agent.

Back on the bus headed home, I mulled over my morning.

On the way to LAX I was upset because my life appeared to be circling down the toilet. On my way back, I was relieved that I had survived a shooting rampage. I had seen a chaotic situation spiral out of control in a way that even LAX couldn’t control. And I realized the truth in what my mom had told me: “You’ll never experience a dull moment working there.”

I still had no answers about balancing work and school. But the LAX shooting reminded me that life throws us curveballs in the most unlikely of times and places. I would reschedule the job training, I would take care of my grandmother, and I would scrape up spare change for the bus. I would keep at school, and I would come back to LAX.

First person: Thanksgiving without turkey?

A turkey drumstick for Thanksgiving. | Flickr/ D. Sharon Pruitt

A turkey drumstick for Thanksgiving. | Flickr/ D. Sharon Pruitt

As our family ate tacos and cupcakes on the occasion of my grandmother’s 65th birthday last week, my four-year-old brother Bryce—the youngest of the seven of us, four of whom were present—asked her, “Nana, what are we doing for Thanksgiving?”

He had a huge smile on his face while he waited for an answer, but my grandmother, with whom I live in Watts, and my mother and I all looked down in shame. No one wanted to be the one to tell him that we didn’t have anything planned for Thanksgiving. Or that we weren’t certain whether we would be able to come up with something.

Thanksgiving is supposed to be a day of appreciation and celebration. If nothing else, it’s the one day out of the year when my entire family gets together at my grandmother’s house.  Normally, I work nights at LAX and go to school during the day at Long Beach City College, where I study sociology. Thanksgiving is a day off. My six siblings come over from my mom’s place in Lomita. Other relatives from far and wide make a point of getting back, despite how busy they are. [Read more…]