“Like Christmas Every Day”
Furniture Friends helps the newly housed make a home
by Chris Busby
In the late 1960s, the brilliant singer-songwriter Harry Nilsson was a guest on Playboy After Dark, a variety show hosted by the titular magazine’s publisher, Hugh Hefner. The set of the show, which was taped in a studio in Los Angeles, was intended to convey the impression that Hef and his guests were at a big cocktail party in his famous mansion in Chicago.
After some stilted small talk, the host, in tuxedo and bow tie, sets up the first musical number. “Well, listen,” Hef says, “as a guy who’s always been kind of office-oriented, and I have my own desk here, I think one tune that you do that I get a special kick out of is about the desk. I wonder whether you might do that, since we’re here in the study.”
“I would love to,” Nilsson responds, perched cross-legged on the arm of a sofa. “I will even study it for you, which might not be a bad idea.” A canned track of the tune’s background music begins, and Nilsson sings: “My old desk does an arabesque / in the morning when I first arrive. It’s a pleasure to see / it’s waiting there for me to keep my hopes alive. Such a comfort to know it’s got no place to go / it’s always there. It’s the one thing I’ve got / a huge success, my good old desk.”
At the song’s conclusion, the guests amble into another room of the “mansion” and Hef and Harry get a minute to chat one-on-one over glasses of champagne. It’s here that Nilsson drops the remark his biggest fans will puzzle over for decades.
“Whatever inspired you, originally, to write a song about a desk?” Hefner asks.
“It’s not really so much about a desk as it is an anagram game,” Nilsson says. “The initials, G.O.D., ‘Good Old Desk,’ have to do with God. … It has to do with man’s modern concept of the meaning of God today.”
In the years that followed, interviewers occasionally asked Nilsson if that explanation was true, and he always said it was not. “I bullshitted him,” Nilsson said of Hefner, according to MOJO magazine. “I thought it was funny. Nobody else thought it was funny.” Still, as Ian Goldstein wrote on the comedy website Splitsider (“The Dark Humor of Harry Nilsson”), the singer’s “fans and contemporaries believe this was Nilsson’s way of grappling with the concept of a higher power.”
I suspect Hefner got punked.
Nilsson had an unstable childhood. His father abandoned the family when Harry was a toddler (a story detailed in his song “1941”), and his mother scrambled for years to keep a roof over their heads, moving Harry and his half-sister from Brooklyn to Southern California, often from one relative’s home to another’s. To help make ends meet, Nilsson dropped out of school and entered the workforce in his early teens. In the early ’60s, he lied his way into a back-office job at a bank by falsely claiming to be a high school graduate, but performed well enough to be kept on even after his employers discovered the deception, and eventually earned a promotion. By night Nilsson supervised more than 30 workers processing payments with a new machine that would soon make their jobs, and countless others like it, obsolete: the computer. By day he honed his craft at his good old desk and made the rounds in L.A. peddling songs and singing jingles. The financial security his job with the bank provided made Nilsson hesitant to leave it even after his debut album was released by a major label in 1966.
So Nilsson was keenly aware of the profound significance a single piece of furniture can have to someone experiencing the anxieties of poverty. Indeed, it’s not a bad idea to study the lyrics of “Good Old Desk,” to contemplate the “comfort” the songwriter feels knowing this object, unlike the people in his life, has “no place to go.” It “never needs a rest” and he’s “never once heard it cry.”
“My old desk isn’t picturesque / but it’s happy as a desk can be,” the last stanza begins. “We never say a word / but it’s perfectly alright with me. For when my heart’s on the floor / I just open the drawer of my favorite guest. And what do I see / but a picture of me working at my old good desk.”
When Hefner, this lecherous tycoon puffing a long-stemmed pipe, asked Nilsson what inspired him to make something as lowly and commonplace as a desk the subject of a lovely pop song, he displayed the wealthy’s stereotypical ignorance of the day-to-day reality of poverty. But in Hef’s defense, even Americans of modest means fail to appreciate how the poorest among us suffer due to the lack of ordinary things that we take for granted — like a mattress, for example, or a kitchen table, or a comfortable chair, or an old desk.
