The homeless and our own humanity

LAST SUMMER I was walking to Minute Maid Park, about a block away from the George R. Brown Convention Center, when a man approached me and asked if I could help him out.

He didn’t tell me how he wanted me to help him. He didn’t have to. He wanted money.

So I reached into my pocket and took out a dollar bill and handed it to him. Having lived in Washington for 14 years before moving back to Houston, I had become accustomed to putting in my pants pocket a dollar bill or two so that I wouldn’t have to take out my wallet when a panhandler asked for money.

As soon as I did that, I heard a siren go off nearby. I turned to look and saw a Houston police car speed towards me and the panhandler, who was still only a few feet away from me.

“Give him the money back!” one of the cops yelled at the panhandler.

The guy was about to give it to me when I protested that I didn’t want the money back, that I had given it to him and it was his now, now mine.

“It’s a scam, sir,” the officer said, as if that would explain everything. “This guy is a scam artist.”

“He may be,” I responded. “But if he is, it’s between him and his conscience. I willingly chose to give him the money and I don’t want it back.”

We went on like that, back and forth, until the officers became convinced that I was not going to take the dollar bill back.

I WAS REMINDED of that scene this week when I read in the Houston Chronicle that the Houston City Council is about to vote to make criminals of anyone who stands on a city street or sidewalk and asks for money. The ordinance would also prohibit sleeping on sidewalks, doorways, freeway underpasses – pretty much anywhere.

It’s the city’s latest attempt to make homeless people feel so unwelcome that they’ll go somewhere else. As if they could.

Councilman Robert Gallegos explained his anti-homeless views (according to the Chronicle) by saying his constituents are concerned that then they come out of their building, “there are individuals who are panhandling or sleeping in the doorway of their building.”

Horrors!

Do these people have guns or knives? Are they threatening these residents and workers in any way? Maybe some of them are dangerous, but in the entire article, not a word was said about criminal acts committed by the homeless persons. What the council members were concerned about was that these people exist at all, and they are doing things that normal living, breathing people do. Like sleep. Like rest. Like find ways to put food in their mouths. Like find ways to feed their habits. (What? Only well-off folks are allowed to have habits?)

Mayor Sylvester Turner, who proposed the ordinance, claims the city will build more shelters for the homeless but he’s vague about exactly what those shelters will consist of and how soon they’ll go up.

The fact is that this anti-homeless person has absolutely nothing to do with safety or health and has everything to do with our sensibilities. We just don’t like to see those people anywhere near us, much less getting close enough for them to ask us for a miserable dollar bill.

“This is the response of local governments … to make homeless people disappear,” Paul Boden, executive and organizing director for the San Francisco-based Western Regional Advocacy Project, told the Chronicle. “When you put all (of those restrictions) together, you’re basically saying, ‘I don’t want to see you.’ ”

WHEN I READ that, I was reminded of something I read in Brené Brown’s book, “Rising Strong.”

Brown writes about attending an event to benefit the Lord of the Streets, an Episcopal church in Houston dedicated to serving the homeless. She quoted a line from the remarks of Murray Powell, who was then pastor of Lord of the Streets:

“When you look away from a homeless person, you diminish their humanity and your own.”

So maybe the City Council should go ahead and have that vote, but they should move it out of their safe cocoon of council chambers and into the street to an area where the homeless gather. They should be forced to look the homeless in the eye as they cast their ayes.

I have many friends who firmly believe that looking away from homeless persons is the best policy, and that giving them money is the worst thing we can do.

I respect them, but I disagree. Not only do I give money to every homeless person who asks for some (if I have it), but I also make a point of looking them in the eye and uttering a few words.

“Take care of yourself.”

“Have a good day.”

“Good luck to you.”

Anything, anything to convince them – I hope – that I see them as fellow human beings, in need, not as monsters, not as the enemy, not as something to grumble about.

And to convince myself that I am still human.

