Good Morning, OB

To the left of the stairs leading up to the pier at Ocean Beach in San Diego, there is an overstuffed couch. A couple of guys with heavy blond dreadlocks are sitting on the couch and smoking while others in various types of homeless thick-wear (wearing everything you own) are wandering about, chatting, looking bored already. It is just 8:00 in the morning. The guys on the couch are too far away to say hello to, I tell myself. Plus they seem oblivious to me and why shouldn’t they. Another tourist looking at them. I go up the stairs to the pier.

At the top of the stairs, on the little space that is available to stand and admire the ocean and watch the surfers, the rest of the pier shut off to pedestrians for some reason not explained, there is a young woman in a black shirtdress that is gathered snug at the waist with a skirt that puffs out like there is a petticoat underneath. She looks ready for work, sprightly and tailored. She is wearing flip flops which seems incongruous given her dress and when she leans against the bridge railing and stands on her tiptoes to peer at people below, I see that the bottoms of her feet are black, as black as a five-year old going barefoot all day in the summer, but more, days’ worth of black. It has been a long time since her last shower. Still the dress, it seems fresh. I wonder how she keeps it that way.

Next to the pier, a parking lot has every space filled by residential vehicles, mostly vans but not all, some cars. The windows are covered with towels and shirts. People may be living in their cars but they want privacy, for heaven’s sake, reminding myself. People create places for themselves and the places have walls and doors that close even if those things are cars with windows covered with towels or tents with zippered flaps. The parking lot looks like a village. People have lived there a long time.

It is one thing to be homeless but have your place, however ginned up it is, and quite another to be out in the open with nothing, to sleep on the low wall along the sidewalk at Ocean Beach, say, completely exposed to everyone and everything. There are two women doing just that, both wrapped in blankets, sitting up wearily as I walk by, looking as if they are surprised they are still where they were the night before. I consider what it would be like to shut my eyes while I lie out in the open, to sleep exposed to the world although I’ve been told some people would rather be out in the open and see what’s coming than be in a tent and be surprised by what is outside. I don’t know.

None of the homeless people I see approach me. No one asks me for anything. One man says good morning but only one. It’s as if I don’t exist in their world, like I am invisible and I probably am. There are so many of us tourists walking by guarding our phones and our wallets, it must get tiresome, to have to live your life with all the onlookers, especially ones you know will go home and talk about you, all the homeless in San Diego, how they are all over the beach, and what a terrible problem they are.

The Peculiar Zen of Meal Prep

Every now and then, on no particular schedule, when I think I should or when I feel the need for total immersion in a task that is immediate and elemental, I do meal prep.

Meal prep is what Street Angels calls preparing and packaging hot meals for the homeless people on our outreach route. So depending on the time of the year, anywhere from 40 to 120 hot meals are needed for each night of outreach – Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday.

Volunteers do this. They buy, cook, package, and transport hot meals to the Street Angels bus by 5:45 p.m. on outreach nights. It’s both a science and an art. Food has to be generally appealing, nutritious, but most of all, hot. The food has to be hot. There’s a trick to that. I haven’t perfected it yet but liquid is key – sauce, gravy, soup, chili – liquids stay hotter than solids. Cold food won’t do for a hot meal plus there’s the matter of food safety.

I’ve taken to doing meal prep as a sort of meditation. For me, it is a zen experience. I can’t think of anything else during meal prep except the barbecued drumsticks or mac and cheese or tuna casserole, how to multiply a recipe for 20 to one for 60, what pans to use, how to coordinate my oven and Nesco cooker, and how to keep everything hot. Very hot.

For a while I was doing meal prep with a friend and then I realized, oddly, that I wanted to be alone in my kitchen. Talking disrupted the zen, consultation scattered my focus, what I gained in companionship, I lost in the clear sense of purpose and utility that meal prep can bring.

After I package up all the meals and deliver them to the bus, I drive away worrying about things I could have done better. I made pasta with sauce and Italian sausage and it was beautiful but had no Parmesan cheese. The tuna casserole was too dry because I’d panicked and added more noodles. Not all the barbecued chicken legs had a nice sear on them.

One night, though, I made chicken soup from scratch, simmering two big chickens for hours and then adding carrots and celery and noodles. The soup was a triumph but I delivered it on a night of the Polar Vortex so I knew it wouldn’t stay hot. I wished I could load a cauldron of soup on to the bus and ladle it out person by person. Instead I dropped off my cups of soup and went home, later that night getting a message from a homeless woman relayed to me by the outreach worker, “The soup was divine.” I almost cried. She said the soup was divine!

People all over Milwaukee, all over the country, do things like meal prep. I watched a man in a warming room kitchen dump three canisters of quick-cooking oatmeal into a huge foil tray, pour boiling water over it all, stir it, and scatter raisins and cinnamon over the top and then stand back to admire it like he was presenting a Beef Wellington at Christmas dinner. I know that look, I thought. It’s his Zen.

