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Feb. 10, 2010         

           “Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get.
But if you work really hard and you're kind, amazing things will happen. I'm telling you. Amazing things will happen. I'm telling you. It's just true.”---Conan O’Brien.

          So in his big sign-off speech at NBC, Conan O’ Brien said that if you are “kind” and “work really hard,” then “amazing things will happen” to you. Well, he’s so right. Let me tell you about my friend, Jeannine Mendoza. Amazing things have happened to her.
          Jeannine has worked really hard. Really, really hard. Always has. I used to think she was sort of nuts, working so hard, but she actually didn’t mind it. Perhaps that’s a kind of madness in itself.
          Jeannine is a kindergarten teacher, which is really hard work. She took her career so seriously that over the years she kept getting huge loans and going back to school at night and getting degrees and paying off the loans until she wound up Dr. Jeannine Mendoza, kindergarten teacher. Ed.D in Curriculum, UCLA, 2002.
          How many kindergarten teachers do you know with doctorates in education?
          She has worked in the L.A. Unified School District for 33 years (no small feat), the last sixteen at Charnock Road Elementary in Palms. (Hobart Elementary, ’83-’93, and Roosevelt in Lynnwood, ’77-’83.) She just loves her work, is held in very high regard by peers, and remains kind, as per O’Brien’s little homily. In fact, I don’t know anyone more kind, upbeat, optimistic. She is indefatigable. She signs e-mails, “Pollyanna.”
          Not that Jeannine is naïve. Few persons of my acquaintance have seen through chicanery, fraudulence and pose better than this woman. It’s just that it somehow does not sour her, or deter her from optimism.
          Sure amazes me.       
          Jeannine grew up in Venice in a friendly tract house that used to border Venice marshland and now borders Marina del Rey moneyland. She had a great smile, great parents, great sister, three great brothers, and no extra money. She went to Catholic schools, and Cal State Northridge on loans and EOP, and it was there that she met her husband, Aaron Hassman, in 1973.
          They were married right out of school, settled in Venice, and embarked on the life afforded by becoming really, really hardworking schoolteachers doing kind things. After a few years in a shoebox apartment near the beach, they managed to buy a shoebox house just off Lincoln Boulevard, where they raised two fine boys, Ian and Ruben, who set about embracing both their father’s Jewish heritage and their mother’s Mexican heritage. Ruben wears a yarmulke on shabbos and plays mariachi music.
          Amazing, eh? Conan’s prophecy holds true, doesn’t it?
          You ain’t heard nothin’ yet.
          Twenty years ago, they expanded their mini-house from 750 to 2000 square feet with a second storey. This required a good-sized loan, which was no problem considering their combined salaries and the fact that they were kind people and worked really, really hard. Plus Aaron, an enterprising sort, got his sea captain’s license and ferried charters down to Baja on weekends for extra change. And picked up a little more on occasion by playing guitar and singing.
          Then came a nasty fistfight at Westminster Avenue Elementary in Venice, which Aaron broke up, in the process nearly breaking his back. Chronic, unbearable pain left him barely able to move. He did all the right things: doctors, therapy, dieting, toughing it out, but in the end, he did the wrong thing, and wound up addicted to prescription drugs. Yet what else are you going to do when your life is ruined by pain? He shook off the pills a couple of times, but eventually couldn’t shake anymore. Whether this caused or contributed to his “mid-life crisis” is anybody’s guess, but he moved out a few years ago and in with a “caregiver” from a physical therapy facility.
          Amazing, eh Conan?
          Jeannine, as I said, is indefatigable. With half the income gone, heart broken, and estranged-hubby running up massive debt on top of it, Pollyanna just soldiered on, somehow making the $5500-per-month payment on the house loan (gasp) by herself. It can’t get no worse, as John Lennon sang on Sgt. Pepper.
          But it did.
          Her 18-year-old son, Ruben, was found unconscious on the floor of the bathroom about two years ago, the skin scalded off his legs from the calves down. Seems he had epilepsy, and no one knew it. Seems he had stepped into a tub full of boiling water. Right. Boiling. Something went wrong with the plumbing, and he thought the water was routinely hot. Whether this triggered the epilepsy, or if the episode happened first, no one knows. Today, he is lucky to be walking, let alone playing the violin, piano, guitar, bass guitar, and ukulele (and singing.) There were many months in hospitals for skin grafts and antibiotic-resistant staph infections before excruciating physical therapy allowed a return to college classes. Jeannine was at his side every night.
          Amazing, eh?
          Then Dad came home for a rare family visit, and after a few days of good spirits in which he jammed with his musician sons for the first time in ages, and talked about “getting my old life back,” he went to sleep on the living room floor and died during the night from an overdose of pain meds. That was about a year ago.
