Store Owner Jim Dresser

One too many!

He hadn’t had the best childhood but somewhere after drugs, alcohol and being homeless for a number of years, something happened. Was it the meals the church served, the church that served the meals, the people who attended the church, the church where the people attended?

Here we are some 25 years later and he was on top of the world.

He remembers one of the days and maybe the day it all started to turn around. Christmas time, he had been sitting by himself, eating the free meal at Saint Benedict’s when Sam Townsend comes over, asking Jim if he can talk to him or if Jim would even like to talk. Without much discussion or a chance to decline, Sam sits down and starts in about investing.

 Investing? On his way out, Jim is going to be checking the outdoor ash tray for any choice buts. Jim is not exactly in the habit of investing and if he happens on any cash, it would only last until he could get to whatever it is going to take, to get junked-up again.

What a laugh, but he has been there before, so many times. People wanting to satisfy their own guilt and offering some useless information or their idea of what he needs.

Jim is not a dummy. He might be high most of the time, living on the streets, panhandling for whatever it is going to take to get through his next awake hours.  

He will listen to this guy, long enough to drag him in and maybe talk Sam into a sawbuck. Sam goes on for some time but talking slowly and asking a lot of questions. What would you do? What if this happened? How would you like to be able to do this or that?

Around that same time or year, he had stumbled into the library to get warm and found reading, could pass a little time. Later on, more trips to Saint Benedict’s and Sam Townsend, other soup kitchens, the library and again more people with plans for him.

Somewhere in all of it, something stuck. He started to listen and seeing some of his fellow street people become ill, wind up in jail or die in less than dignified conditions, he decided to try a little harder.

Jim Dresser remembered a lot of pain back than but it was all behind him now and best to forget what he could and concentrate on all that was good and there was a lot of good.

He had taken a number of jobs, gradually working up to better and better, all the time remembering a lot of the investing information, he had learned from Sam Townsend.  Learning anything became fun and after a short while having a good attitude was pretty easy. He was moving and he was moving up. No matter how many times he fell he would never be back there eating out of trash dumpsters and looking for cigarette stubs.

A woman he had met, Sharon Labre Mason, serving at the soup kitchen at Saint Benedict, became Mrs. Jim and there were by now three, well two little Jim’s or more correctly a Joseph, a Benedict and a little Miss Labre. Naturally their parent’s experiences only enhanced their knowledge and desires to look forward and to be considerate of others. The three children turned out to be those children everyone wants to take home and they were appreciated, wherever they went.

Jim had worked up to a manager’s job in a small grocery chain. The owner seeing his work ethics was impressed and offered Jim a chance to buy into the company. He had saved enough, invested wisely along with good standings at the local bank, was able to borrow what he needed.  He became a partner as the business was growing and too much for one owner to manage by himself.   

Every time something good happened, Jim’s family would celebrate. Not the kind of celebration where you spend a lot of money but a happy family kind of party with laughing and a simple but special meal, every one hugging and they would try to invite at least one person who was alone that day, to celebrate with them. They had many chances to celebrate and many chances to meet people who were alone.

Every year around the Christmas holidays the store would do something special for those in need. Maybe a free ham, a store coupon, a Christmas tree but for sure, something. On this year, Jim Dresser wanted to do something different. Something that might do a better job of getting to a person who really needed a gift.

He started early, talking it up a bit with friends and employees at the store and together, they came up with a plan. He would ask for volunteers from his staff to register their names. There would be a drawing. Twelve names would be drawn and their job would be to search out one person each who needed something. That person would be given store credit for a hundred dollars. The employee who found the person who had the most to gain by this gift would be given a hundred-dollar gift card themselves.

Everyone knew Jim was generous and it was easy to volunteer and those who were picked as one of the dozens, would do their best to be the winner, just for the sake of impressing their boss.

As instructed, they carried their steno pads everywhere because, you just never knew when an opportunity would come up, to interview and maybe get just a little information about a person.  Soon they were collecting pages and pages of names with connecting information. More importantly they were learning a lot about just how many were out there, needing help.