 

 

 

 

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Now there are 13

[This article, about the funeral of a young couple who died during a 50-hour rampage by their brother-in-law that started in College Station and left six people dead, was published on the front page of the Sunday Houston Post, Oct. 16, 1983. I don’t know why I was assigned to cover this funeral, most probably because I was working on the weekend of the funeral. What I do know is that there were two types of assignments I hoped I didn’t get: covering funerals and covering police stories that involved a dead body. I was lucky in that I never did get to see a corpse as part of an assignment, but I did cover several funerals, including that of former U.S. Rep. Barbara Jordan (for The Austin American-Statesman) and for some of the astronauts who died in the first space shuttle explosion, in Arlington National Cemetery. (The headline on this story was “Rest in peace: funeral can’t bury horror of Garzas’ deaths.”

Why am I sharing this with you? I don’t really know. I like how I handled the assignment, I guess.]

 

At 3’oclock in the morning,

I happened to fall asleep,

And I heard a voice that said,

“Farewell, beloved brothers

and sisters.”

 

Now you leave us, dear brother,

for other climes;

now you are going away

to the Kingdom of Heaven.

 

— From Don Pedrito Jaramillo,” an old Texas-Mexican ballad

 

DONNA —They played taps at the funeral of Juan and Esther Garza Saturday afternoon. The mournful tune came from a cassette recorder nestled between the branches of a tree near the gravesite.

The Garzas were buried in simple identical brown coffins at the edge of town, in a cemetery by the railroad tracks. His was draped by an American flag — he was an Air Force veteran — hers was decorated with a wreath of pink carnations.

It will be a long time, however, before people here bury the thoughts of how the young couple died, or why.

It will take a while for them to forget, the tragic figure of Gertrudes Garza as she tearfully formed a cross atop her daughter-in-law’s coffin with a handful of dirt, and how she then clung hysterically to her son’s casket.

Or the sight of the mother and another son inside the church while the priest distributed Holy Communion. The son, one of the pallbearers, sat down and threw his head back in exhaustion. It landed in the arms of his mother, who was kneeling behind him. She reached around and hugged him, and he grasped her arms, and together they cried silently.

“It just isn’t right,” said Ramiro Alegría outside St. Joseph’s Catholic Church as the choir sang a Spanish version of “Just a Closer Walk With Thee.” Alegría described himself as a friend of both Garza and the man charged with his death, and he said he couldn’t believe one friend was dead and the other in jail, accused of killing him.

The 400 people who joined the Garzas in their grief knew, of course, that there is nothing right about death that comes, as Father Joseph Mathey said at the funeral, “like a thief in the night, without warning.”

Although the only reference in the priest’s remarks to the senselessness that led to the funeral was his observation that Juan and Esther “did not know they would die so tragically,” the people there were very much aware that if it hadn’t been for one man’s rampage, there would not have been a funeral that day.

Many people here in this town of 9,932 have, like Alegría, spent the last few days talking about the deaths of the two former residents.

“They’re asking why,” said family friend Macaria Castañeda. “They want to know how such a thing could happen.”

Authorities say they know how: The Garzas died Tuesday at the hands of Eliseo Moreno, their brother-in-law, in their College Station home — but they too are ignorant as to why it happened. The Garzas were the first of Moreno’s alleged victims to die in last week’s tragedy. Ironically, they were the last to be buried.

James Arthur Bennett, 62, was buried Thursday in Shilo Cemetery in Hempstead, and Ollie Wilkins, 79, was buried Friday in Salem Cemetery in Hempstead. Russell Lynn Boyd, 25, a Department of Public Safety officer, was also buried Thursday, in Weatherford.

It is almost a given that people reacting to this type of tragedy will say they are shocked, that the accused was a quiet man, certainly not the type who would gun down another person, much less five.

And that’s what most said here Saturday. Except, of course, for the Garza family. The Garzas have very little good to say about the man who authorities say gunned down Juan Garza – who was both older brother and father to his siblings – and then shot Garza’s wife, in the presence of their two young children.

One by one, Garza’s six brothers and seven sisters – including Blanca, Eliseo Moreno’s wife – followed their mother’s lead and symbolically poured earth over the coffins of their brother and sister-in-law.

One of the many wreaths waiting at the cemetery was a yellow one from Esther’s co-workers at a Texas A&M University cafeteria.

For most residents of Donna and adjacent Weslaco, where Moreno’s parents and other family members live, the outrage, the sense of horror, is simply not here.