          So Aaron Hassman worked really hard, was kind, and amazing things sure happened to him, didn’t they, Conan?
          Jeannine the indefatigable, Jeannine the optimist, Jeannine the rock, somehow pushed on---“I had to,” she said, simply---calling the coroner, scrubbing the body fluid stains off the living room floor, arranging her estranged husband's funeral and memorial service, teaching, keeping her sons on track, sending out the annual Christmas message to a million friends and relatives, and getting the house loan renegotiated. Well, not quite.
          “We never expected to leave here,” she said.
          Enter PARMAN Legal Group, whose stated policy is “We want you to keep your house!” and whose motto is “Hope for Homeowners.” PARMAN instructed hopeful Jeannine to stop paying her mortgage pending loan modification, which she did, and the pending loan modification. . .didn't. Instead of “hope for homeowners,” Jeannine got a form letter advising her to sell her home, which PARMAN said it would be happy to arrange. She flatly refused, and the next thing she knew, mortgage companies were handing hers off like a lateral-crazed football team. Here’s the play-by-play:,
          This past Christmas, the mortgage was bought by a company appropriately named Wealthbridge, which claimed it would do a loan modification in exchange for 10,000 immediate dollars. As Jeannine began scraping this together, Wealthbridge handed the mortgage off to a company called BSI Financial Services, and BSI told Jeannine that she did not qualify for the loan she already had, then demanded all overdue payments and fees immediately. These BSI artists also instructed Jeannine to sell her house and to let them handle the sale.
          Wait, Conan, there’s more!
          “There is also a second on my home owned by the same people who now own the first mortgage,” said Jeannine, sounding increasingly like an Abbott and Costello routine. “They both are under the umbrella group of CALREFUND and I feel like they are circling in for the kill.”
          What in the Schwarzenegger is a CALREFUND, you wonder? Only this:
It’s California Ethical Real Estate Funding, LLC (CEREF), whose guiding principle is the “preservation of homeownership in California accomplished through ethical and fair dealing with homeowners and our investors."
          Kurt Vonnegut used to make up stuff like this.
          Because Jeannine has a quaint notion about elected officials helping out “the people,” she recently wrote a letter to Sen. Barbara Boxer. An excerpt;
          “I realize there are people suffering far worse than I am, or am likely to.Yet that is beside the point---the point being that in the United States of America I grew up in, if you worked hard and achieved much, as I have, you had a reasonable expectation of having a home. Not in the new USA.
          “Obama's intent to help keep people in their home via loan modification has not helped regular Americans like me.”
          Boxer has not written back.
          So what’s a widowed kindergarten teacher mother to do?
          “Cashing in my retirement TSA (IRA for teachers) and using the cash Aaron left the boys will get us out of foreclosure,” she said. “This will cripple me financially. Then it will be juggling the $5,500.00 note per month, so that that means getting money from the boys while they are going to college full-time, renting the garage as a studio, renting a room to a student, and getting a part-time job for me.”
          American Dream? American ream.
          “Then in 3 years I can retire and work somewhere else for approximately the same amount I’ve been making. The alternative is to move to some cheap apartment in some area I hate. So that's the plan. Still, these mortgage folks could help out by lowering the interest rate or putting what I haven't paid since June on the end of the loan. But they won't.”
          Of course they won’t. What’s in it for them? The ethical satisfaction of helping someone out who has been kind and worked really, really hard?
          So Conan O’ Brien is just so, so right, isn't he? You go through life being kind and working really hard, and amazing things will happen. Such as an unfunny geek with a rooster comb of red hair being given $30 million to stop working(!), while Jeannine, who is a lot wittier than O’ Brien, by the way, and who has done more good for humanity than O’Brien ever will, is on the brink of losing her home.
          And here is the most amazing part of all. She is still upbeat.
          “I walked to the Albertsons between the close of school yesterday, and a 5:00 meeting to pick up water and some crackers and cheese for the meeting,” she said. “The walk helped clear my head for the rest of the evening which included the final test prep class for an eighth grade class. So I was moping along and standing at the checkout counter when a young woman comes up behind me. I recognize her, and say, ‘Hi Tania! How are you?’ She had been my kindergarten student 13 years ago. Lovely family. Poor, non-English speaking. She smiled and told me that she is fine and attending UCLA. That made my day! Apparently she lives at home and goes to school during the day.
          “I felt way better,” said Jeannine Mendoza.

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