I forget to wear a red shirt. The church hallways are full of perky, red-shirted volunteers. I am usually excellent at following directions, but I messed up. My name tag says ANN in green marker, my nose is red from walking here in the fog, I’m wearing jeans and a corduroy shirt and a jacket that’s dingy from accidentally leaning against cars. The outfit is completely Goodwill. People can’t tell whether I’m a volunteer or a homeless person (“client”). They don’t know which tone of voice to use. I like it.
Atypically, I am actually myself with the two people I’m paired with: mostly silent, cautiously humorous, laissez-faire, no bullshit cheer, and kind of kind. Maybe I’m finally shaking off caring what people think of me, a concern that ironically can cause me to smile like a hollow rind and speak like the lady on the GPS, thereby landing me straight in benevolent-clueless-pansyland. But today I just shrug while Jack, my first partner, disses the salt-to-chili ratio of the soup, and pretty much everything else in sight.
“It’s demeaning to have to be followed around like a child,” Jack says. The church, in exchange for letting us use their space, require us all to sign in and out and maintain a one-to-one, lockdown partnership between volunteers and service-seekers. “I know. I can see how you’d feel that way,” I answer. Without a word he dares me to follow him as he gets up to grab a napkin and a cup of coffee. I don’t, and when he returns he tells me I’m in trouble with the lady in the red sweatshirt standing by the beverages. “She wants to know where my person is.”
“Ah, whatever. They can kick me out.”
We are both Bachelors of Art. His degree was Painting, University of Georgia, 1976. “I never got a dime from that. But it kept me out of Vietnam.” After scraping his plate, he’s fed up, in both senses, and heads for the door. “Well Jack, I wish you the best when you get your housing later this month.” “Thanks,” he says. “Nothing personal, you know, I’ve just had enough of this.” I wonder how his marriage was, whether he’s always this grumpy or whether homelessness gets him this way. When he was filling out his survey, I saw that he was divorced last year. That’s why he’s on the street now, at least that’s the stated reason.
Sherri, on the other hand, doesn’t say much, but there’s more levity in her attitude. She’s not hungry, and she doesn’t drink coffee; she’s here for the real stuff. She wants a shampoo and haircut, a bus pass, an eye exam voucher, HIV and Hepatitis C testing, and a state ID. Turns out the bus passes and eye vouchers are long gone, and there are long lines for everything else. A friend tips her off that a nasty landlord is among those giving haircuts, so that rules out the beautician station. We sit in the hall for forty minutes waiting for medical testing. Among volunteers and homeless people, there is an equality of confusion. I like this. The stakes are higher for the homeless people, of course, but nobody knows where to go, the hallways are crowded, and there is no order in the waiting. And I am far more impatient than Sherri. She’s probably used to hanging on for a long time for what she can get.
While she finally gets her tests done, I turn in her survey—not reading her answers—and in exchange, nab the last Safeway gift card for her. The event is ending and volunteers run up and down the halls with folding tables and bags of trash. When she emerges there’s a glimmer in her eye, a triumphant little glimmer. I wonder if and dare to hope that this means she’s clean.
We are the last pair to leave. The church is back to its vacant self again, and the service providers are wrapping up a long, exhausting day, a day of yes and no and please wait. I’m glad I went. It sucked and it was also kind of nice. It was life. Everyone tried, some things happened, others didn’t, some people felt worse, some better. Maybe some people connected. Some people will drive home and take off red shirts. And some people will not.
Sherri and I walk out the door, smile and nod, and say our parting words.