In its place is found a quiet resignation, a reluctant acceptance of the senselessness resulting from another case of la locura, the madness.

It is what mothers say about sons who do wild things while drinking or out with friends. It is what is said here about anybody’s actions that can’t be explained: Se le metió la locura

Translation: “He was filled with madness.”

So that is what is being said about Eliseo Moreno, the man from neighboring Weslaco, known as one of the young Morenos “who cut the grass,” and grew up to fix the machines that cut the grass.

Original speculation was that he began his rampage because he loved his wife too much to have her denied him. Others have said the crimes of which he is accused grew out of a blind rage consistent with his previous threats to do harm to those who would stand in his way.

But whether it was a madness sparked by love or anger, this is the type of stuff from which South Texas corridos — ballads — come. The corridos have been the Texas Mexicans’ way of telling a story for generations. They have been written about generals and heroes, about drug peddlers and Texas Rangers, and about outlaws and their victims. If someone were to write the Ballad of José Eliseo Moreno, they could end it by quoting Gertrudes Garza.

“Now there are 13,” she said when asked how many children she had. “There’s only 13.”

 

[Post scripts:

– Moreno was sentenced to death for the killing of the state trooper and received lengthy prison terms for the other killings. He was executed March 4, 1987. His last words, according to AP, were “I’m willing to pay according to the laws of Texas because I know I’m guilty.” He was 27.

– The corrido quoted above is from one of several written about Don Pedrito Jaramillo, who was born in Mexico but lived in Starr County. He was a very popular curandero throughout South Texas. There is a state historical marker about him in Falfurrias.]

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Adios to a Complete Liberal


On February 4, 1994, I published this column in The Houston Post under the headline, “’Complete’ liberal gives Clinton piece of his mind.” I’m sharing it with you for two reasons. You’ll figure them out when you read it:

NOT EVERYBODY is lucky enough to have a daughter with access to the president of the United States. Carlos Uzeta of El Paso is and he is not above taking advantage of that access.

Uzeta, an engineer, is the father of local attorney Blanca O’Leary, a Democratic Party activist and fund-raiser who was one of the Houstonians at the $l,000-a-ticket reception for President Clinton last week. [O’Leary now lives in Colorado.]

When O’Leary — who credits her father’s activism for her enthusiasm for politics — told him she was going to see the president, he asked her to deliver a le

carlozuzeta

Carlos Uzeta with a grandchild (Photo by Amanda Enayati)

 

tter to Clinton on a subject that means a lot to her dad: immigration.

O’Leary agreed to do so. Whether or not Bill Clinton read any part of it doesn’t matter to the 63-year-old Uzeta.

What’s important is that he finally got something off his chest what had been gnawing at him for a long time.

Uzeta’s letter is a toned-down version of his original angry (O’Leary made him moderate it) but his indignation still shines through.

“It’s a completely, totally liberal view,” Uzeta explained in a phone interview. “But damn it, that’s what I am.”

In his letter, Uzeta says that as a lifelong El Paso resident, he knows what the problems are there, unlike the politicians, “who are far removed from the battlefronts and bear a tinge of either racism or indifference towards the local populace, just so long as it makes them look good in the polls.”

He was particularly critical of El Paso Border Patrol chief Silvestre Reyes, who decided to set up a blockade along the Rio Grande to keep Mexicans from illegally crossing the border.

“Now Mr, Reyes is proudly proposing to erect a metal barrier along the border,” he wrote. “I assume the federal government will fund this little pet project for Mr. Reyes with little concern for the negative impact it will have on our neighbors to the south with whom we just signed a trade agreement. It would be one of the most disgusting, degrading, insulting, and abusive actions ever taken by our country should such a ‘tortilla curtain’ materialize.”

Uzeta wrote Clinton that the alleged negative impact of immigration has become an easy issue for politicians desperate for causes.

“The Republicans have begun to ensure that immigration becomes a make-or-break stance for its candidates,” he said. “I fear that in order to counter the attack, many Democratic candidates will unwittingly succumb to the threat and join in the hysteria.”

