A number of years ago, when I was the executive director of the Little Tokyo Service Center (LTSC), we had a Nisei volunteer named Jack. Jack worked in the produce market in downtown Los Angeles, loading and unloading trucks every day from the time he was 15 years old. When he turned 65, he retired from his work (this was around 1985) and would, from time to time, come by our office for coffee, smoke a cigarette, and then leave.
Jack was gruff and occasionally rude and crude — which was probably how he behaved around his former peers as they loaded hundreds of produce boxes a day. But the LTSC people could also see a gentle and warmer side of him — and everyone basically tolerated his gruff demeanor.
A few months into Jack’s retirement, people in the office noticed his clothes were getting dirtier and he was looking more disheveled. One of our social workers asked him how he was doing in his retirement — and she was shocked to discover that Jack had not claimed his Social Security even though he had paid into it for 50 years of hard, back-breaking work. He had no income and had become homeless. He bathed via a hose at a local gas station in Skid Row.
When she asked why he wasn’t getting his Social Security, he told her that he went to file an application but couldn’t handle the sometimes complicated and frustrating procedures and so in despair and consistent with his gruff nature, he just angrily stormed out of the Social Security office and never went back. The LTSC social worker did the paperwork for Jack and within short order he was receiving his monthly checks and was living in one of LTSC’s affordable housing projects in Little Tokyo. But Jack’s story does not end there.
I asked Jack if he would like to volunteer at LTSC — make the coffee, keep the office looking neat, make photocopies for the staff, and other simple tasks like that. I was not sure how Jack would adjust to working in an office, knowing he couldn’t even cope with the application process to get his Social Security!
Jack, who was used to waking up at 5 a.m. when he worked at the produce market, started coming in every day, as soon as the building opened. By the time the LTSC staff came in to the office, coffee would be hot and ready, the tables and chairs would all be neatly in place, and Jack would be ready to help with any simple task that needed to be done. In time, he became a fixture and almost indispensable.
One day, I returned to the office after attending a three-day out-of-town conference. Even though I was the executive director, many of my staff did not even know I had been gone. Then I noticed that Jack was sick that day and did not come to office — the coffee was not made and the room was disheveled and everyone was asking about Jack, and why he wasn’t there; with humility and amazement, I realized that Jack was missed far more than me!
After many years as an LTSC volunteer, Jack passed away. We had a simple memorial service for Jack at our office, and some LTSC staff swapped “Jack stories” in his remembrance. I was surprised to learn that not only was Jack the first to come to the office, he was often the last to leave — waiting until the last worker was finished, which was sometimes very late. Because many of the LTSC staff are women, Jack, this rough and gruff man, would walk these ladies outside to their cars to make sure they were safe and then after all the ladies had left, he would walk home.
There were many tears shed for Jack, but also many fond memories by the LTSC staff of a man whom I had initially feared may not be able to “fit in” to a new environment. He not only fit in, he made a new life for himself.
Several of Jack’s relatives came to the memorial service. A nephew of Jack told me that Jack was very difficult to deal with and after many family conflicts he had been estranged from his family for many years. Most of Jack’s relatives did not know what Jack was doing and were likewise surprised at his “rehabilitation” as a volunteer at LTSC. The nephew expressed gladness that his uncle had been able to re-invent himself in his retirement years and that Jack gained a new family after being estranged from his old one.
Every single day, there are 10,000 Americans who reach the age of 65! These are the Baby Boomers who were born between 1946 and 1964, and now a legion of them are retiring from work and facing new choices of what to do with their remaining days. If you are one of these Boomers coming into retirement, you may want to “be like Jack” and re-invent yourself!
There are many Nikkei Boomers who are coming into retirement age, and there are many Nikkei community groups who could use volunteer help — a win/win situation for everyone!
Bill Watanabe writes from Silverlake near downtown Los Angeles and can be contacted email@example.com. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.