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Shelter report: Talk is free at the supply window

When I first thought about volunteering at the Day Center, I had a hard time getting excited about handing out towels, soap and toothbrushes.

Homeless men drinking weak coffee while hanging out waiting for showers or phone calls—how much fun could that possibly be?

Like most jobs described by their assigned tasks, my job in the supplies room doesn’t sound that great. It’s a step up from working an expressway tollbooth, for sure, but a few steps down from curing cancer. (Although squirting solutions into petri dishes and squinting at slides all day may not be very entertaining work, either.)

In truth, the great part of my job is getting to know the people and talking to them about what’s on their minds.

I can’t always write about it here. Some of what I hear is too personal or might place a guest in a vulnerable position. And some of it makes no sense—at least in a way I can tease out for you in a few hundred words.

There’s Pedro, who talks a great deal. I’m told it starts from the moment he gets up. Most of the time, he’s not speaking to anyone in particular, and forget it if you’re looking for coherent subject matter.

Here’s a rough approximation of a Pedro riff:

He’s generally thinking aloud—or more accurately, giving voice to what flows through his mind. I imagine what he’s saying is reasonably close to what goes on in “normal” heads that aren’t engaged in organized thoughts, and once you lose the expectation that it should make linear sense, it’s pretty entertaining. Sort of a sideways, free-associative thinking in which Sharpie becomes Shar Pei becomes a face that looks like a brain.

G-man talks about the Bible. He’s a former homeless guy who now lives in the veterans’ housing and volunteers with us. Mostly, he’s trying to talk sense to the people he thinks might be vulnerable.

Deerslayer talks about his adventures and his travels around the country. He looks and sounds pretty normal, and he seems to know a lot about a lot of things. But watch out. He will tell you about it until closing time.

Ecstacy talks to herself, which is different than the way Pedro keeps up his running monologue. He’s semi-conscious of having an audience, like a rapper is, while she remains in her own world. It is a world you don’t want to be in, where you wear open-back fuzzy slippers in winter, your parka still has a piece of masking tape on the sleeve that says “Donation” and you drag a suitcase with a teddy bear on top.

Special K tells me his shortcomings, his screw ups, his obsessions. Of all the conversations I have there, our talks feel the most authentic and our rapport genuine. On a given day, I may have two or three of these talks with people that get beyond transactions, banter and small talk. 

Accurately or not, I extrapolate from these to the other people in the room who are unable or unwilling to converse. Underneath each of them, I believe, a human being is finding ways to stay alive, and connection, even of the perfunctory sort that occurs in this room, is part of the strategy.

Another resident of the supported housing came in to give free haircuts today. We talked about the male pattern baldness that goes back generations in his French ancestry. He also cleans carpets in the apartments and transitional housing run by Catholic Outreach. He told me he charges $20 an apartment and $60 for a three-bedroom house. The residents are low income, he says, so he charges a low-income rate.

Catholic Outreach bought him the steam cleaner he uses. He used to work in a commercial cleaning business owned by disabled man who was also a Shriners clown. At 81, the man was rear-ended in his scooter and killed by an inattentive SUV driver. We talked about the retail markup on carpet shampoo, the RX20, the Cadillac of steam carpet cleaners, and the finer points of doing the work. He thinks he might go back into it. For now, though, he just cleans for the poor.

“I do a good job,” he said, and then abruptly walked out the door and down the street.

Sometimes doing a good job isn’t quite enough out in this world.

This post was written by Charlie Quimby and originally published on Across the Great Divide. Follow Charlie on Twitter: @CharlieQuimby.

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