“There is no way I’m going to stand by and watch you drive down to Skid Row and then WALK the streets to the mission alone at 10 o’clock at night.” My mother was determined. Nothing is more determined than my mother when she’s determined. Not even a cat trying to pry open a bag of placenta from the garbage two days after a homebirth.
Sorry. Was that too gross? A midwife should remember that not everyone understands what homebirth is like. Not even a judge. Not even a jury. If you aren’t initiated, it can be a bit unusual.
“Ok. Well, do you want to drive your car to where I park and then give me a lift to the front door of the mission? I don’t have another option. This is court ordered.”
And so she decided to do what I would probably do if my daughter were in my shoes. She followed me. But then she did something I would NEVER do. She got lost. She ended up down by 6th and San Julian… in the heart of what has been called “Cardboard Alley” for as long as I can remember. The streets, for a good two to three blocks square are lined with tents and cardboard make shift shelters. And 6th and San Julian is the epi-center.
I parked and then called her cell phone, wondering how I’d lost her.
“Hold on honey… Yes, officer. Ok. Thank you…”
“Mom? Why are you talking to the police?”
“I just wanted to find out if you can park here. Katie, this is NOT a nice neighborhood.”
“Yes, mom, I know. Please leave that intersection right now and come over to San Pedro. I’m parked south of 7th.”
At the gate I pressed a small button to be buzzed to let in. Right above the gate was a large sign: “No Entry After 10.” I was introduced to a tough looking, tatooed hispanic woman, named Pilar, and was told that she would be the one to tell me what to do. She got me started right away, sitting in a large storage closet with 20 or so toilet paper rolls, rolling them into smaller rolls that the clients could use. I set these smaller rolls in a large box that I had been told to fill. This took me four hours.
Eventually, I emerged to find the other staff member, Jeremy, a black man who was nearly seven feet tall, sleeping just outside the door. Pilar was at the front desk reading and the entire building was nearly silent except for an occassional snore or sigh from the clients sleeping on either side of the front desk. To the west of the desk were the men’s beds, about 20 of them. To the east were around eight women’s beds. Apparently they had all been there sleeping already when I came in and I hadn’t noticed.
I asked Pilar what she’d like me to do next and was told I could go and take a break in the clubhouse, through the courtyard. There was a television on in the clubhouse and another community service worker already sitting there watching a sports game. His name was Robert and he told me he had been ordered to do 60 hours. He asked how many hours I had to do.
“240 plus 40 CalTrans” I said.
“Woooweee! That’s a lot of hours. You’re smart to get it done at night like this though. Get it over with. This is my second night and I came early cus they only let two service workers in a night. You’d be smart to come early.”
Mental note: come early for something I’m not too excited about. Especially after seeing that it may be filled with a lot of toilet paper.
The remainder of the night was filled with toilet bowl scrubbing, window washing, sweeping and mopping. At 5am, before sunrise, Jeremy sounded the alarm.
“It’s about that time, ladies and gentlemen! Getttuppp!!” And he turned on all the lights.
All across the room about 15 men and two women dragged themselves to their feet. I was told to sweep the bed areas, especially under each bed after each got up. About eight of the beds belonged to vets and I was told not to worry about their beds because they kept them for 24 hours and didn’t need to wake up at five like the others. I slowly began this process, happy to see the clients awake. The night had dragged on with boredom and it was nice to see the faces of the people who would be using those rolls of toilet paper I had worked so hard on.
As I began to sweep, Pilar suddently remembered something. “We have a new vet! Number 19 are you the new vet?!”
Number 19 rose to his feet abruptly, as if summoned from his barracks by a bugle. While sweeping, I couldn’t help but pause and stare. He was younger than the rest. His face was unshaven and his hair was bed tousled. He stood at attention like any good soldier as Pilar explained the rules for him to follow. Though he was erect, his shoulders drooped. His eyes gazed downward instead of at the woman who spoke to him. Under the grime he looked like a boy who was lost. My heart broke. He was somebody’s son. He is somebody’s son. Like a leaf being blown down a sidewalk, he was one like a million others, a story I would never know.