They had gone to soup kitchens, thrift stores, food pantry’s, places where the poor hung out, met some on the street and asked a lot of people about those they knew. This was started in mid-October and the prizes would not be given until the last week before Christmas. The idea was to find someone who might be so moved by the gift they would want to try a little harder, to change their own situation.

All had seen Willy Wonka’s Chocolate factory and many more fairy tales and this was something like that. Every day the dozen employees would come in to work, talking with the other workers, about the places they went as well as people they had met.

The event turned out to be a lot more successful or at least a lot more than anyone would have guessed. The chosen volunteers found themselves telling of the people and their stories, with more and more of their fellow employees wanting to help. Clothing, canned and dry food, small repair jobs would be opportunities for people to help and someone would be there to do their best to answer the call. Sometimes it was just a chance to steer a needy person in the direction of a service provider. The more they heard, the more questions they would ask and so the more they all learned.

In time, this become almost trendy. People planning their off time to help. Someone made up simple arm bands calling themselves, CP’s or Caring people. Volunteers were taught how best to help and in more than one instance professional help was sent to the person in need.

The original twelve as well as the original idea was almost lost in the excitement, people having help stories and who did what or needed what and solutions and so on.

Christmas week came along and by now, several newspapers had found it to be a great holiday story. It seemed to have a needed positive effect on people finally having something happy to read about.

The day was chosen and as it turned out all of the twelve original volunteers as well as others had a lot more than twelve names to submit. It was decided to put them all together and do a drawing for the twelve. That was done and special coupons which had been previously made up, were hand delivered. They would wait until after Christmas to determine if they could, just which needy person had gained the most and which volunteer had picked that person. Gradually the receivers of the gifts came into the store, redeeming their coupon but store workers were told to not make a big fuss so as to not embarrass them. 

Close to Christmas eve, Jim asked the cashiers for the coupons and to his surprise, there was not twelve, but thirteen. Thirteen coupons!! Something was drastically wrong. These were specifically made so it would be very difficult to counterfeit. Giving away one more was not the issue here, but somewhere in all of this was a person trying to cause great problems. Were there more out there? Who had access to getting another coupon made just the same? Why would someone go to that much trouble for a simple hundred dollars’ worth of groceries?

Jim felt sure he could trust his employees and this just wouldn’t wait. He called together everyone in the store, he could take away from their job. Gave them the story and asked them for any help they could. Please, make calls, go over your lists, try to remember who received the tickets, checking them against your lists and anything else you can do to solve this.

Although it hadn’t been required, four of the people had signed the back of the coupon. They were soon found on the very long lists leaving nine more, that were going to be difficult. Going over the lists and trying to put together something to identify the rightful winners was a long job.

More of the employees got involved and others were called, many coming in to do what they could to ferret out the culprit.

Slowly, one by one, some of the other winners were identified. They had been recognized by the person taking the coupon as a person on this or that side of town. A person at a food pantry or corner of the street.

Still three coupons were yet to be identified, and they had been working all night.

Some of the coupons had amounts as well as signatures on the back. Some of the winners were not able to take all they would buy with the hundred dollars and would take it in smaller amounts, they would be able to carry. Some were given vouchers to use the balance when they needed. On one of the coupons several amounts had been written and in only two days, eventually using up the hundred dollars. The cashier, Gertrude Edwards, who had signed it was on vacation for the holidays and would not be back until after New Year’s.

Early the next day Jim called around and was able to get a phone number for the vacationing cashier.

After a few messages and call backs, she answered,

“Gertie here, can I help you? If your selling I’m not buying.”

Jim identified himself, telling her of the situation and asking for any help she might have. 

One of the other cashiers had called her earlier to tell her of the situation, before her name was connected.  She had no idea she could be of any help. She said, how bad she felt and would do whatever she could, even to the point of flying home.

They talked about the coupon telling her that the person had made several small purchases in a couple of days. There were two other coupons to be identified and they were in a quandary and if she had any suggestions?

As much as Gertie would have liked to help,

“there is so much going on when people are checking out and I hardly remember my friends.” “Are there any cameras but naturally you would have already checked that out”.


 he had already checked the video and,

 “sorry to bother you while on vacation. Thanks for your time.”