That’s where Furniture Friends comes in. The fledgling nonprofit attempts to fill a gaping gap in the safety net by providing furniture to newly housed people who can’t afford to acquire their own. About half the clients they serve are refugees and asylum seekers from war-torn countries in Africa and the Middle East, most of whom are still waiting for our government to grant them permission to work. The other half includes disabled veterans, domestic-violence survivors, and formerly homeless people, many of whom have mental or physical disabilities.
Furniture Friends gets referrals from shelters and social-service providers, as well as schools, churches, and police departments. After visiting the client’s home to assess their needs, the organization’s tiny staff of two tries to meet those needs with the inventory stored in their cramped, 2,900-square-foot warehouse space. With the help of volunteers, Furniture Friends then delivers the items and, when necessary, assembles bed frames and tables on site.
The organization served 320 families in 2015, and has already provided furniture to over 400 households this year. As of last month, there were about 100 families on the waiting list.
“The need seems to be constant and ongoing,” said Jenn McAdoo, a Furniture Friends volunteer who became its first executive director this fall. There are several nonprofits in the Portland area that collect used furniture and sell it for cheap, but McAdoo is unaware of any other organization around here that provides furniture to people in need free of charge. Furniture Friends doesn’t pay for items that people bring to their warehouse (or arrange to have the organization pick up), but it can provide a document detailing the donations’ value for tax-deduction purposes.
For donors and volunteers, it’s not about the money. The benefit is the feeling you get from the act of giving, an experience McAdoo likens to celebrating “Christmas every day.”
Businesses and schools regularly send groups of volunteers to make deliveries. “It seems to be a rewarding experience for them to get a bird’s-eye view of what some of the need is in our community,” said McAdoo. “When you’re walking into somebody’s home and seeing the conditions that they’re living in, it can be pretty surprising at times. That can be difficult, and yet at the same time we’re addressing at least one of the needs by providing the furniture, so in that moment you’re able to make a difference, and people feel good about that. That’s why it seems like Christmas every day.”
Hearts on the floor
On the 9th of November, about 12 hours after another lecherous tycoon was declared President of the United States, Bollard art director Mich Ouellette (The Fuge) and I drove to Furniture Friends’ warehouse space off Larrabee Road, out behind the car dealerships along the Portland-Westbrook line. I’d arranged the visit the week before the election, but the timing was good. There was an empty, sinking feeling in my stomach that day, caused by an emotion I’d never so viscerally felt before: existential dread. It would take an extraordinarily powerful experience to dispel that awful feeling, one I hoped that day’s delivery run with Furniture Friends might provide.
McAdoo and the organization’s other full-time employee, operations director John Doré, showed us around the warehouse. It was as dim and chilly inside as the afternoon was outside. In addition to being too small to meet Furniture Friends’ growing storage needs, the warehouse space is unheated and has no office or toilet. The organization is currently looking for a larger, preferably heated facility elsewhere in the Portland area.
Rows of tilted beds leaned against the walls. Side tables and kitchen chairs filled large metal shelves. Kitchen tables are stacked separately from their legs, to save space. Couches are tipped on their side and placed on wheeled metal carts to save more space and make the bulky items easier to move, but recliners and dressers must still be muscled around.
The front corner of the warehouse is like a little showroom for smaller items — lamps, cribs, wall art — that clients can browse during the few hours each week that Furniture Friends opens its space to the public. Behind that area, two partition panels create a vaguely defined office space. McAdoo and I sat there for a brief interview before a crew of eight students from Greely High School, in Cumberland, arrived to fill the 14-foot box truck parked at the loading dock.
McAdoo began volunteering with Furniture Friends in early 2014. She’d previously developed a community-service and social-justice program for the First Universalist Church, in Yarmouth. Before Furniture Friends’ board named her its executive director in October, McAdoo worked part-time as its volunteer coordinator. The organization, which now has an annual budget of about $250,000, recently started to fill three part-time positions: volunteer coordinator, administrative assistant, and warehouse assistant/delivery driver.