For those of us who come from go wash your hands, it’s time for dinner, this is what we have, we’ll have to make it stretch, who came to the table where meatloaf and mashed potatoes were waiting, steam rising, who listened to their parents talking in the kitchen while dinner cooked, who hated but loved family dinners because it was proof you belonged somewhere, meal prep has a lot of meaning.

Why Not Friday Round-Up

Why, Arizona can be a question or a place depending on whether you use a comma. The first time we came through “town” I saw the official sign for Why that included when it was established and how many people live there. So the whole time we were somewhere else I thought about how clever it would be to Instagram a photo of that sign with the caption, “This is Why,” but we couldn’t find the sign coming back without making a dozen U-turns to check out signs which you don’t want to do on AZ 85 when the sun is setting.

We’ve been gone for much of March, first to Alaska and then to Arizona. In both places we drank their local beer and we came home fat from thinking every night was a special occasion. We live now in the land of corporate beer and an unforgiving scale which I constantly adjust to make sure the line is exactly on the zero before I weigh myself. I lost half a pound that way this morning.

I stopped writing for a week and it felt good. It felt like I was out from under for a while, free of practically every obligation (being out of town and on the road a fair amount of time will do that), and free from thinking about whether anyone was reading what I had written. I quit the constant checking of my phone, turned off the reinforcement faucet for a while. I decided not to write anything until I missed writing which I did, finally, this morning. In anticipation, I started to make a list of themes last night but I forgot them until now.

Being physically present is no accident. We took a bit of a detour on our way from Phoenix to Organ Pipe National Park to see our grandkids in San Diego. And their parents. But mostly the grandkids – 5 year old twin boys and a 14 year old girl. It was six hours each way which is a lot for most people but not really for us because we like being on the road so much. The next morning while I sat watching TV with one boy, the other one, slow to wake, came out of his room, climbed up on the bed  and hugged me. I sat feeling his blond head resting on my back, his little wordless morning self. I didn’t want to breathe or speak lest he quit to run off and begin his day.

I delivered 4,379 tampons and pads and 60 pairs of women’s underwear to the Salvation Army today. This was after lunch with a good friend who asked me, quite pointedly, if delivering menstrual supplies was my end game for my Time of the Month Club effort or was there a bigger agenda and I told her, yes, that collecting menstrual supplies for homeless women gives me ‘talking rights’ on policy and programs which is true but also true is that packing my pink bags with boxes of tampons and pads and new underwear for women I don’t know and will probably never meet is weirdly the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. Don’t even ask me why. I have no clue.








Mornings in the Polar Vortex

She was an old woman who sat with her purse on her lap like she was waiting to be called to have her blood pressure checked. Instead, she was waiting for breakfast to be served at the homeless warming room and watching the TV mounted on the wall. It was all about the polar vortex, the wind chill, and how dangerous it was for people to be outside where the temperature was 23 degrees below zero.

She wore pedal pushers. That’s what I noticed first. Old fashioned pedal pushers with a rolled-up cuff falling just below her knee, pants I might have worn fifty years ago riding my bike on the dirt roads near our house. Maybe she has long pants stowed somewhere else, that happens, people look like they don’t have adequate gear but then their backpacks explode with jackets and hats. I didn’t think so. She just seemed to have her purse.

She wore white sneakers, substantial ones, not the thin skimmers, and white crew socks which were very thin. Both look like they’d come from the donation bin. Somebody else had put a lot of miles on her shoes before she’d laced them up. And the socks had come from well-meaning but thrifty folks who bought the 10-pack at Walmart, bless them, though, because without them, her ankles would be bare.

The space between her rolled up pedal pusher cuffs and the tops of her thin socks hit me hard. Her bare skin, her calves, swollen like thick poles from knee to ankle. Before she came in here – to this warming room that opens when it is 20 degrees or colder – she was walking around on the streets of Milwaukee in her pedal pushers.

I didn’t talk to her. She was sitting in the middle of a row of people watching TV and waiting for breakfast so there was no opportunity to sit down and chat, figure out if she wanted some pants that went all the way to her shoes. She didn’t ask. Neither did I.

Yesterday, my victory in the warming room was finding Depends on the very top shelf of the storeroom for a woman who had whispered her request to me, her not wanting anyone to hear meant I could barely hear her but I pieced together her request. So I was happy when I scored the Depends on the top shelf and I packed six in a plastic bag and took them to her. She was surprised, I think, because she’d pegged me for someone who couldn’t find the Depends or who wouldn’t try to find the Depends. No, sorry, they’re all out.

Today, a man got upset with me because I couldn’t hear him. He talked fast and so, so low, his voice trailing down his shirt. There was much he wanted to tell me but I focused again on his clothes, how spare his jacket was and how fragile his shoes which were duct-taped together. He had no patience with my preoccupation with his clothes and had other things to tell me and then finally backed up, exasperated with me when I asked yet again for him to “Say again.” It felt like a failure and a defeat and like I shouldn’t come back.