So, three coupons were yet to be connected to their owner, rightful or not. Jim was beside himself. Tomorrow was Christmas eve and he had hoped to have this solved before Christmas.

His employees felt his anguish and did as much as they could to help, bringing him coffee, caring out little errands and handling customer’s needs.

He had hardly hung up the phone with Gertie Edwards when her number showed up on caller ID.

“Oh my gosh, I am so lame. I would forget my head, one time I walked all the way home because I drove to work that day and forgot I had driven. I live almost a mile away. I hope I am not going crazy but I have so many things going on with my married kids and the church and so sometimes,,,,,,,,,,.”

 Jim interrupted,

“Is there some special reason you called back and do you need to tell me something?”

“Oh, I am so sorry, yes, I know who that person is, well I don’t know who she is, but I know her. How could I forget. She carried all her groceries home and one day she forgot a bag of cat food. I had seen her walking before and figured she lived in a place close to where I live.  I was getting off work and she was almost my last customer. I figured I would see her and could give her the cat food.”

By now, Jim wants to scream into the phone or just leave it on the desk and walk away.

Gertrude went on,

“She is not someone who will be easy to identify. She is pretty plain and pretty old. She walks very slow. I think she had a gray jacket on. Her hair is, well she wears a scarf and,,,,,,.

Jim interrupted again

“Gertrude, can you please get to the story”

“Oh, yea, sorry Mr. Dresser, driving along, I spotted her, sitting at a bus stop. I turned around and stopped, calling to her. She must have recognized me and coming to the car, almost frantic, she said “I forgot my cat food, will they keep it for me? Will they remember me?”

“I told her I had it and seeing she was at a bus stop on the wrong side of the street from the direction she was supposed to be going, she must not have intended to take the bus. I asked her if I could give her a ride and after several protests and several of my insisting arguments, she got in. It turned out that she lived much further than me and in fact, more than two miles from the store.

You won’t like this Mr. Dresser but her place will be pretty easy to find. As you turn off Jenson, on Whittier street go down about four houses. On the right there are older homes, much older homes in pretty rough shape. One has painted purple siding on part of it looking like someone decided to take a break from painting and never came back. You can’t miss it. She lives in what some might call an apartment in the back. She insisted I come in and have coffee and I did but let me tell you Jim, I felt like a thief, taking her coffee. The place was very clean but beyond that, there isn’t much I can say.

If you go there, could you take her some groceries and put them on my tab. I was going to do it as soon as I got back. She seems to have so little and spends more on the cats than herself”.

Jim asked if she knew from where or from who the woman got the hundred-dollar coupon.

Gertrude had no idea but insisted on being called as soon as the woman was found. Hard to imagine this woman being a counterfeiter.

Jim started to see some of his past coming back. Old houses, with bad landlords in places too far away from needed resources.

In a matter of minutes, he had collected a bag of groceries and was off and down the street. Like Gertrude had said, “You won’t like this” and “It won’t be hard to find,” and he didn’t and it wasn’t.   He sat there a minute in his car, thinking of all the neighborhoods he had visited just like this. Houses full of people with addictions, mental health problems, buyers and sellers of everything wrong and people who just couldn’t do any better.

He got out and walked up to the back door, stepping over and around children’s broken toys, old tires, assorted rusty car parts and a few garbage bags. Somewhere dogs barked and people hollering at the dogs and maybe at themselves. Televisions seemed to be talking to him through the walls of at least a couple of other houses and car radios were rising and falling as they passed.

He knocked on the much-abused door, almost hoping for a no answer so he could move as fast as fitting from this place, to his car and just forget it all. Not fear but the feeling of watching something slowly crumble, right in front of you and not being able to do anything about it.

No such luck! Someone was coming. Soon he heard a bit of a shuffle and someone looked out the corner of a washed-out shredded curtain.  Partially opening the door, she asked him what he wanted and before Jim could answer she put her hand to her face and stepped back. She just stood or stooped there, bent over and looking like she was being threatened. Slowly she fell or kind of melted to the floor, not saying a word but just staring and so still. Jim could see she thought him to be someone she was afraid of but everything he tried or said was no help. Gradually he opened the door far enough to get in and having to push her, by now, all but laying on the floor.

