EMPATHY AND FACEBOOK combine in a kind of cowboy winter-gear drive out here in the badlands of Port Townsend. Aki Avelino has just finished rustling up loads of coats, socks, underwear and toiletries for the souls at the Jefferson County Winter Shelter.
“This isn’t about the holidays,” he told me Saturday morning at the Seal Dog Coffee Bar, a snug place on Lawrence Street.
“It’s just — it’s cold,” and Aki knows what it’s like to have nowhere to get warm.
Aki is a man of empathy and a man about town, driving here and there to pick up the warm clothes friends and acquaintances have purchased and delivering them to the shelter at the American Legion at Water and Monroe streets.
This year has been big, he said, with donors filling his vehicle with their gifts. They hear about his drive, message him on Facebook or text him, and then he does porch pickups. Crossroads Music in Port Townsend is also a collection point. No task force, no five-year plan, no government program.
All of this started some four decades ago in a kitchen in the Philippines.
“People forget I’m from a Third World country,” Aki said. He’s also his mother’s son. Areopahita Avelino welcomed the neighborhood kids to the family dinner table. She never cared what a kid looked or smelled like. She didn’t mind a bit when they called her Mommie.
Her son Aki went off to serve in the U.S. Navy, and came to live in the United States when he was 24. He has since worked all kinds of jobs, from fishing to construction. Aki’s also been between jobs, spending nights outside.
He recalls how it feels to be desperate for sleep, yet awake and freezing cold till morning.
These days Aki is a socialist, like his mother.
What does this mean? Simply that, Aki replies, all of us have a right to the basics. A good night’s sleep in a warm bed. A pair of clean, dry socks.
Yet “I feel kind of silly, talking to a reporter,” Aki said.
To which I say: I’m not here to focus on you as much as I’m interested in the idea of radical acceptance, dignity and safety for all.
I know Christians who practice this as part of their faith; I know lots of good people who are generous to the less fortunate at Christmastime. But what about the rest of the year?
Meantime, it’s not easy to keep a conversation with Aki going. People keep walking up to say, “Hey, brother,” and put a hand on his shoulder. And Aki is still recovering from hellish — and at last, successful — treatment for nasopharyngeal cancer this past summer.
But we do circle back around to the topic of socialism. Yes, that’s been a dirty word in these United States, but now we’re realizing what it means. Things like the fire department, the county’s snow plow service, and Medicare? Taxpayer-supported, socialist programs all.
Meanwhile, at sidewalk level, Aki regards his fellow humans as, yes, humans. That guy who looks down and out may have had an important job not so long ago; that woman living on the street may have young kids. A job loss, a spouse’s death or a health crisis changed everything.
Aki uses the word “universality” for his attitude. I like the spaciousness of that. We’re part of the same universe. When somebody gets caught in a storm, we can help them find a warm coat.
Aki takes it a step further.
“The bottom line,” he said, “is we all need love.”
Diane Urbani de la Paz, a freelance journalist and former PDN features editor, lives in Port Townsend.
Her column appears in the PDN the first and third Wednesday every month. Her next column will be Jan. 1.
Reach her at [email protected]