“We have long-term roots in the community, but Furniture Friends really came into existence about four years ago,” McAdoo said. In the late 1990s there were social workers and case managers in Portland who tried to find furniture for their clients. Meanwhile, a loosely organized group of church folk sought household items for refugees. The two groups cooperated, but couldn’t effectively coordinate their efforts, which continued in fits and starts for a few more years before stalling out.
“They’d gone on a hiatus to try and look at [whether] they could find a different way to operate, and had come to the conclusion that they really just kind of needed to not be doing it anymore,” said Roberta “Robbie” Lipsman, a social worker who serves as president of Furniture Friends’ board. Lipsman was on a task force of social-service providers and members of faith groups that revived the effort. The nascent furniture charity allowed the task force to take over its nonprofit status and gave them the few items of furniture it had on hand, as well as the checkbook. The checking account’s balance was $1.36, and there was “much deliberating whether it was thirty-six or thirty-eight cents,” recalled Mandy Garmey, a fellow social worker and nurse who joined the effort back then and now serves as vice president of the board.
“We had a huge list of people wanting furniture, and no truck, no staff, no warehouse, nothing,” said Garmey. “So we started from nothing. We rebuilt it from a lot of hope, prayer and sweat equity, initially. And a lot of people in the community were saying, ‘This is so needed. We have to get it to work this time.”
Furniture Friends recruited more board members, created a website, got a phone number, and acquired an old U-Haul truck — the same box truck that was parked at the warehouse last month. The number of households the organization served more than doubled in its second year, from 115 to 240, and has since doubled again.
“What happens is you get a rent voucher, but then there’s nothing to furnish the apartment, so they go into this apartment and have no furniture and have no way to really purchase the furniture,” said Lipsman. “That’s where the referral to us comes in.”
Standing by the loading dock that day, Lipsman and Garmey recalled one of the families Furniture Friends helped early on. “It was an older woman, who’d come here from the Middle East, and her four grown daughters, and they literally had one couch and one dresser and they had all been sleeping on the floor,” said Lipsman. “I’d actually had the experience of sleeping in a sleeping bag for two weeks while I was caring for a terminally ill relative … and I just thought to myself, ‘I know how awful that is and how uncomfortable they’d been.’ It’d been at least a month.”
“That’s a short time,” Garmey added.
Furniture Friends brought them five beds, a dining-room table and chairs, “and then they insisted we all sit down at the dining-room table and share a drink with them,” Lipsman said.
“Always tea,” Garmey chimed in. “Very strong.”
That story brought to mind another that McAdoo had just shared with me. One source of volunteers the group draws from is the same immigrant community it serves. Volunteering with Furniture Friends gives new Mainers who don’t yet have their work permit an opportunity to practice their English and “learn more about an American workplace, understanding schedules and expectations and things like that,” McAdoo said. “Then, when they do receive their work authorization, we’ll provide them with a reference.”
An asylum seeker from the Democratic Republic of Congo, who’d made it to Maine with his wife and three young children, became a client of Furniture Friends and volunteered while his family was on the waiting list. On the day their furniture was delivered, a group of high-school students assembled the table and put chairs around it, then invited the father to come in and see his new dining room. “Without saying anything the man sat down at the table, and he put his elbows on the table and his head in his hands,” McAdoo said. “I wasn’t really sure what was happening in that moment. Sometimes people are overcome with emotion, sometimes people say prayers or whatever, so we just waited, and after a few seconds he lifted up his head and he said, ‘Yes! Now I can share a meal with my family all together.’ And, of course, everyone burst into tears.”
“The things we take for granted,” McAdoo added. “What that means to be able to sit with members of our family and share a meal together, rather than camping out on the floor. It’s sort of a basic human need.”
Was that the kind of scene I’d witness during the three deliveries scheduled that day? I was about to find out.
The Greely students were giggling. God, how wonderful it was to hear them laugh and josh each other while they loaded up the truck — young Americans seemingly without a care in the world. “This is the best antidote,” McAdoo remarked to me, and I nodded. There was no need to name the poison.
The first stop was on Gilman Street, at the western edge of Portland’s Parkside neighborhood: a mix of modern affordable-housing projects and run-down tenements. When the truck pulled up, a window on the ground floor of one of the old apartment buildings opened and two children excitedly stuck their heads out to see. This was Cleucio, age 7, and his sister Chelsea, age 5. Their parents — Margarita, 29, and Lukoki, 34 — arrived in Portland from Angola last February.