Any conversation he tried to have with her returned nothing and other than seeing breathing in her frail body, he would have thought she was dead, with her eyes open staring at him.

Well, this didn’t require a lot of thought. His cell phone was out and an emergency vehicle was on the way. In no time they arrived, assessed her situation and determined she was more than anything, suffering from malnutrition.

Jim was asked to meet them at the hospital, to maybe give what information he could. He would have gone anyway. He wasn’t going to miss this for anything. He had made a quick trip through her place, collected a purse and anything she might need in the few minutes they were loading her and gave it to the driver.

The short four-mile trip to the hospital seemed to take a lot longer than it should. All of those old memories started to play in his head, all of those old, dirty, lonely people, living or just existing in places people like him would never even consider. He had met many of them so long ago.  How in the world could something like this be? How could someone, in this time and place be going hungry? He knew the story. He had seen it and been in it himself.

The woman probably never bought meat but noodles, potatoes, cereals, bread and a lot of cat food. The cats were her only friends and she would take care of them first. She wouldn’t normally make that many trips to the store but having the coupon, she would want to get all she had coming before something bad happened. Normally she would only go out on food stamp day and most of that would be used up the same day. The trip from the store to her home would be long, hard and scary. She would be an easy mark, not so much for what little money she might have, but someone to just come and grab one of her grocery bags. She wouldn’t have a cart because that would have been stolen and you just don’t spend money on things like carts that are going to be stolen. Her rent would have been worked out so she would be left with just barely enough to pay for the utilities. The heat bill would be more than many large homes and any appliances in this “furnished” apartment would be older and grossly inefficient. Being aware of her situation she would have bought soaps and cleaners but conditions made it a grueling chore even to clean. She would be worn out before the day ever started.

How could he be so stupid, thinking he could help people in these conditions. In a crazy kind of way, He had caused her to need a trip to the hospital.

In the hospital, what Jim learned, was about to turn the world upside down. He immediately called as many people as he could, who would help him confirm or denounce what he was thinking. He called his wife and in no time, she had a babysitter and on her way to the hospital.

When Jim’s was living on the streets and started going to the library, someone had gotten him interested in doing a family tree. What a joke, with not much more than a list of foster homes and a lot of coaxing from library staff he started in.  After a long and arduous search, he had found the city state and hospital he was born in and eventually a name of his birth mother who had given him up at birth. No father was listed and no forwarding address or next of kin.  It is supposed to be easy to find someone if you have their names,,,,,, but it helps if you have an address or at least a city and state and for that matter a country where they may have lived or are living. Any information attached to the birth record was of no help. Eventually he gave up to, “sometimes you just can’t find them, or maybe they just don’t want to be found.”

The family who had adopted Jim had arranged to give him their name and so he became James Anthony Dresser, never knowing his birth name until finding the hospital records. His adoptive father had passed away and after a while the mother went to a nursing home, suffering a mental breakdown and not able to care for Jim or herself. Jim was put into foster care and at a pretty young age and after a number of foster homes, graduated to the streets.

 By the time he was sobered up, had a job and thinking a little better, he had acquired a driver’s license, social security card, credit cards and so on, gave some thought to changing back to his birth mothers name but, what would be the gain?

When he seen the name Abella Murphy, it couldn’t help but grab his attention. A first and last name, put together like that was not all that common, and he had picked up a piece of mail in her apartment that also caught his eye. It was from Fairmont Wisconsin which is where the hospital he was born in is or at least used to be located.

By now he was feeling a bit woozy and was glad to be able to share this with his wife.

“What are the chances? How could this? What if? How did she just happen to get here, this city, the coupon, my store? This is all too crazy and I don’t know whether to be anxious to be disappointed or happy to be ,,,,,,,,,,,.  I really do not know what to think but will be pretty happy to have this over.”

There had been several trips to and from the woman’s room by nurses and a doctor. Questions about relationship, told she didn’t seem to have anybody else; she would be ok but needed a bit of nourishment and finally they were told they could go in.

Jim’s wife decided it would be best if she went in to see the woman first, as he seemed to have brought on the shock to this Abella Murphy. Jim had no choice and could not think of any good reason to keep someone else from doing his thinking for now. Jim’s wife went in to the woman’s room and for what seemed like hours he walked the halls.