Recalling the anti-Japanese campaigns during World War II and other anti-immigrant drives throughout the country’s history, Uzeta asked:

“Who is ignorant enough to deny that, because of public pressure, such tactics cannot be repeated and applied to me or my family who either are or ’look’ Mexican? Arrests for ‘looking’ Mexican have long been the trademark for the Border Patrol along the border regions. From there it is only a short step to property dispossession. Mr. President, ethnic cleansing is alive and well in America.”

Uzeta asked the president to, among other things, consider a conference with Mexico to explore solutions to the immigration issue, and to support funding for a comprehensive study to develop accurate statistics on the economic impact of immigrants.

That last one has got to be the most sensible proposal regarding immigration I’ve heard coming from anyone. Today we are forced to rely on studies that are, for the most part, conducted by researchers who skew the statistics to confirm their views. We don’t have an independent, unbiased way of looking at whether immigration is good or bad for this country and its economy — something we desperately need if we’re ever going to deal with the problem seriously.

But, as Uzeta explains, politicians would rather deal with cheap vote-getting remedies than with the causes of and serious solutions to the problem.

“It’s too complicated for them,” he says.

UZETA IS concerned his outspokenness might embarrass his children, especially O’Leary, but he says he’s simply fed up with the anti-immigrant talk.

“The good Lord has given me good health, and as long as I’ve got that, my tongue won’t stop wagging,” he said. For that we should all be grateful.

Long may it wag.

That tongue stopped wagging a couple of weeks ago after Uzeta suffered a massive stroke. He died Thursday night in his beloved El Paso. I got to visit with him only a few times, but each time I came away thoroughly satisfied that I had spent time with a wise and kind man who had an excellent sense of humor and who loved his family deeply. I consider myself mighty fortunate that I can count a number of his survivors as good friends. I grieve with them. Adios, amigo.

 

 

 

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The fear, the dreadful fear of children of immigrants

I RECENTLY LISTENED to a radio program about coincidences and about people who claimed they were always experiencing them. I told myself that coincidences don’t happen to me.

Last night, a couple of hours after I had watched a report on the evening news about a mother in Arizona who had been deported after having lived here 21 years, I began anew my task of going through my old papers and figuring out what to keep and what to discard. The very first piece I picked was a dot-matrix printout of something I wrote, either while at The Houston Post or at the Austin American-Statesman, about my fears as a young boy that my parents would be sent back to Mexico. I am pretty sure it was never published.

I want to share that with you, but first I want to share part of The New York Times story today about yesterday’s deportation:

“Her son, Angel, still remembers the evening of her arrest — the knock on the door, the flashlight on the darkened living room, the sight of handcuffs on his mother’s wrists.

‘I was in second grade,’ he said. ‘I never forgot that night, and I’ve lived in fear of losing my mother every night since then.’ His [sister] had stayed with protesters until long past midnight. By sunrise, she was back home, packing her mother’s suitcase — her toothpaste, her brush, her favorite pants and shirts. ‘Nobody should have to pack her mother’s bag,’ she said, her lips quivering, tears filling her eyes.”

printoutThis is what I wrote (with a bit of minor editing):

THEY CAME IN at least once a year, swooping down, unnoticed until their green vans were at the edge of the sugar beet rows on the flat fields of the North Dakota Red River Valley. The ominous figures lumbered over to where we were hoeing away.

And that’s when the fear began.

In terribly broken Spanish and boisterous manner, la migracíon asked the usual questions regarding my parents’ legal status in the country. My parents sheepishly and patiently explained the facts: yes, they had been born in Mexico but they had been in this country since 1920. And no, they had no papers; they never needed any since they never went back to Mexico.

The border patrolman made their usual grumblings about the irresponsibility of not taking care of such things, and only after they had thoroughly humiliated my parents and intimidated the rest of us did they leave – to check on other Mexicans on other farms.

I might not have feared the border patrol so much had I not always worried that neither of our parents was an American citizen and, even worse, neither had ever bothered to acquire a passport to make their presence in the United States legal. I didn’t know then why they didn’t; children never grilled adults about such matters.

I will never know if the fear would have been different had my parents been legal. Probably not, given that the INS officers didn’t treat legal workers any differently. But one thing I do know is that I was scared, very scared. I feared my parents would be shipped back to Mexico, where they had not lived for more than 30 years.

The reality was that my parents were unlikely to have been deported after having spent so many years here.

