Last Night on Outreach

Last night on homeless outreach, a young woman came out from under a bridge. She was dressed in shorts, a camisole, and shower shoes with white athletic socks and had a thin blanket around her shoulders which she held tight to her chest as if some passerby might rob her and leave her naked and defenseless out the sidewalk. Her hair was brown and shoulder-length, scrambled and tangled in knots that looked like they had been there for days.

            My job when the outreach bus pulls up to a stop is to put a hot meal, a bag lunch, and a bottle of water in a plastic bag and hand it out the door. After people get their meals, my job is to work with another volunteer to respond to their requests – for socks, underwear, sweatpants, hoodies, bug spray, tampons, blankets, tarps, and tents. And shoes. We give people shoes. Sometimes they ask for shoes but already have some, the team leaders say, joking that now they ask to see their soles before giving people shoes. I laugh but know they’re probably serious. If they say it, I bet it’s true or will be soon.

            While I am doing these things on the bus, other volunteers with a lot of experience and an air of confidence and compassion that I admire but don’t have just yet are outside of the bus talking to people. They chit chat, like friends would, they ask what people need, ask if they’re interested in shelter or housing and, if they are, they take their names. They joke with people and hug them and I watch when I can although getting the meals and supplies together is usually too intense to lounge around listening in.

We travel a 25-stop route through the city three nights a week. The group keeps up this schedule but I only go once in a while but I am trying to do more. Our bus is stocked with food and supplies and when we stop at an encampment, we beep a signal and wait. People come out from the woods, from under the bridges, from their cars parked in park and ride lots and then the expert volunteers stand outside the bus and talk and listen and bring order to times when there are many people and many requests and others of us on the bus fetch things that are needed. After a short while, we pack up and move on. Other people are waiting so we can’t linger.

            I gave the woman in boxer shorts a pair of sweatpants and a t-shirt. She took both while holding the plastic bag of food and then set off back under the bridge as I watched from the bus window.  I wanted to bring her on the bus, smooth the hair off her face, and tell her we could call her mother. Because I am so fresh to this, I think people’s mothers would come. There were seats on the bus but nowhere to take her. The shelters were full and she seemed sick with drugs, drenched with drugs, even I could tell. She wasn’t ready to go anywhere but back on the ledge that is at the top of the concrete incline that runs from just under the street to the edge of the river. It is precarious up there, so high, so hidden, and it made me sick to watch her shuffling off, but nothing more could be done. Not tonight, maybe next time, or the time after that. When she’s ready is when something more can be done.

            At the next stop, three men came out of the woods, each with clothes stiff from weeks of wear, their faces streaked and gray. They took food, looking into each bag wanting us to tell them what was for dinner but we’d forgotten because several different volunteers bring dinners each night and we never know what’s inside. It could be spaghetti or a cheeseburger. All we care about is that it’s hot. It’s a hot meal that we want to deliver. It’s a lot different than handing somebody a sandwich. Homeless people get handed a lot of sandwiches.

Then the men asked for things they needed, I don’t remember what, probably socks because everyone wants socks. When they get really dirty or wet, socks are thrown out. No one washes their socks except a few guys with established camps on the river. They have clotheslines sometimes crammed with t-shirts and pants and the clotheslines and their campfires make their places look homey like Grandma’s place at the lake. But mostly, people just peel off their old socks and leave them. You can see the debris back in the camps, shredded clothes moldering. It used to bother me, the wastefulness of wearing clothes until they fell off but it makes sense to me now. People who are homeless don’t have closets. They are wearing or carrying what they have. Dirty and worn out clothes get left. It’s just the way it is.

One of the men was so happy to see us and so glad for his new pants that he came up the stairs of the bus to hug me and because I wanted to not shy away I hugged him and then he kissed me on the cheek and shouted, “I’m so lovable!” And he was. He had dimples when he smiled and winked when he got off the bus like an old flirt at a niece’s wedding reception. He was a drunk homeless man but, in that moment, because of us, I think, and our bus, the light we brought and his dinner and dry socks, he had true joie de vivre and it made me happy. Then he faded back into the woods with his fellows.