The door had been closed and after a while, Jim came back sitting just outside and started watching it like it was going to just melt or he would be able to see through it, like superman.

The door opened slowly and he jumped up not being able to move from where he stood. His wife came out slowly, very slowly with her head down. Walking closely to Jim she lifted her head as she did, grabbed and hugged him. Her face was lit up from ear to ear, makeup running down her face half laughing half crying and together they just held each other for a long, long time, both crying and laughing at the same time.

She had called the baby sitter from the room and she would be bringing the children up to the hospital to see their only grandmother.

Both Jim and his wife had seen enough in their time on the streets to not be worried about why’s, right now. If there was any necessity for explanations, that would come later.

Abella Murphy never went home to her apartment from the hospital. In fact, Abella never went back to her apartment. She was able to manage a wheel chair to Jim’s car and in to their house that same night and in only days was quite fit to move around.

She was told early on; all the explanations could wait and she was going to get healthy. She was to take whatever was given to her, wear the new clothes, eat as much as she could to regain back some strength and ask for what she needed. The three children were put into service seeing she carried out the orders which although she protested, was easy to see, she loved.  

Her two cats were collected the first day, after a quick call from Jim’s wife to a friend who just happened to have a friend who was a veterinarian. The cats were given a quick but thorough check and other than some precautionary medicine, and a strict diet, not surprisingly, were in good shape. A place was provided for the cats but with the children’s pleading and the love that Jim and his wife had for animals, were soon given the run of the house.

Abella had no trouble being told what she needed by the children and the children treated her like a queen. The boys wanted to wait on her playing butler or servant. Little Labree treated her like a big doll, asking her to try on this or that piece of clothing and directing her to a chair or special place in the room.

When someone in the house wasn’t shedding happy tears, they were laughing.

The two other coupon holders had been identified by now and it was still an un answered question, as to where the thirteenth ticket had come from.  His mother said someone had come to the door with an envelope, saying, “a man in the car out here, asked me to give this to you”. By the time she had opened it and found what it was, they were gone. She wished she could tell them more but,,,,,,,,.

Not a single person at the store, the company supplying the tickets or anyone else handling them, could give any suggestions.

No more tickets showed up, so after a while the subject just sort of slipped away.  

Christmas had been something to behold. It seemed like everybody in town or at least everyone who had heard of the story was in a giving and celebrating mood. It was all too incredible and more than one person was accused of making it all up.

Jim’s mother had known who he was but never expected him to show up at her house. She had more or less followed him from birth. His adoptive parents had contacted her shortly after they were able to take him, feeling he needed to eventually know her. She refused to see him knowing it would only bring on more pain but kept track of where he was.  Taking a small job here and there and living in an old house his father owned when she was in the area.  His father was not exactly a supportive man and had only married her after the birth insisting Jim’s mother leave no address even though she used his last name. The house had been given to his father by a cousin but needed a lot of work back then. A lot of work he never could get to. He didn’t live very long after their marriage but she decided to keep his name for no particular reason other than she had used it at the birth and no one had asked for anything else.  

A large industrial developing Firm had been sending letters to Abella, asking if she would sell the property. She had always tried to keep up the taxes, thinking someday ,,,,,,, something, but keeping them up had been hard. 

Checking and settling the property business turned into a fun family trip. The buyers set them up in a downtown hotel with a swimming pool, all day buffet, complete with things you couldn’t identify as well as things you couldn’t stop eating. There was a work out room, game room and more. The hotel staff soon learned the name of the children as well as the adults.  Jim and Sharon left grandma to babysit but it would be hard to decide, between grandma, kids, and hotel staff who was babysitting who.  

Jim and his wife had talked about returning to the old area someday and they would have to return to the lesser part of town just to see,,,,, just to see.

Some things never change or seem to keep repeating. They visited Saint Benedict’s, a few soup kitchens, and walked the streets a bit. They listened to a lot of stories, didn’t give out much more than directions if asked but were glad to have come. No, no quick fix to the problem but knowing the value of a listening ear, if only for a few minutes were glad to provide that.

