Mike Tharp: Last in, first out, they count

03/21/2009 1:51 AM

03/21/2009 1:54 AM

The Governator was in town this week. Out where new bridges are supposed to span the 99 at 16th Street. He looked good (though a little orangey) and sounded better. Promised the project would lead to 840 jobs.

Also there was a big meeting on high-speed rail at the Senior Center. Lots of citizen input.

And a key committee signed off on UC Merced's final environmental impact statement. That's one of the last steps before fed approval for the campus to build some new buildings and grow.

So altogether a purdy good week hereabouts.

But it was mostly the same as always for Carl W. Collins.

On Wednesday, the 81-year-old former Marine (who recites his service number at the drop of a battered olive-drab barracks cap) hung out at his usual haunts: Rite-Aid, Save Mart, Taco Bell and the Goodwill Store.

Most every day the Missouri-born resident guides his motorized wheelchair with the Mega tray on it ("I can get 'er up to 17!") from his house east of Olive and G to the shopping crossroads.

He asks folks heading into the drugstore to get him a Mountain Dew, handing them a couple of crumpled one-dollar bills. He asks somebody else to get him a cup of vanilla ice cream. Always hands 'em the money.

The Rite-Aid clerks are used to Carl, and they treat him well. "He's always here," says one.

Carl Collins is like a lot of Mercedians. He reads the Sun-Star (keeps two quarters on the tray and asks folks to slide 'em in the rack's slot) and thinks it's "a great newspaper." He's seen his house's value appreciate to $165,000 from the $18,000 he and his wife paid for it when they moved to Merced in 1964. He worked as a yard foreman at Yosemite Builders for 38 years, then another gig as a gate security guard at BMC West.

He's owned six cars. In the late '60s, he bought two burial plots at Evergreen Cemetery, and his wife, who died in ought-three after 55 years of marriage, is buried in one.

"I had her cremated, so I can join her in hers," he says. "That'll leave me with one lot." G-7 and G-8 are theirs.

But as for politics? "Ain't got time to pay attention to it," he grins around no teeth and a chin spattered with Longhorn snuff ($1.79 a can). He had a pair of false teeth worth $200, he says, but one of his relatives -- "he drank six or seven of them big cans of beer a day" -- accidentally threw them out when he was cleaning up the house. He had to send that relative on his way.

Oh, Collins is glad the police are doing such a good job with the homeless. "They're pickin' 'em up," he says. No major complaints about the streets or sidewalks of the city. He can walk OK, but he's thinking about getting a three-wheeled bicycle. He already owns most of the parts, so maybe all he needs is a frame; a brand-new one runs about $400, he reckons. Someday he might wind up in a house trailer, though he bristles at the $400 a month rent for a space.

His kinfolk are spread out all over creation, including a daughter in Puerto Rico and another in Oklahoma. He gets by on Social Security and a few other monthly checks. He's proud of a 25-foot clothesline in his backyard. A neighbor gave him an old hi-fi, and he listens to Lawrence Welk on it. A guy down the street gave him a TV and a VCR.

Would he ever hold a yard sale? "Only if you got a whole block to put my stuff on."

Collins served in the Marines 1945-49. Got as high up as PFC, busted a few times. Pulled duty in China.

When big wheels and hot deals and new ideals hit the county line, a lot of us Mercedians look up from what we're doing and take notice. It's not every day the governor comes to town. It's not every day we're considered a way-station for a 200-mph train. It's not every day that our dream of becoming a true town-and-gown community edges closer to reality.

That's just fine. We need to stop and smell the golden poppies and the Fourbucks coffee. We need to take our local financial temperature so we can work our way out of this depression. We need to hear state and local leaders tell us how close we came to economic catastrophe in California, thanks to the budget cagefight. And we need to hear that bonds we approved three years ago for infrastructure projects and taxes we paid last year are returning to us as part of the federal stimulus package.

All fine and dandy.

We also need to remember the people like Carl Collins in Merced County. They're easy to overlook. Except for his ever-waving American flag and 17-mph hustle around a busy intersection, we'd probably miss him altogether. But he and folks like him make up about one-fifth of our population -- those who live below the poverty line.

They're the LIFOs of our society -- last in, first out when bad times hit. Carl Collins doesn't ask anybody for anything. He hands 'em bills and coins to buy what his gnarled fingers can no longer manage.

He probably prefers to spend more time in the past than in the present. He probably smells a little like WD-40 and smokeless tobacco. He probably isn't somebody you're gonna invite over to supper -- even at Taco Bell.

But he counts. So do all those Mercedians whose lives seldom, if ever, cross paths with ours. While we are right to cheer local and statewide leaders flexing to force this economic engine into a U-turn, kindly keep an eye out for Carl and others like him.

He counts. They all do.

Executive Editor Mike Tharp can be reached at (209) 385-2456 or mtharp@mercedsun-star.com.

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