            Our last stop was the biggest, with waves of people coming out of tents and from under a big freeway bridge to crowd around the bus and part of me felt panic rising like, at any moment, someone in the group could get angry or have a gun and something would happen. I learned long ago after being jolted by catastrophic surprises in my own life that anything can happen. I would’ve had a tattoo made with that phrase had I been so inclined. Instead, the phrase stays imprinted on my memory.

So, even though nothing bad has ever happened to me on outreach, I froze for a bit on the bus with the requests coming through the door in huge thick chunks – underwear medium, shoes size 10, sweatpants XL, a pillow, blankets, batteries, AAA and AA, and flashlights, everyone needs a flashlight because it’s scary out there in the dark. I think of myself out there with a flashlight I can hold in the palm of my hand, a blanket from the bus, and a fresh pair of socks and I shake my head. Where would I go? Would I just lean up against a tree in the park and go to sleep? Would I keep the flashlight on all night? What would I see with its light?

            We gave away dozens of blankets. It had been warm earlier in the day but now it was like early spring again and so people needed blankets, their old ones having succumbed to wet and rot. Finally, the last man standing was a young guy with blond hair cropped old school like in my brother’s high school picture. He wore cargo shorts and a button shirt, athletic shoes, and wire-framed glasses. He looked like he might have just come from class at the university down the street. He’d hung back while others came ready with their requests. And he waited a good long while to decide it was his turn. Finally, he came to the bus door and peered in. “Do you have any blankets?” he asked. “No, I’m so sorry,” I said, “we’re all out.”

            He shrugged and asked for other things, a t-shirt, a pair of underwear. We had those things but there is no replacement for a blanket when you need one and my mother’s heart sank that we couldn’t give him this one thing. Next time, we said, next time we’ll have more blankets and he nodded and smiled and walked off into the dark. It bothered me even though it didn’t seem to bother him so much. I thought I should come back later, after outreach is done, find him, and give him a blanket. But I’m not like that, not yet. I stay on the bus. That’s my job.

Dig It Friday Round-Up

I feel like I’ve aged five years in a month. It’s like the age fairy got fed up with my prancing around thinking I was forty and decided to just slam the door on that nonsense. Actually, it’s the result of getting my cataracts removed – having perfect, crisp vision comes with a cost. Blurs serve. Remember that. That which is blurry is open to interpretation.

I’ve given the torment of gardening the heave-ho. I have five pots of geraniums, a tiny patch of basil and cilantro, and one hanging plant along with the perennials already in the ground – the hostas and such that would grow even if they were paved over. The truly resilient, that’s what’s left. And no fucking vegetables, no Victory Garden (oh, so un-aptly named). I’m done with trying to be Little Miss Farmer. I am hanging up my spade forever. It’s a deep and exhilarating freedom I’ve never felt before.

A tremendously rich guy who is also a local elected official bought a $2.6 million historic house on Milwaukee’s swanky Lake Drive and is going to tear it down and build a new house. And people went nuts. Not seriously nuts. Not 24/7 picketing or tying themselves to the door knobs nuts. Just online petition and ambiguous yard signs nuts. It irked me at first that some insanely rich guy could just buy something historically important and flatten it and then I thought, so what? Nothing lasts forever. In a few years, we’ll forget it was even there.

We went to the symphony tonight and I fell asleep several times. It was a very long, very dramatic piece of music called Carmina Burana by Carl Orff that involved the full orchestra, an adult chorus of about 100 people, a youth chorus with about 50 kids, and three soloists. And captions, including this one, “she has a fine head of hair but, when it comes to seizing an opportunity she is bald.” I was awake for that one and it has stuck with me. It has also stuck with me that in this majority minority city the youth chorus of 50 kids had just a single African American child.

It is real easy to fall prey to becoming a bb in a bare room. Just rolling from side to side endlessly from one injustice to another – kids at the border, ICE ’rounding up’ families to deport, gun violence, homelessness, gerrymandering, voter suppression, and on and on. I’m pretty locked in to homelessness, menstrual equity, and senior issues but a very big part of me wants to get in the car and go to Texas to do something about the kids being kept in cages. Like what, like what could a person possibly do? I don’t know. I’m going to look into it, though, and report back.

Love the Ones You’re With

Here in Milwaukee we’ve gotten ourselves engaged in a debate about senior centers. The county government, always strapped for cash and having put off needed maintenance for years is now looking at five aging senior centers and wondering what to do.