And the reality was that government officials knew all too well that my parents and us were doing the work that nobody else wanted to do. If they had sent back to Mexico all people who did not have proper documentation, who would have hoed their sugar beets and picked their tomatoes, cucumbers, potatoes and other crops, at wretched wages while living in miserable housing?

But I didn’t know that. All I knew was that men with uniforms and guns were doing what men with guns and uniforms tend to do: instill fear in people. My fear was a justified fear. When you’re young and ignorant, fears have a tendency to grow to uncontrollable proportions. The prospect of our having to fend for ourselves forever in the windblown North Dakota plains because my parents had been deported was a real and menacing presence in my young mind.

THAT IS WHAT I feel when I think of the renewed efforts to clamp down undocumented immigrants.

I think of the children who will be forced to live in fear that some official in the green uniform will come take their parents away if they don’t have the magic card. I think of the parents who will be cowed by the uniform and authoritativeness of the officers and I wonder what that will do to their lives, and those of their children.

I fear for them. I understand all the arguments that nations have a right to enforce their borders, but that doesn’t ease the fear, the fear of the dreadful fear.

 

 

 

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Houston composer’s haunting music

I DON’T WRITE much about music on this blog. However, I’m going to make an exception because I want to share my enthusiasm for the music of a young composer, a native of Colombia who lives and works in Houston.

His name is Christian Restrepo. He came to Texas to do graduate work at Sam Houston State and the University of Houston, where he got his doctorate, but he has stayed here, working as a concert pianist, teacher – and as a composer. He also plays tango music with a group at various places in town.

christianr

Christian Restrepo

 

To describe him as energetic would be an understatement. Watching the way he bounces up enthusiastically to greet a person, the way he grasps an outstretched hand, and the way he expresses himself, orally and on the piano keyboard, brings to mind the Energizer Bunny – but with a charming personality.

I first heard Restrepo at the Alliance Française, where he was playing the piano for an art exhibit opening night reception. I learned that he recently recorded a CD of his music called “Música en Silencio.”

It’s a wonderful CD, full of beautiful, evocative sounds. Most of the 10 works are piano pieces but there is one piece for bass clarinet solo and another for piano and saxophone.

His Sonatina en Tres Movimentos starts with a movement that offers strong playful hints of Gershwin’s “American in Paris.” The last movement is a rhapsody based on Beethoven’s Für Elise. Sandwiched in between is a movement that reminds me of Chopin’s sonatas. All of them, however, quickly move to establish their independence and the result is a piece that works wonderfully as one.

Other tracks, Poema Nocturno for Alto Saxophone and Piano and Habanera Triste, in particularcome across as enchanting, mysterious pieces with heavy jazz and blues influences.

Taken as a whole, Restrepo’s CD is a beautiful production, filled with hauntingly beautiful sounds.

IF YOU’RE interested in getting this CD, you can email Restrepo directly at christianliszt@gmail.com.

 

 

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Please, God: No Daughters

 

MY MOTHER DIED of Parkinson’s disease almost 16 years ago, but several years before she died, she suffered some sort of stroke that eventually left her bedridden, unable to speak. Not long after that stroke, when she could still talk, she told my sister Dora that she believed God was punishing her.

When Dora asked her what she was being punishing for, my mother said that it was because during every one of her nine pregnancies she had begged God not give her a girl.

It wasn’t that she hated girls, or that she liked boys better, she explained. Rather, her concern was a practical one, based on reality as she saw it. Experience told her that girls are destined to live a difficult life, much more difficult than males, and the last thing she wanted was to bring into this world a child condemned from the very beginning to a life of suffering.

My mother gave birth to five girls. It was those daughters who fed her, bathed her, spoke soothingly to her, every day of the last four years of her life as she lay, helpless, in her bed. Two of those daughters were with her when she died on New Year’s Day, 1991.

I’VE THOUGHT ABOUT my mother’s words to Dora quite a bit over the last 16 years, and I’ve wondered whether she truly believed that her God had punished her for her supplications. Or was that simply her way of coming clean with her daughters?

Regardless, what a burden to carry, all those years.