Margarita, who was six months pregnant, and her family had been sleeping on the floor before Furniture Friends brought two beds the week before. Now they were getting two more beds, a dining-room table and four chairs. I sat with Margarita on the couch in their front room, which was otherwise devoid of furniture.
In a sweet, soft voice, with halting English, she told me she’d finished college in Africa and had a human-resources job for four years before coming to this country. Lukoki had worked in oil production for a dozen years, but was still awaiting authorization to work in America. He proudly showed me his employee badge from Total S.A., the French petroleum and chemical manufacturing conglomerate that ranks among the seven global corporations collectively referred to as Big Oil. Angola has been ravaged by war, drought, and the pollution and corruption that invariably accompany resource extraction in Africa.
The family has one friend in town from Angola — a fellow parishioner at the First Assembly of God, a tiny white-stucco church on Cumberland Avenue — who’s helped them navigate the city and acclimate to its culture. “I want my children to grow here,” Margarita told me when I asked her what drew them to Portland. “It’s a quiet city,” she said. “People have a good education.”
McAdoo asked her what she thought of the bed she’d received the previous week. “Oh, very good,” Margarita replied. “Now I have good dreams.”
The students set up the table and chairs in the apartment’s little kitchen and the family sat there together for the first time while The Fuge took their picture. The Greely team was gathered outside by the truck, getting directions for the next delivery, and Cleucio and Chelsea rushed out to the porch to wave goodbye and shout thanks. I walked back to my car, eyes tingling in salty water.
The next stop was atop Munjoy Hill, where Cumberland Avenue ends — one of the last pockets of old working-class Hill grit that remain in this rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. The client, a woman in her 40s whom I’ll refer to as M., asked us not to take pictures, so The Fuge stayed outside while I followed her into the sparse apartment.
M. had been homeless before she got this place last August. She lives there with her four children, one of whom is in elementary school.
About a year and a half ago, Furniture Friends got a grant from Unum, the insurance company, that allowed them to start a program called A Bed for Every Child. “Our premise was, How can children function well in their daily lives if they can’t get a good night’s sleep?” McAdoo said. “Thinking about that made us really commit to trying to get children off the floor as quickly as possible.”
Furniture Friends bought as many beds as they could with that funding, and when it ran out they began raising more money for an initiative they’re calling A Good Night’s Sleep for All, “because nobody can function well if you haven’t had a good night’s sleep,” said McAdoo. In addition to poverty, many clients are struggling with physical or mental disabilities, and have been scarred by homelessness and addiction. “There’s no way that they can begin to deal with some of those other issues if they don’t have a certain sense of stability in their lives,” McAdoo said. “So I think Furniture Friends is effective in helping people in that way, and I think we are true to our mission, which is creating homes and rebuilding lives.”
M., who told me she has a disability that’s made it difficult for her to hold a job, said she “had nothing” when she and her kids first moved in. Sitting in a donated easy chair while the students hauled more stuff inside, she said the apartment “feels like home now.”
Although Furniture Friends provides items that help disadvantaged people become productive citizens, it hasn’t received a dime of government funding. Its revenue comes from individual contributions, as well as grants from private foundations and businesses. Local restaurants have hosted benefit nights, and hotels and motels have given the group furnishings when they remodel.
Furniture stores have also donated items on occasion. “I remember meeting a family about two years ago, and they had just moved here from the Middle East,” McAdoo told me. “They’re Muslim and they were trying to adapt to their new home in America, so somehow, somewhere, they had gotten a little artificial Christmas tree. The day that we came to deliver furniture, they were really proud of showing us: ‘Hey, we’re in America! We have our Christmas tree! We’re good to go!’
“One of the furniture items that we brought into the house was a donation from one of the area furniture stores,” she continued. “It must have been an item that a customer ordered and didn’t want, so the store gave it to us. It was still wrapped in plastic. When we took it into the apartment, the volunteer set it down and I said, ‘OK, take all the plastic off.’ Mom’s kind of looking at it and she couldn’t speak English very well, but one of the kids asked what’s going on, and I said, ‘You’re getting a brand new chair.’ And she just burst into tears. She just never thought that she’d be the recipient of a brand new piece of furniture.”