Senior advocates like myself and my comrades in the League of Progressive Seniors sense the beginning of the end for senior centers and so we are making noise, a lot of noise. But none of us ever really goes to a senior center. It’s not that we wouldn’t be caught dead in one, it’s just that we’re not there yet. We might never be there.

My father, widowed at 89, lived across a ball field from the local senior center.

“You should go, Dad.”

“Nah, just a bunch of old people over there.”

And at the time, I remember laughing at his reaction and being a little proud that my healthy, capable father didn’t want to be lumped in with old people but he was in fact old, very old, and lonely as only a man widowed after a 64 year marriage could be. But I reinforced the stigma of aging by basically patting him on the back for repudiating his own age peers.

The stigma of aging is profound and powerful, at its most intense when we who are old accept the stigma as valid. I’ve been struggling against that by being very public about my age and calling out ageism when I see it in conversations or social media. I want to be a role model for meaningful aging, not so much to other people but to myself, hoping my external life of action and community involvement will beat back my internal fear and loathing of my age.

“You’re not old,” a younger colleague said to me yesterday. “I wouldn’t consider you old.”

Why? Because to consider me old would put me in a stigmatized group? And you like me too much to do that? That’s sweet.

A local think tank released a study of senior centers called “Young at Heart.” To me that put the stigma of senior centers in capital letters. Of course, they think, old people would want to be young at heart because that would be tons better than being what they are – old at heart. The title felt weird and patronizing, like we were worn out adults on our way to become children again.

Even though I hang around with younger people a lot of the time, there is a great comfort and camaraderie being with people my age. We are funny and profane, wise but impatient. We don’t, after all, have all the time in the world. We understand each other’s jokes and remember the mistakes and painful alliances from years ago. We feel free and triumphant in a lot of ways but, despite that joyfulness, we are often stuck in the mud of stigma, not coming from other people, coming from ourselves.

Maybe senior centers, reimagined, could be the place where we learn to love the age we are. Maybe a different kind of senior center might have gotten my father to cross that ball field and be with people who remembered Benny Goodman and could dance a great swing. We need to be with people who know the words to Dylan’s songs and want to compare notes on anti-war protests. We’re out here. We just need some magic.

Photo by Teresa Pinho on Unsplash

Long Neck

In conversations today about our financial future, my husband used the term “black swan” twice.

The second definition of “black swan” offered by Google is thus: “an unpredictable or unforeseen event, typically with extreme consequences.”

We have had such events but I never recognized them as fowl. Just bad luck. Goes to show what I know about the artful use of animal metaphors. Black swan. Such an elegant way to describe catastrophic miscalculations, misjudgements, overreaches, and thunderous regrets. Not that there were so many but what there were were significant, memorable, substantial, worthy of their own special recognition.

I am hoping we have met our quota but suspect more is in store. A group of black swans, not a flock, no, such a gathering would be called a bevy or a wedge in flight, those are the correct terms for what is to come if we aren’t very careful.

Ominous and beautiful at the same time.

Photo by James Wainscoat on Unsplash

Bugged Friday Round-Up

I asked a friend in recovery how it was to not be drinking and he responded that he never thought about it until someone asked. This gave me pause. What was I hoping to accomplish with the question? Did I want an actual answer or his affirmation that he still wasn’t drinking? Was I hoping to be educated about the recovery process or make conversation? Or pin the beetle to the display board?

My husband and I are realizing that we love our new dog, Swirl, possibly more than we love each other and certainly more than we love our children. We’re keeping this to ourselves, of course, lest the information falls into the wrong hands. It just isn’t done to place a creature above one’s own family, the optics are terrible as they say. We’re aware of this so we only talk about our outrageous disloyalty in the kitchen.

Yesterday, as my friend Karen tailgated a guy who got so irked he started braking every three seconds, she yelled, kidding/not kidding, “DON’T YOU KNOW WHO WE ARE, MOTHERFUCKER? WE HAVE IMPORTANT THINGS TO PROTEST!” Just then we spied a cop car tucked on a side street and she slowed down so we looked normal, like two old friends who’d just gone thrifting at Goodwill. And I drew from this experience this: when we lose our ability to yell “motherfucker” we are done for. Thank God we’re not there yet.

