Tag Archives: Compassion

A Lesson in Compassion

20130620-What's In A Name

Compassion: noun: Sympathetic consciousness of another’s distress together with a desire to alleviate it.

Had my youngest brother Robert survived his demons and addictions he would have been fifty years old on October the 30th, just two short days ago. He was drawn into the culture of drugs and addictions at far too young an age and although I never told him to his face I was angry with him and complained of him to my siblings and my wife. When we were together, however, I was always civil to him even though I bore negative thoughts concerning his use of street drugs and the ill effects they were having.

There are good memories of Robert. Way back in the mid 1980’s when I was living in San Dimas I had retaken up the guitar but the demands of the vice-presidency I had made sure there really wasn’t any time to put the effort needed into it. I mentioned to Robert my dilemma and he asked if he could have the guitar (because I think he had sold his for drug money). I gave him the guitar with the stipulation that he returned the guitar to me when he acquired another. I don’t know what happened to the guitar but I think he took it to Denver, Colorado but returned with out it.

When my wife and I married on June 11, 1988 Robert was the life of the party and made us laugh at his champagne encouraged antics. My best man could not stay with the wedding party so we gave Robert the room at the Golden Sails Hotel that we had rented for the best man and his very pregnant wife. It was a good day and thanks to my brother-in-law we have our wedding and Robert on film.

Not long before his death Robert seemed to kick the drugs but still self-medicated heavily with Vodka even as he enrolled at El Camino College and was planning to study computer programming, which was something I had been and was still doing at the time. We had a pleasant talk and I was proud of my younger brothers accomplishment, congratulated him, and left for home. I did not see him again until his funeral several days later.

I cried. I hated drug dealers and wished they were all put to death. I grieved and then ultimately I emerged from the worst of the pain and realized that my judgment of his drug usage had limited our interactions, our brotherly love. When I realized the price I had paid I knew I could never think or feel negatively about another’s distress and their attempts to cope with this life ever again.

My baby brother bequeathed me the great gift of Compassion and for that I am forever grateful and in his debt. And, from John Lennon:

“Whatever Gets You Through The Night”

Whatever gets you through the night ‘salright, ‘salright
It’s your money or life ‘salright, ‘salright
Don’t need a sword to cut through flowers oh no, oh no

Whatever gets you through your life ‘salright, ‘salright
Do it wrong or do it right ‘salright, ‘salright
Don’t need a watch to waste your time oh no, oh no

Hold me darlin’ come on listen to me
I won’t do you no harm
Trust me darlin’ come on listen to me, come on listen to me
Come on listen, listen

Whatever gets you to the light ‘salright, ‘salright
Out the blue or out of sight ‘salright, ‘salright
Don’t need a gun to blow your mind oh no, oh no

Hold me darlin’ come on listen to me
I won’t do you no harm
Trust me darlin’ come on listen to me, come on listen to me
Come on listen, listen

The Undertaker

I sat on a wooden box in the shadow of the sales counter and watched The Undertaker as he paced restlessly in front of Mr. Witt’s Liquor Store and as he paused now and again to peer inside the open storefront before he resumed his march. The Undertaker continued the monotony for several more minutes while a number of customers entered the Liquor Store and Market. Many were buying cigarettes and cigars as was fashionable in the 1960’s. Brooklyn Joe, the snooker player, had walked over from the Pool Hall next door to pick up a racing form and a pack of White Owl Cigars. He, and old man Witt, discussed their favorites running at Hollywood Park and were soon joined by three other men. As always, Brooklyn Joe was by far the loudest participant, with every other word taken from the largest storehouse of swear words known to man.

