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Hackie: Buddhist Heaven

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Who knew that tony Connecticut — aka the Nutmeg State, for crying out loud — has a section populated by self-identified rednecks? And that the denizens call themselves "raggies"? Not me, and I've lived in New England all my life.

On Christmas day, a customer, Ray Wolf, hipped me to the reality of redneck Connecticut. He grew up in Canaan, situated in the rural, upper-left-hand corner of the state — an area called the Northwest Hills and home to the raggies.

"Across the Mass border are the Berkshires, which then become the Green Mountains in Vermont," Ray informed me. "It's really one continuous mountain chain, if you think about it."

Ray was in his early senior years and lived in an apartment above Fu Da, the Chinese restaurant on Pearl Street in Burlington. This was the same building I lived in one summer in the late '70s. I've shared an identical address with only a tiny number of people, so that was a neat, if random, connection.

I was transporting Ray to the Christmas dinner for seniors at the Elks Club on North Avenue. This yearly happening was organized by Helping and Nurturing Diverse Seniors, a small but active Burlington nonprofit. HANDS runs a number of programs, but the holiday meal and gift giveaway is its flagship annual event, and I was brought on board to help with the transportation. All told, I ended up driving some 30 people to and from the club.

The day before, I had called each person to schedule pickup times, but unsurprisingly, things were not going like clockwork. Participants were variously canceling, delayed or just plain AWOL. Extra time and attention, not to mention patience, can be required when transporting elders. Fortunately, I'm crazy experienced in my profession and can improvise when the situation calls for it.

With Ray riding shotgun, my next fare was Jerri Woodhouse, who lived in one of Burlington's many senior apartments. She was a tiny spark plug who talked in a squeaky voice, evocative of a cute Disney squirrel.

"I was so annoyed with my church this month," Jerri shared with Ray and me. "There was no Christmas caroling at the services until yesterday! What kind of church holds back on the caroling?"

"I agree!" said Ray.

"Darn right," I concurred.

Jerri seemed fortified by our vocal support for her pro-caroling position. "Do you know if there's dancing at the Elks Club on the weekends?" she continued. "I was homeless for a while before I got my apartment, and I haven't been to a dance in years."

"I'm not sure about the Elks," I replied. "You could ask 'em when we get there. You still enjoy dancing, huh?" Jerri had appeared wobbly getting into the cab, and I was dubious.

"Well, I can't dance anymore, but I'd still like to be there."

At the next address, I waited for quite a while until someone from the lobby came out to inform me that Martha had gotten a ride with a neighbor. Good to know, I thought.

I successfully rendezvoused with a couple more folks before dropping the group at the Elks and heading out for more. My next two pickups, Livonia and Yvonne, were sixtysomething ladies who appeared to be good friends as they chatted in the bench seat behind me. Both lived with roommates in condo units that had seen better days.

"So, Livonia," Yvonne said to her pal, "you're certain this meal is entirely free?"

"Oh, yes," she replied. "And I believe there's a gift bag to boot!"

"So, are you ladies still working?" I asked.

"Yes, because we both like to eat," Yvonne replied with a chuckle. "I'm stuck in retail hell at the U-Mall, and Livonia does administrative stuff part time at the Hilton. Let me brag a little bit, Lee. My friend here is an accomplished poet who's won many awards."

"And that's why I work at the Hilton," Livonia jumped in, laughing.

"Yes, how do you put it, Lee? Oh, yeah — we're the 'upper class of the homeless.' We somehow manage to keep our apartments, but we're constantly under financial stress."

I thought about these two feisty women as I completed this round of pickups. They struck me as bright, kind and high-spirited, but they were one layoff, illness or accident away from a homeless shelter.

Greater Burlington is relatively prosperous, yet the community is largely aware of and concerned about the homeless population. That's a good thing. But what about the next tier up? I wondered. All those folks — likely greater in number than the actual homeless — who just barely keep a roof over their heads from week to week? They need some love, too. And that love needs to include government policies that address the country's growing income inequality.

There I go again, I thought, chuckling as I caught myself. At least 10 times a day, I find myself expounding on subjects great and small. And lest you think lack of an audience is a hindrance, I'm actually quite fine with lecturing to myself.

At the end of the day, the Elks dinner provided meals and gifts for a few hundred people. An event like this couldn't happen without the support of many volunteers and donors. On their rides home, toting bulging bags of wrapped presents, all my passengers were happy — satiated with good food and appreciative of the folks who made the evening possible.

The day left me contemplating the afterlife. One version of Buddhist hell posits a grand ballroom with tables holding bowls of delicious steaming rice. But the people in hell have three-foot chopsticks affixed as extensions of their arms, making eating impossible. Unable to feed themselves, they starve.

Heaven, according to this story, is the exact same place — but the people feed each other.

All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.

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