“You gotta get out!” my tenant’s friend said over the phone. “The whole mountain’s on fire!”
Gene wandered outside, smelled smoke but saw no evidence of flames. He meandered inside, decided to put his shoes on, and then slipped out again to take another look. “Holy crap!”
He searched frantically for LittleBoy, his favorite ferrel cat. LittleBoy was lost.
Gene jumped in his car and raced down the long winding driveway. Across the way, the neighbor’s house was already engulfed in flames; the street was a hallway on fire.
“I drove through a hailstorm of embers,” Gene told me later. At a parking lot at the end of the road, he pulled over with a huddle of people standing in shock.
“Dude, your car’s on fire!” one of them yelled. Someone grabbed a fire extinguisher.
In the midst of the chaos, a stranger pointed at Gene’s shoes. “Your socks don’t match.” Just then another guy ran to the group, barefoot and shirtless. He couldn’t make it to his car and escaped on foot.
Now that the fire is over, people, mostly like Gene, wander into the laundromat I own with my husband. The lucky ones are washing clothes, blankets, curtains, and linens that all smell like smoke. The ones who aren’t so lucky need information, a hot cup of coffee and everything else.
Pat Hoffman and his wife, Barbie, decided to make our laundromat a soft place for these people to land.
Back when I was diagnosed with cancer 3 years ago, my husband reached out to Pat for help. “I can’t manage this business anymore and take care of Nancy too,” Gary said. For twenty years, our businesses have shared a wall. Pat owns Sonoma Taekwandoo, and we’ve watched each other and our community of customers grow up.
Like all small business owners I know, he’s busy. We hated to ask for help, but we were panicking, wondering how in the hell we would make ends meet as self employed people in a nation that hasn’t figured out that part of the health care system.
In a couple of days, with the ease of seasoned dealmakers and trusted friends, we agreed to a plan that works for everyone. Pat stepped in and still runs our laundromat as if it were his own.
When the fires torched our beloved mountains and vineyards, all of us could see that our community was suffering. People like Gene, like my sister Jane and her husband Dave, like so many of our friends and neighbors – had no place to go.
Information was spotty and often inaccurate. People needed a place to connect.
Pat and his wife, Barbie, moved a row of video games out of the laundromat and into their own storage space, and they put up a bulletin board where neighbors and organizations could post vital information. Then they bought donuts, lots of donuts, but they made coffee too and bought cases of water.
“We’ll wash their blankets, give them coffee, and do whatever we can to help,” Barbie said. La Luz de Sonoma, a local organization, delivered lunches to the laundromat so people could eat.
“This is what it means to be part of a community,” Pat says.
Without completing a single form, without assessing liabilities or conducting a cost benefit analysis study, help showed up. It fed the hungry, it clothed the naked, it comforted the afflicted. There was no army of government employees or trailers full of computers and copy machines. It was just Pat, a laundromat and donuts.
No one got a tax increase. No one had to show ID or proof of income. But people came together anyway and offered help. Those who needed it were grateful; those who served were blessed.
That’s the power of small business. Small entities doing great things. And it happens everyday in communities all across the nation. It’s just that most of the time, nobody notices.