When I slipped on the ice, two homeless men waiting to get into the warming room grabbed my arms. Their reach was effortless and smooth, reflexive.
Later, a homeless man lifted the big box I was carrying and when I said, “Thank you,” he said, “You’re very welcome.” He might have tipped his hat had he not been holding my box.
There is a gallantry among homeless men that might surprise people. And a familiarity, as if, by being present where they are, you become a comrade, distant kin home from college or the war or wherever you’ve been.
Looking up from a cot, one of forty cots and people lined up in the small warming room, practically shoulder to shoulder, a younger man with dark hair falling over his eyes asked me if I was bringing food and I nodded yes. At least that’s what I thought his question was, my hearing still deficient, a cochlear implant notwithstanding, and remarks from men hardest for me to hear. I try to have a smile pass for a response a lot of the time remembering what my mother always said, “Just let a smile be your umbrella, On a rainy, rainy day.”
I carry this umbrella everywhere, my imperfect smile, my imperfect self.
We stacked the meal containers on the table after a volunteer spread a leftover Valentine’s Day plastic tablecloth. She had greeted us at the door when we brought in the bottled water and then came out to our truck to lead us back as we carried the boxes. She seemed like a hostess, like it was her job to make things nice and homey and I appreciated her right away because a lot of people, even people volunteering in a warming room, don’t always think that way.
She walked in front of us while we carried our big boxes of meals in from the truck. The walk had been shoveled but there were icy spots. I knew that because I’d already slipped on the ice carrying in the bottled water.
Watch out there’s ice there. Careful, it could be slippery here.” I loved her even though I didn’t catch her name. Of course. So I just smiled. Later, I thanked her while she was making cups of hot chocolate from a big coffee urn filled with hot water that I’d seen her husband lugging in from the parking lot. She was measuring hot chocolate powder into Styrofoam cups because what’s better than hot chocolate when you are in a warming room?
On the way out, I gestured to the young man with his long hair in his eyes. He was laying on his stomach on his cot, propping himself up on his elbows, watching me leave. Go eat,” I said. “I brought this for you.” He looked over his shoulder at the meals stacked on the table, waiting like a wedding guest might wait for the head usher to send his table to the buffet. No, I wanted to say out loud. You are the reason I came. This is for you.
He waited still. Our eyes met while I nodded toward the table.
This is for you, I could almost hear him say. My hesitancy, my politeness, it’s for you. The care that I take – opening the door, carrying the box, saving you from a fall, waiting patiently to eat – it’s for you. I am the reason you came. This is for you.
And I held that all the way home like a rock from the beach that is beautiful in the water but will dull on the shelf. I will save it anyway, remembering how it was.