HIS FACE was very strong -- the kind one would expect to find among those who push on, knowing that they must try and knowing that they certainly cannot succeed. The lines giving it expression were taut, shaped by years of perserverance and self-control, but the tension had not yet affected his eyes, his voice. He took my hand firmly -- the grip was strong and effortless, the palm unexpectedly callused -- and offered to bring me a cup of coffee.
We sat and talked about his garden. It was, he said, the first he had put into the ground since the year he graducated from high school. He was learning about compost and cutworms, and could tell good soil from poor by rubbing it between his fingers. He had built swings for his children and regularly took them on hikes through the park or along the river. Sure, it was hard on them, living the way they were, counting every penny so they'd have enough at the beginning of the month to buy food stamps. And tough in other ways, like having to deal with peer-group curiosity -- "Where does your old man work?"
Two and a half years ago, they could have said, "He's assistant controller of a San Francisco-based international corporation" (had such words been in their vocabularies.) Then, he had a $79,000 suburban home, two cars, a lakeside rental, housekeeper, babysitter, season tickets to the opera and family voacations in Honolulu or Denver or Nassau -- whereever his company's conventions happened to be. Each morning he left the house just as they were getting up for school -- one of the most progressive in the county -- but he spent at least an hour with them every evening, unless he was out of town. He worked some weekends, but tried to take his wife to a restaurant or movie at least every other Friday.
Not that they had an easy time of it financially. Almost every cent they earned was tied up: mortgage, credit accounts, insurance, taxes. When the youngest child started school, his wife took a job in a suburban real estate office, but complicated child-care and transportation necessities drained off most of what she added to their income. More than once he had to borrow a dollar or two from someone in the office to cover bus fare or lunch. They worked hard -- damned hard -- and they told themselves that they were proud of their possessions and their children.
Then it hit. Their 15-year-old disappeared and was picked up as a runaway in a mountain community near Yosemite National Park. Rex cut a business trip short and flew back to pick her up from a halfway house for juveniles in Modesto. He rented a car to drive her back to their home. Halfway across the hot, flat valley, she turned to him and said, without sarcasm, "Hey Dad. When was the last time we spent two hours together?"
Both he and his wife tried to talk to her. At first she was belligerent, then resentfull. Then she hunched forward, her mouth open, little grunts of astonishment filled her throat: "You really don't know, do you? You really don't!"
And then she blurted out the story of a 15-year-old she knew whose parents worked very hard and didn't know that their daughter had learned more about drugs than many pharmacists, was dating a 22-year-old black Navy bandsman and was "into" the social doctrines of Eldridge Cleaver and Timothy O'Leary and the Red Brigades. She so hated school that she couldn't face it without a "prop." She had a brother who was so sexually repressed he probably would turn out to be an ax-murderer. She couldn't talk to anyone "over 22" without tightening up. She was so lonely and confused that she'd stop people on the street and ask them insane and searching questions. She had believed for more than a year that her father worked for the Mafia -- how else to explain what he did with numbers and why he was always traveling? Once she had played hooky and had taken the bus to the city to look for the building he said he worked in, just to see if it really existed. "You walked right past me," she told her father, "and I almost didn't recognize you. Then I saw the shoes. I recognized the shoes.
He was too shaken, too sick to go into the office the next morning. He asked his son to stay home, too. Over coffee -- he hadn't known that his son liked coffee -- he tried to express his own fears. And then from his son, whom he found to be intense, intelligent, insightful, proud, defensive and somewhat afraid, he learned about shivs, junkies latrine blackmail, trigonometry, penis envy and Cathy who was 17 and dark-eyed, who stuttered slightly and was ashamed of being an out-of-work janitor's daughter.
He pulled all three children out of shcool and sent them to live, temporarily, with his parents. Suddenly, he was hit with back taxes, sewage line repair, new wiring for the house -- then an auto accident (he admitted being at fault) and the possibility of a lawsuit. He couldn't keep focused on his work, not the 50 to 60 hours a week that his job required. He asked for a leave of absence but was pulled aside and told, confidentially, "Bad politics; stick it out another year, then . . ."
He told his son that he wanted to meet Cathy and her parents. "When I got to their house they were playing Parcheesi and drinking beer. Can you imagine? Parcheesi and beer! They offered me a chair, I joined them, I -- it was fun, more fun than anything I'd done in years!
"They knew more about my own son than I did -- what he hoped for, what he was interested in, what he thought. With them he opened up in ways I'd never seen. Sitting there, across from me, he was like someone I'd just met and was beginning to like. On our way home that night, I asked his advice.
He sold the house and made enought to take the whole family on a three-month camping trip. They went deep into British Columbia, and when they returned to northern California they stopped at a town on the edge of the foothills, where they live now, working whenever they can find jobs and reapplying for welfare aid when they cannot. It's hard on the kids -- but not as hard as having parents they recognize only by the shape of their shoes. Do they feel guilty about being dependent on society? Yes, definitely.
"I didn't make the world the way it is," the father explains. "I'm willing to work. I did work -- hard. Paid my dues. But if it's a choice between condemning my children to alienation, addiction, fear, hatred and lineliness, or putting up with the arched eyebrows of a county employe or a neighbor while my children live free, healthy lives and can communicate with me about what they're doing -- well, it's no choice at all.
"This country has got to change. Until it does -- and while it does -- I want to be here. Close to my garden, my children. As for welfare, I'll take what I can get, just to make if from one month to the next. In the long run it'll cost society less than it would to keep us locked up. Or booby hatches. Or both."