“In large part, it’s a redistribution of resources,” McAdoo said of Furniture Friends’ work. “We’re lucky to live in a community that’s generous, where people are always buying a new sofa, a new dining table, and I think there’s a good ethic — you know, that good Yankee ‘use it up and wear it out before you throw it out’ — so people want to make sure that their unwanted items get a longer life.” Disposing of furniture can be a hassle, so Furniture Friends also helps the haves, while keeping useful objects out of the waste stream. (Note: McAdoo also made the point that their warehouse “is not the stop before the dump,” so donated items must be in good condition. “We don’t want to contribute to the stresses that people are experiencing in their lives,” she said.)
Most other communities in Maine are not served by a charity like Furniture Friends, which only delivers in Greater Portland. “We regularly get calls from the Lewiston/Auburn area, as well as Saco/Biddeford and down into York,” McAdoo told me. “It’s frustrating not to be able to help people in those areas, but we just don’t have the capacity now.”
While I was in M.’s apartment, a minor dust-up took place outside. The Fuge told me what happened.
Parking always sucks on the Hill. Unable to find a spot near M.’s place, the box-truck driver had pulled into a driveway next door to unload. A young man wearing skinny jeans and fashionable glasses came out of the house behind this precious patch of asphalt and confronted the volunteer behind the wheel. (“He looked like a graphic designer,” The Fuge told me, noting the modernist font of the house numbers; coming from a graphic designer, that’s not necessarily an insult.) “So,” this miserable yuppie fucker said (that’s an insult), “you just park this thing wherever you want?” The driver politely explained that he was delivering furniture for a charity and would be leaving in a matter of minutes, but the hip denizen of the new Munjoy Hill didn’t care. “So you’re parking in my driveway?” he replied. The driver backed the truck out and moved it to a curbside space many more steps away.
Make God great again
The last stop was an apartment building on a busy street in Portland’s East Deering neighborhood. Though it was late afternoon, complete darkness had already fallen. The clients were a woman and her five children, the eldest of whom, a boy in his mid-teens, was just starting high school. They’d come to Portland eight months ago from Iraq.
The mother spoke very little English, so her eldest son, the man of this displaced household, whom I’ll call T., translated to help the American kids figure out where to put the beds. The mother was not comfortable having the family photographed with their new furniture, and, frankly, I wouldn’t feel comfortable publishing such an image, given the spate of hate crimes and harassment reported in Portland since Election Day, and the present political climate. Our governor has made it clear that people in this family’s tragic circumstance are not welcome in Maine, and our president-elect has said he considers families like this one too dangerous to be allowed to set foot on our shores.
The Greely students, all white teens, could not have been kinder or more helpful. They hauled five mattresses up two flights of stairs, angled them around tight corners, and set up the metal frames with nary a whisper of complaint. From one of the small bedrooms, a girl of about T.’s age, wearing a light hijab, shyly watched the American teens pass to and fro. I witnessed one of the girls from Greely, having paused at the top of the stairs for a moment, glance in the Iraqi girl’s direction. The two silently exchanged smiles and little waves.
That did it. That dispelled the dread I’d been feeling all day. Hateful, racist fear-mongers like Paul LePage and Donald Trump will do their damnedest to demonize the most vulnerable among us for their own selfish ends, but compassion cannot be crushed. Kindness — like love, and like Furniture Friends, for that matter — arises “from nothing” and causes great things to happen. The power to create goodness from nothingness is the definitive attribute of the God worshipped by Christians, Jews and Muslims alike.
So maybe Nilsson wasn’t being entirely facetious when he made that remark to Hefner. If we study “Good Old Desk” further, perhaps it does provide some insight into “man’s modern concept of the meaning of God.”
Think about it: That desk inspired a young man whose songs have been sung for generations by millions of people all over the world. Though figuratively able to strike a ballet pose, that old desk didn’t walk into Harry’s room. Somebody must have given it to him.
Furniture Friends can be reached at 210-5797. Their website is furniturefriends.org, and they’re on Facebook.