The property settlement turned out better than expected and Jim insisted all the money belonged to his mother.

Abella had said she was feeling guilty about living with Jim and Sharon. She was quite used to living on her own but knew it would be hard to leave. She had seen an apartment just two blocks away and could they help her get that as it would be close for her to walk over and see them.

With their help, grandma was able to buy a small two-bedroom house just down the street from Jim and Sharon, keeping her independence while still close enough for the children to spend an occasional night. Often more than occasional.  

There were some sad days. Labre had contacted a serious virus, been hospitalized but was home and in perfect condition now. The children suffered a few small injuries at school. One of the cats had passed away and of course meant a great deal to all of them by now.

Al in all, there was much to be thankful for and being thankful had become one of their regular duties.

One day an envelope came in the mail, with a hand-written letter inside.

Dear Jiminy

Wow! He hadn’t been called that for a long time.

“Not to long after I had seen you the last time, I did a counterfeiting job for someone who turned out to be the law. They gave me some pretty serious time. They watched me pretty close in there so I was forced to take up a different hobby. Following your style, I started to read a lot. I remember it did a lot for you and so what could it hurt?

Not a lot of books to choose from but did get into the bible and got a lot more out of that than I would have ever dreamed. I know you won’t believe this, but I am a different man.

Besides the bible, one of the guys gave me a magazine on genealogy and I remembered you had gotten into that some. Turned out some of the other guys in the joint were into looking for family and they had a kind of supervised group who met every Wednesday with a volunteer librarian. She would take what information she was allowed and other volunteers at the library would work with her to help sort out what we had.

Working from inside the joint is pretty slow but it was something to look forward to every week.

One day I was called to the deputy warden’s office, thinking I was in to more hot water. I said a few prayers. Well, I guess they worked and it turned out, the state police were having problems with counterfeiting in an area up-state. I was able to give them a little help and made a name for myself. Although you don’t brag about that kind of thing in the prison, it sure made my life a lot better. Pretty soon I was being called out more and of course wouldn’t have any idea of who, but I could usually give them some information about equipment, ink, and places where it might be obtained legally or illegally. They would go there and check records of purchases and at least make their job a little easier.

You had told me about your mother and her name but you could never get any further. I mentioned it to the State people one day and they said they would look into it. As they say, the rest is history and although I have no idea how it is going to turn out, my prayers are with you, for the best.

I am out now, my help to the state gave me some good time but you can be sure Who I give the real credit to. You will see my return address and if you ever get a chance to reply, but of course I will understand if you don’t.

By the way, I haven’t picked up my old hobbies but sometimes Gut finds a little place for talent we thought we would never use again. The knock-off store coupon was pretty easy but let’s just keep that in our hearts.

God’s friend and yours, Irv McHugh”

Jim stood there staring into space. The old neighborhood. The old life. Would it ever leave him? Was he sure he even wanted it to? So much good had come out of what was once a train wreck. He had climbed up farther than he would have if he hadn’t known the streets, He had met his wife there. He had found his mother. Now ,,,,, this!!

Irv McHugh had been a sort of friend on the streets, sharing cigarettes or a bottle when he could and when Jim was finally clean, he, Jim would go back to the neighborhood and sit with Irv for a while. He would bring a thermos of coffee and a couple of sandwiches or maybe they would go over to the soup kitchen and just spend some time with Jim doing more listening than telling.

You can’t drag someone with you when you leave the streets but your return visits are always a payoff.

Jim had moved away putting Irving McHugh in that dusty closet of his mind with all of the other, “one day I will” things.

Jim would be looking for a phone number in the next hour or so and even if that didn’t pan out, there was a family trip coming up in the next two weeks, come rain or pain.

It was almost Christmas again. How strange it had been. Three attendants bringing things his mother had needed to give her life. Her getting away from an area where there could only be trouble. The animals, two cats for warmth, well, never mind. Move on.

Right now, he needed to go back to that seat that had been starting to show wear for a while. He could talk to the Boss anywhere but for some reason he preferred to meet Him at the altar. This time of year, he could see Him, just as he had found his mother. Wanting to be found and in a rundown place with a special Father and a very special Mother.


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