The Undertaker stopped pacing the sidewalk and watched intently at the five men who, engrossed in their conversation, seemed oblivious to everything else. The Undertaker casually strolled through the 15 foot wide opening at the front of the store. He was a tall thin man. I believe he was about the thinnest man I had ever seen and at over six feet likely weighed little more than myself. As always he was attired in black leather wingtip shoes with holes in the bottom, which I knew, from previous observations, he kept patched with cardboard. He always wore the same threadbare black pants (that were several inches too short) with a matching black-tailed coat, which was only buttoned on the colder days, and a black top hat. Today he wore socks that covered the often-bare spot between his shoes and the bottom of his pants. The socks were gray-white and matched his shirt.

The Undertaker walked slowly through the front market portion of the store and stopped occasionally to pick up an item for careful inspection. Always after he turned it over in his hands he would place it back from exactly where he had taken it. He continued these careful inspections for several minutes and slowly worked his way back to the rear of the store where Mr. Witt kept the fine wine and spirits walled off by display cases from the rest of the market.

At the very entrance to the fine liquor area was an old barrel that Mr. Witt had turned into a display table by placing it upside down and adding a smaller wooden bucket in the center. He had several bottles of Thunderbird wine circling the bucket, which bore a hand-drawn sign advertising a price of “50 Cents.”

I watched The Undertaker as he picked up one of the bottles of Thunderbird and turned it over in his hands. He stroked the bottle gently and with his body positioned between the barrel and the men at the front of the store he pretended to place the bottle back on the barrel as he carefully slipped it under his tailcoat.

I continued to watch as he turned and resumed his routine of inspecting various market items as he made his way to the front of the store where he exited even as he still clutched the bottle of wine under his coat.

After he left I stood and walked over to the cash register and interrupted the men’s talk of thoroughbreds.

“Mr. Witt”, I said, “Did you know that that man just stole a bottle of Thunderbird?”

The four customers all laughed.

Mr. Witt smiled and said; “Sammy, I keep those bottles of Thunderbird in the store for him alone. When he has a need he comes in for one. Sometimes, he will actually have a half-dollar or a bag full of pop bottles to give me, but most of the time he is broke. As long as I keep those bottles in stock he never tries to take anything more expensive.”

I was still barely a Cub Scout then and I thought about that incident for a very long time. We are all told that it is wrong to steal and somebody is supposed to be punished. That day I learned a little more about charity, compassion, and what loving one’s brother is really all about – even if it was one of those that many people in our society would seemingly just throw away.

Mr. Witt taught me a lesson that day, nearly fifty years ago, that I soon began to practice along with my new Boy Scout slogan: “Do a good turn daily.” As Taco Bell was across the street from where I grew up it was not uncustomary for me to stop for a Taco, Bell Burger – or similarly inexpensive item, purchase an extra, and leave it on the rail of the dumpster out back. It brought tears to my eyes when I learned that my friends and neighbors had begun doing the same.

And, during this Christmas season, I pray you all experience the joy of doing a good turn daily and blessing your own, as well as, another’s day.



The Undertaker was a real human being that haunted the streets where I grew up for many years. He was a homeless man, who was always attired in the same threadbare clothes, and whose only variation I can remember in his dress, was that on some days he lacked socks. I never once heard him speak, from the first days he arrived when I was still in elementary school, on through his last days, which saw me through high school and into young adulthood.

It was the children of our town that called him The Undertaker, along with other names like The Spook, and The Scarecrow. I don’t believe anyone ever knew what his given name was, where he hailed from, or what the set of circumstances was that took him from a life where he would have dressed like Fred Astaire, to the one where he pulled his meals from the dumpster behind a Taco Bell that was located some sixteen miles due south of Hollywood.

I have a faint memory of a long ago Sunday morning when The Undertaker stood in the entrance of our Pentecostal Holiness Church and listened to the sermon with his top hat in his hand and then, when it was over, fled when invited all the way inside by an usher.

Nobody really knew where he lived but I discovered it by accident one night. As a boy I would often sneak out of my house in the middle of the night and go to where the railroad tracks cut our town askew. On one of those nights, as I sat and watched the trains and constellations, I saw The Undertaker exit a thick growth of shrubbery along side the fences that separated the homes from the tracks, relieve himself on the rails in the moonlight, and then get down upon his hands and knees, and crawl back inside.