But equally as intriguing – and tragic – to me is the fact that my mother felt so strongly about the fate she believed awaited her daughters that she was willing to forsake the joy of giving birth to, holding and nurturing a daughter, and guiding her into womanhood.

And she was willing to do this because she knew for a certainty that those daughters would be subjected to cruelty and abuse solely because of their sex.

My mother was right, of course. My five sisters are all strong, intelligent women and they have triumphed in life. They are not perfect and they are not famous, but each of them is a star. As they have gotten older, various health problems have slowed them down, yet they remain strong, proud and unbroken.

But each of them, as they struggled to take care of their families, has had to fight to defend herself from the vile, disgusting sexist impulses in men (and some women) – in the home, in the workplace, in their churches, in society – that conspired to keep them down, and still do. (Not to mention the obstacles placed in their paths by racism.)

TODAY, ALMOST 90 years after my mother gave birth to her first girl, I can’t help thinking of her and of my sisters, every time I am reminded of the constant battle Hillary Clinton has had to fight throughout her political life because she is not a man.

And, over the last five or six days, I’ve thought a lot about my mother and my sisters as I keep reading and hearing about the vile, degrading language used by a man who wants to be the free world’s next leader and who still has millions of supporters.

Aren’t we supposed to be past this kind of thing by now?

I think of all my nephews and nieces and friends who have brought daughters into this world, and who love them to death, and I wonder what kind of thoughts are going through their minds about what their daughters will encounter out in the world. Do they have to lie awake at night fearing that their daughters will one day (or on many days) have to deal with a Donald Trump or a Billy Bush or a Bill Cosby?

When are we going to say that we’ve done enough damage? When are we going to make our society one into which all mothers will be happy to bring a baby girl?

November 8, it seems to me, would be a good starting day.

 

 

 

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Crystal Bridges, brought to you by … whom?

THE CRYSTAL BRIDGES Museum of American Art was not part of my travel plans on this trip, but I found myself with a bit extra time on my way to Chicago that I decided to make a side trip to visit it.

To get there from Little Rock, I took some back roads through the Ozarks. Fortunately, by the time I got to the mountains, the rain had disappeared so I was able to enjoy the scenery without having to worry about wet roads.

I worried whether it was a good idea to go through that part of the state with a Clinton bumper sticker on my back window, but then I figured that the folks there had probably never seen or heard of the design, the white H with a superimposed red arrow on a blue background.

I did what I often do when I’m out riding through beautiful countryside on a beautiful day. I rolled down my windows, pulled back the moon roof and listened to the CD, “The Movies Go to the Opera” full blast. This is the record that first got me interested in opera. It features all the great favorites, among them Nessun Dorma (Turandot), O Mio Babbino Caro (Gianni Schicchi), Quando men vo (La Boheme), Une Bel Di (Madama Butterfly), and of course, The Ride of The Valkyries (Die Walkürie).

I tell you, there is no greater experience than the rush you get from listening to that music, as loud as you can stand it, as you maneuver around sharp curves and zip up and down those lush hills. Unfortunately, I was so much into the music that I missed a turn and ended up getting very lost as I got close to Fayetteville. It took me a while to get back on the right route, and by the time I got to Bentenville, where the museum is, I was exhausted.

I’M GLAD I decided to visit the museum, though. It’s a beautiful complex. Striking architecture in a beautiful green setting. Very peaceful. The art is good also, especially the works in its 20th Century galleries. I’m not that fond of older art so I didn’t spend much time in the rest of the exhibit areas, but I loved walking through them, taking in the beautiful design.

The museum is the brainchild of Alice Walton, one of the children of Sam Walton, the founder of Wal-Mart. She bought all the art and then decided to build a museum in her hometown to house all the works she had amassed. The money for the museum, of course, came from the immense Walton family fortune.

As I said, I enjoyed the museum and I am damn glad that that is there for everyone to enjoy (admission is free, courtesy of Wal-Mart, as the signs and literature tell us). But as I walked through its galleries, I couldn’t help wonder how many hundreds of thousands of Wal-Mart employees worked how many thousands of hours, earning minimum wage with no health-care and other benefits, and no union representation, so that the Waltons could amass the fortune that allows them to be so generous.

It would have nice to see some mention of these people somewhere in the museum.

 

 

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