Local News

Wednesday, Dec 26 2012 09:00 PM

A light for Kern's poor is extinguished

BY COURTENAY EDELHART Californian staff writer cedelhart@bakersfield.com

David Giniewicz Assaly has died.

He was 56.

You've probably never heard of Dave. He's not the sort of person who would cross your path if you're educated and comfortable.

But if you're barely hanging on from paycheck to paycheck, or darn near starving on the fringes of society, it's likely you knew Dave. Or at least knew of his work.

On paper, Dave's occupation was thrift store owner. He and his wife, Alice, have owned Alice's Attic thrift store in Lebec for six years. That's a for-profit store that pays the bills.

Dave also helped start the Boys & Girls Club Name Your Price Thrift Store in Frazier Park, which raises about $2,000 a month for Kern County Boys & Girls Club Frazier Mountain. He ran a Bakersfield "name your price" store, too, until it closed about a year ago.

The Bakersfield store was never supposed to turn a profit. It was just a means to an end.

Dave's true calling and passion was helping people. Anyone, really, but especially the down and out.

He'd been there, you see. If you talked to him at any length, he vaguely alluded to a shady past and avoided revealing too much about himself. But then he found God, and that changed everything.

Dave had a Christian ministry -- and truly, for him, that's what it was -- that consisted of raiding trash bins and selling castoffs to the needy.

Homeless people, single moms, men newly released from prison -- anybody who couldn't afford clothes, shoes, a toaster or a toy could come in, give whatever they could afford to pay, and take what they needed.

Dave was a deliberately horrible negotiator. If somebody looked sad or anxious, he'd haggle the price down -- yes, down -- or if the buyer looked truly desperate, he'd give merchandise away for free.

In an April 2010 interview about the new Bakersfield store, he told me he was appalled daily by how much perfectly good stuff was thrown away. His voice trembled with rage at the thought of it heading to a landfill rather than to those who had nothing. So he drove his truck to wealthy neighborhoods and dug through trash bins and cans to salvage what he could.

Not everyone appreciated him digging through their trash. Every now and then somebody called the cops. It didn't stop him. Just made him more discreet.

Others had the opposite reaction. Once they figured out who he was and why he was there, they set things aside for him. They'd even call him and schedule pickups. I have an old sofa. Know anybody who needs a sofa?

Chances were he did, and if he didn't, he'd inquire all over until he found a match.

Dave looked like a guy who dug through trash. His clothes were raggedy, his long beard unruly. His skin was so caked with filth sometimes that it was hard to identify his race.

But then he'd smile, and the pure love emanating from him could light up the night sky.

I've been a reporter for more than two decades. I've interviewed political big shots, celebrities, all kinds of famous people.

Interviewing Dave will always, for me, stand out as one of the highlights of my career.

It was hard to keep him on task. Dave was more interested in learning about me than talking about his store. He wanted to know how I got into journalism, how long I had lived in Bakersfield, if I had a family.

When I told him I was a single mom, he looked at me reverentially as if I'd just told him I was Mother Teresa. Single mothers have it so hard, he said. They held a special place in his heart. Would I mind if he prayed over me?

I told him I wouldn't mind at all, but he should know that I was Jewish.

"Jesus was a Jew," he said dismissively, then placed two hands on my shoulders and asked God to protect my children and me from harm.

A few weeks after the publication of my story, Dave called to tell me he had "come across" an object that "looked Jewish," and he wanted to give it to me.

I told him professional ethics and newspaper policy prohibited me from accepting gifts from sources. He noted that my story was already published, so he was no longer a source, and besides, I was the only Jew he knew.

A few hours later he was at the newspaper offices with a rusty Shabbat (Sabbath) candelabra so big and heavy it was awkward to carry. I still have it. It's one of my most cherished pieces of Judaica.

That's my Dave story.

Almost everybody in southern Kern County has a Dave story.

Like Robin Hribar, 50, who used to work at the Lebec Transfer Station, which is the polite name for the county dump.

Every hot summer day, Dave brought her and other employees ice cream.

"Every day. Never missed a beat," Hribar said. "He was just a very sweet person. A man of gold. I never heard him say anything negative, ever."

Today, Carol Lee Weber is a successful real estate agent, but before she got her real estate license, she was a single mom struggling to make ends meet.

You know how Dave felt about single moms.

When he found out Weber was sleeping on the floor so her son could have the family's only bed, he bought her a bed. A brand new one. It wasn't one of his Dumpster finds.

"What a light," Weber said. "We've lost quite an angel."

Dave was born in Virginia but grew up in Massachusetts, where he met wife, Alice Assaly, 54, at a festival.

He served in the U.S. Army in the 1970s.

The couple moved to Frazier Park about 15 years ago, attracted by the affordable housing there.

They quickly became fixtures in the community, with Dave spearheading an annual Christmas toy drive and working year-round to help the region's poor.

Alice supported his efforts.

"It was time-consuming, but it's what he loved doing, and I understood that," she said.

Dave collapsed at work Dec. 20. A cause of death isn't official yet, but Alice suspects a heart attack.

The couple had no children. Dave is survived by Alice, a sister and two brothers.

A memorial service will take place sometime in the next month or two to allow Dave's siblings, who live out of state, time to get here. A date hasn't been set.

Dave was so modest and low-key that he wouldn't have wanted a big, fancy sendoff.

Until the specifics of the memorial service are pinned down, I'll honor Dave's memory the way he would have preferred, by helping out a stranger. Just because.

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