When I was young man working full-time and going to college in the evenings I realized that I had not seen him about for a while. I asked around and was told that he had died while asleep in his shrubbery home. One of the neighbors apparently found his body after he missed seeing him for a few days.

The Undertaker became an integral part of my life on that August morning in 1965 when he became the vehicle for an important lesson that I needed to learn and he, like so many others who have come and gone through the years, never truly left me.


Lately we’ve had a gray cat coming to the back door for food.  We don’t know if it’s feral or actually belonged to someone but we do know that it was injured at some time because it has a bad limp.  We’re also not sure how it found us and I’ve wondered if perhaps the orange tabby we’ve been feeding for years gave us up.  Anyway, about a week ago it showed up begging for food so the drill has been I put some food in a cup, go to the back door while it runs off 8 or 10 feet, and doesn’t start back until I’ve poured the food into the bowl and am back inside the house.  But this morning it changed it’s behavior somewhat in that it only backed away about a yard and hissed at me while I poured the food in the bowl.  It continued to hiss even as I backed into the house but it went for the bowl before I had the door shut.  Anyway, this got me thinking about the compassion we show towards others, and not just feral cats but people too.

 I was eleven or twelve when I witnessed a lesson in compassion that left a lifelong mark upon my character.  In the town where I spent my formative years, which was east of Pacific Coast Highway and those west of the highway joked that everything east was just one giant parking lot, was a family owned Liquor store three doors down from our house.  It was owned by a man who lived about a block and a half down the street from his business.  This was back when businesses closed on Election Days, Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, and never opened on Sundays until all the church services were over.  Between my house and the liquor store was the pool hall where I spent a great deal of my time with some other characters of note.

 In this town was a homeless man that all of us kids called ‘The Undertaker,’ although he was also called ‘Preacher,’ ‘Spook,’ and ‘Scarecrow.’  Now, we had no idea if he had been an undertaker or not but it was a moniker that probably came about from the way he was dressed.  He wore a threadbare and graying black tuxedo, with a white shirt that was made for cufflinks, scuffed black dress shoes, and a black top hat that was not as tall as a Lincoln stovepipe but still tall enough that some of the more ornery boys would try to knock it off with thrown rocks.  The man was tall, thin, extremely shy and reclusive, and foraged the trashcans for food to eat.

 One day, again when I was eleven or twelve, a group of us we’re hanging out gossiping with Mr. Wit in the front of his store.  There was Brooklyn Joe, a nine-ball player named Steve, and a couple of others from the pool hall.  While the grown men were talking and I was listening ‘The Undertaker’ came into store and began walking around rather suspiciously, I thought.  Now, the men didn’t seem to give him any attention but I watched him as he’d pick up and sit back one thing after another as he made his way toward the back of the store where the wine bottles were on display.  At the entrance to the wine room was a barrel arranged with bottles of Thunderbird Red and a sign indicating that they were fifty-cents each.  I watched ‘The Undertaker’ pick up one of those bottles, slip it under his top coat, and then slowly walk out of the store.

 Now I was surprised that nobody but me seemed to have seen what had just transpired.  I waited until after he’d gone and then told Mr. Wit what the man had done.  I was sure surprised when they all laughed at me, but then Mr. Wit explained that he kept those bottles on display especially for ‘The Undertaker,’ that it helped satisfy a need in the man, and at the same time kept him from going after the fine wines in the back of the store.

 I thought about that incident for a long time.  We are all told that it is wrong to steal and they’re supposed to be punished when they do.  That day I learned about compassion, charity, and loving one’s brother, even those that most people in our society would seem throw away.  And, when ever I was at the Taco Bell, I’d buy something extra and leave it in a bag on the dumpster out back where I’d know he’d find it.  After a time I noticed others we’re doing the same and it was a good.