My life is a steady mix of brilliance and idiot moves. Earlier this week, after leaping up in a big crowd to deliver what I thought was astute and insightful commentary on a bad public policy decision process, I scurried off to the restroom with the sole purpose of taking a picture of myself in the mirror. It was meant to be sort of a triumph picture plus I thought I looked cute in my pink shirt but I couldn’t figure out how to do it never having done it before and as I was futzing with my phone, of course, someone walked in the bathroom and looked at me a little quizzically, causing me to say, “I’m taking a picture of myself in the mirror.” Unbelievably, I got a picture of myself taking a picture of myself in the mirror as the woman walked in looking quizzical but it was so mortifying that I sent it to the Trash. Can you believe it?

My husband asked me a few hours ago if I was going to write a Friday Round-Up which immediately made me not want to not do it. I took his question as hectoring, pressure, the laying on of unreasonable expectations, which seemed to surprise him but not much. I hate questions, I really do. One wonders why I ask so many.

Eagle Scout

I just bought a copy of the Mueller Report.

When I was 16, I bought a copy of the Warren Report. And I read it which is even weirder.

And, at the time, because the Warren Commission was headed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, I figured what was in the report was the absolute truth and that conspiracy theorists were crackpots. I still mostly think that but it’s harder since it has been revealed to me that truth is like jelly, deceptively solid, fluid with the merest heat.

I ordered the Mueller Report after I saw on the news that a particularly vociferous defender of the president, some Republican member of Congress whose name I don’t recall or refuse to commit to memory, admitted he’d not read the report because, well, why would he have to since the president already told him what was in it and I was reminded of people who run around quoting the Bible because of verses they’ve read on restaurant placemats. It’s hard reading the real stuff. Real hard.

So to make myself feel extra righteous about this purchase, I’m going to quote President John Kennedy’s famous statement about going to the moon.

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

Now we are entering the realm of the sanctimonious. I understand that. And I would apologize for this, for “making a show of being morally superior to other people” as the helpful Google dictionary puts it, except I think reading the Mueller Report is the morally superior thing to do and that’s why I’m going to do it despite the fact that it will probably take me well into the next decade to finish it, my attention span and preoccupation with social media being what it is.

I was a student once, though, a serious one. So my plan is to approach this task like homework. Now, leafing through this 448 page masterpiece, it seems that the reading might go faster than I thought.

The Trump years have worn me down. I find myself shrugging off things that would have made me careen into a light pole three years ago. Worse, the people around me are shrugging. We’re all shrugging. And many of us, tired of the discipline required for effective moral outrage, are skipping out on the hard work of resistance. It really is such a bitch to deal with national politics. Easier to be a thorn in the side of local elected officials. It’s way more fun and offers the prospect of immediate results.

I think the opposition, and yes, the Republicans are opponents, never mind the nostalgia of Joe Biden in his claim that the GOP would return to sanity once Trump is out of the picture, anyway, the opposition is assuming that we over here in the resistance are so gosh darn tuckered out with all our marching and yelling and sign-making that we’re just going to wander off and watch Seinfeld reruns and remember old times when we thought things made sense.

Nope. Not me. I’m working on getting my citizenship badge at this year’s jamboree. One page at a time.

A Talking To

Get rid of those scarves. You’re never going to wear them.

Huh? Who are you?

I’m your Fashionista! Your fashion sense.

What are you talking about? I don’t have any fashion sense.

My point exactly. You need me to tell you to ditch those stupid scarves.

What if I want to add color and excitement and verve to my look?

Yeah. I’ve seen you try. You wrap a twenty-foot scarf around your neck like it’s a python and then rip it off panting for air.

Other women wear scarves and they look great.

Maybe you need a longer neck because you always look like one of those ancient turtles on its way to lay eggs at the Galapagos.

That’s harsh.

I know, I’m so sorry. But it’s my job to protect you from being a laughingstock.

A laughingstock! You think wearing a scarf makes me a laughingstock? That’s terrible. What about all the times I’ve worn scarves in the past?

People are still laughing.

I guess I should thank you for your honesty but I don’t feel all that appreciative.

That’s okay. I totally understand. Now should we pack these up or leave them hanging here so you can remember all the good times?