The knock at the door was loud and insistent. “Like the police,” Denise Byrd remembered, her eyes widening.
On the other side was a man holding an eviction notice, which he tacked to the door of the Pinole apartment Byrd shared with her husband, Victor Walters, and son.
The couple had both been working, but injuries and ailments caused them to miss shifts, and they had fallen behind on rent.
After the evictor left, Byrd and Walters sat down inside the apartment they hoped to keep, tracing how quickly their lives had crashed. Two months earlier, they had stopped preparing hot meals to save money.
“This is it,” Byrd recalled saying that night. “This is some deep stuff.”
Their downward spiral began in May, when Walters injured his neck in a motorcycle accident en route to his 3-to-11:30 a.m. job at the Home Depot in Emeryville. After undergoing spinal surgery, he was on disability for three months.
Byrd, who has lupus and Raynaud’s disease, tried to take care of him, but when her own symptoms intensified, she missed a lot of work from her secretarial job. In September, the 43-year-old was laid off.
On top of that, they constantly worried about Byrd’s 21-year-old daughter, Ashley, who is serving in the Army in Afghanistan. Sometimes they go weeks without hearing from her.
And, the mother of three is still involved in a four-year custody battle with her ex-husband.
Byrd and Walters have always lived paycheck to paycheck, with little savings. So, during the month it took for Walters’ disability checks to arrive, they fell behind.
They asked family members and friends for help, but many were already stretched financially themselves. Those who had helped right after Walters’ accident were tapped out.
Their landlord, knowing they were good tenants, suggested they apply for a grant from The Chronicle’s Season of Sharing Fund. They did, and the fund paid their rent until Walters’ disability payments arrived.
“They seemed like very hardworking people, salt-of-the-earth types,” said Anne Struthers, who heard of the couple’s plight through her work with Contra Costa County’s Employment and Human Services Department. “They’ve worked all their lives, and they hit some bad luck.”
Walters was reluctant to ask for help – it’s not in his nature. He and his sister were raised by a single mom who, as a maid, cleaned San Francisco hotels at least six days a week.
He played football at Merritt College in Oakland and earned a football scholarship to Kansas State University, where he graduated.
He’s worked all his life around the Bay Area – at Mervyn’s, Office Depot and now Home Depot. When his mother had trouble caring for herself because of her diabetes, Walters took care of her until she died in 1999.
Quiet and soft-spoken, the 46-year-old didn’t think he was badly hurt after his accident. He had been on his way to work when he remembered he had left his cell phone at home. “Denise always wants me to text her when I get there,” he said.
On his way back home to pick up the phone, his motorcycle skidded on some gravel at a slow speed near an off-ramp.
At first, Walters thought he was bruised but OK. Over the next few weeks, though, he noticed he couldn’t raise his arm above his head, and he had lost strength. Doctors discovered he had damaged a vertebrae in his neck badly enough to require surgery – and three months off of work.
Meanwhile, the stress exacerbated Byrd’s medical condition. On her bad days, she can’t get out of bed. On the better days, she struggles to move her hands.
Soon after Walters went on disability, the bills started piling up. They contacted their utility providers and others and explained the situation.
“We kept paying our bills – even just a little bit – and everything has stayed on,” Byrd said.
For months, they didn’t prepare hot meals, which didn’t thrill Byrd’s 13-year-old son, Michael.
“There was a lot of peanut butter and jelly,” Byrd laughed. “A lot.”
“And cereal,” Walters said. “Cereal for breakfast. Cereal for dinner, sometimes, too.”
The two looked at each other and smiled at how they’ve struggled through hard times together.
The couple grew up 3 blocks from each other in Oakland, but didn’t meet until 30-odd years later, in church. They’ve been together since 2009, when Walters summoned the courage to ask Byrd out after services.
For weeks, he’d kept a shred of paper with his phone number written on it in his pocket, too nervous to give it to her.
“I probably wasn’t ready for Victor earlier in my life – I was too crazy,” Byrd said and smiled. “But I’m different now. Calmer. I believe God brought us together. I couldn’t have got through all this without him.”
Slowly, thanks in part to the temporary boost from the Season of Sharing Fund, they’re catching up on their debt. Now, instead of being three months behind, they’re only 1 1/2.
A friend gave them a Christmas tree, because they wouldn’t have been able to afford one. But, Walters said, there will be few gifts under it this year.
“It’s going to be rough,” he said.
The good news is that hot meals have returned – at least once in a while.
“Can I say it?” Byrd said with a broad smile. “We can have fried chicken now.”