After a couple days of recovery and making some difficult, heartbreaking, necessary arrangements, I am now doing the morning shift. I’m wondering if the additional sleep will be worth having my children walk home from school alone. They’re big kids, I know, but I’ve never allowed them to do this before. And they’ll need to wait on the porch for me while I race on down the freeway to them after I leave the shelter.
Not racing too fast of course, I don’t want to do a detour through a jail cell before I get to them.
Waking up at 4:30am this morning has me feeling like a million bucks. Like a breastfeeding mother at 3am who is grateful she can now lie on her stomach and doesn’t have to pee every 10 minutes like she did just before she gave birth. It’s all in the perspective.
The shelter staff is all up in a tizzy. Greg, the supervisor, manages the shift. He and a guy named Jim are hollering loudly at each other from a bathroom. It’s 6am and the place is bustling with activity. Homeless folks don’t sleep in here.
Apparently one of them decided to make pies in the bathroom with his own poop. It’s all over the walls and floor. While I didn’t see it, Jim gives us a colorful description after it’s all been cleaned up. The hard things are laughed at here until the pain is all gone. Kind of like in midwifery. This part feels very familiar.
A beautiful black woman is in Pilar’s post. I introduce myself and begin my toilet paper rolling habit. She counts sheets, sorts towels. “Praise Jesus!” she tells each one. She counts the vets on her roster. “Glory to God!” She blesses each name. She sits at her desk and pulls out a Bible and begins to read.
After a few minutes I ask “What are you reading there?” She reaches a finger up behind her back at me to shush me for a moment. When she’s done she looks up.
“I’s prayin. You got’sa put yo ARMOR on here. Ev’ry day!” She stands up to resume her work, humming gospel songs.
Eventually, she is joined by Paul, a heavy set, soft spoken bear of a man. He asks me why I got so many hours and I tell him. Each time I tell someone the story it feels better in my throat. Years of a knot in there. Chi stuck right where my cry is.
Paul asks questions just like everyone else. Did the baby die? Was the baby hurt? Did I get my license, etc.
He concludes by saying, “Well, blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake.” Tears well up in my eyes to hear someone who actually gets it.
As I begin my routine sweeping of the bed area, I notice a vet laying down with his boots on, staring at the ceiling. His expression blank and broken. After sweeping around him for at least five minutes he suddenly looks startled to notice I’m there. He’s a white man with a greying beard. I think he’s older than me, but I can’t really be sure. A lot of the vets look older than me, but their birth years betray them. 1982. 1984. I remember what I did those years. Where are these boys’ mothers? Broken hearted and wondering where they are?
His sad, blue eyes, look at me like I’m very far away. “How are you?” He asks. I lie and say I’m fine. He lies and says he is too.
“I’m just gunna lay here and rest awhile.” Yeah. Me too… I’m going to rest here sweeping and scrubbing all of the backwardness of my prosecution away. I’m going to brush away how Operation SAFE Medicine decided a midwife with no losses was unsafe.
The vet and I were both being pursued by Operations.
I step outside into the sunlight. I’ve never seen the courtyard in the sun before. At least fifty homeless men and women are sitting, lying, sleeping in a sun that is growing warmer by the minute. They smile and laugh and discuss sports and politics. The feeling reminds me of a campsite in the morning. Only without the campfires and coffee. But the camaraderie in the early morning air is almost joyful.
My moment of rest is interrupted by a scrawny scrap of a fellah. “Ma’am. There’s a vodka bottle in the toilet. I needsa sheeyit.”
I walk over to the bathroom and remove the bottle. When he sees me, he has that same face the woman who screamed about the bed bug did. I think white folks don’t normally take care of business down here.
“You did dat? You took care of it?” He says. And I hold up the bottle in my gloved hand.
“Have at it.” He is relieved.
“The VOA has been around since 1896. Here in the drop-in center we serve the homeless and provide shelter, job training and housing assistance. We have a large veteran community and work to reintegrate them into society. A lot of them suffer from PTSD or traumatic brain injuries.” The tour guide has five young women following him. All of them are obviously dressed down to “blend in.” Their badges say they are psych students. They ask questions about the center’s programs.
I feel proud of the staff here. A lot of them have come from the streets themselves. The female students look well-bred, well-groomed. Yet somehow they are the backdrop and the tour guide is the diamond for me. With his missing tooth and rough, cigarette smoked voice, he shines like a jewel in all this despair.
As the students pass me, one of them stops and turns towards me with a pitying look. I turn and look in the window and realize that I look like everyone else in the place: sweaty, matted hair, faded clothes with scuff marks I’ve picked up cleaning… Funny how chameleon a caregiver can be, no matter where she is found.