But then in the kitchen, I saw a man from last year’s warming room and he remembered me and hugged me. And we stood and talked because I could hear him easily, his voice being of the tenor and volume that work perfectly with my cochlear implant. It was good to see him although not in that place; I wish I’d run into him at Target when he was buying towels for his new apartment. But maybe that will happen later.

I volunteer at the warming room because I think I should but I don’t know what I’m doing. I’ll never know what I’m doing. I just go there in my long pants and my unreliable hearing and it feels like a solidarity thing but it’s meager, so meager. Today felt really meager, between the pedal pushers and the frustrated, unheard man. But I’m going back. I’m not sure why but I am.

99 New: True Value

I’ve spent the last year hanging around people who hug you like they mean it. And it’s softened me up. So I get what that does for people who are homeless.

God, it is a relief not to be judged. To have people be glad to see you for no particular reason. To be regarded as valuable just because you’re there and breathing.

Today, Street Angels, the homeless outreach group I work with, put on a Christmas party for the people we see on outreach – these are folks who live outside. They live in tents under the freeway overpass, in the woods, under bridges, other places where they’re pretty invisible to regular passers-by.

There were probably two hundred folks at this party when we came, many I recognized from last winter’s warming room where I volunteered in the early mornings and where I steered clear of hugs thinking I didn’t know people well enough to hug them. My concept of hugging then centered on incrementalism.

In the food line, a very tall thin man with a gray beard and an old Carhartt jacket turned around to say hello and Merry Christmas and then he hugged me like I was his sister although I’d never seen him before. And I hugged him back like I meant it, like I learned how to do this year.

99 New: The Memorial Service

This morning I went to a memorial service for a woman who went by the name Shorty though her given name was June. She had been homeless many years when she died although it probably wouldn’t be fair to say homelessness caused her death but surely sleeping outside on the ground night after night, year after year, hadn’t helped her many chronic health conditions.

Shorty was extremely small, wiry, very animated. She moved with a group of friends who came together into the warming room where I volunteered last winter. I steered clear of her, like I did almost everyone, still being so much inside myself about my hearing issues and unwilling to risk mistakes. I kept to myself and my morning task which was gathering and folding blankets that had been slept on the night before in the cavernous gymnasium of a Lutheran church.

The service today was in the same Lutheran church. I had never been in the church’s sanctuary before; its lobby was mid-century modern, angular with square-cut sofas and glass partition, the sanctuary was sweeping and majestic with all the light centering on the urn containing Shorty’s ashes and an array of red and white flowers. The pastor had already begun, his voice loud because he was using a mic, but mashed a bit for me, the words often lumpy and indistinct. I watched him hard with all my heart. I wanted to know what he was saying and be completely present in that moment.

Everything about the service would counter what you might think about people who have been homeless a long time. Her friends, homeless themselves, described Shorty as generous, kind, and stubborn, so stubborn, the most stubborn person I know, one said. And I remembered being told she had refused an offer of supportive housing because her dear friend couldn’t come with her. Those of us out here, in the housed world, probably think that’s crazy. I would have thought so a year ago. But I don’t anymore.

She loved her friends and didn’t want to leave them. And it was clear today that they had loved her; they’d created a family that was probably as strong and resilient as any family living on this block, this street, this town. They sure seemed to grieve as deeply as any of us might if our own kin died.

The memorial service was arranged by Street Angels, a group I work with and a group that knew Shorty well from years of interacting with her, bringing her meals and hand warmers, and spending time getting to know her. I envied them their knowledge of Shorty and her life but realized I’d cut myself out of knowing much about her because of my own stubbornness. Shorty was the second woman from the warming room to have died in this past year and I hadn’t let myself know either of them. I regret that.

I am glad that I went today. It’s a good thing for people who’ve lost someone they loved to turn around at a funeral and see people who cared enough to show up. I had nothing to offer but being physically present and listening. And I listened hard, as hard as I possibly could.

99 New: Say Hey Billy

I saw Billy tonight on homeless outreach. Billy and his friends pulled my older son from his burning car after an accident last year.

There were five of us on the Street Angels bus – two women: the driver (the organization’s co-founder) and me, along with three men, one of them my younger son (not the son who had the accident). It was unusual to have three men on the bus, it’s almost always all women, but it was fun and different. Non-stop talking and a fair amount of swearing.

We drive a 25-stop route through the city. We do a signal beep of the horn at most stops and people surface, gathering at the bus door for a hot meal, bag lunch, and socks. Sometimes, we have underwear, pants, sweatshirts, and coats to give out.

Tonight there were fewer people than usual but several of the notables were out and about including the man who comes to the bus from his encampment singing and smiling, rings on his fingers and a huge smile on his face. His camp is elaborate with a tent and a tarp lean-to, a barbecue grill with a tidy fire burning, various pieces of furniture arranged, and a clock hanging in a tree. The presence of the clock in the tree fascinated me and I tried to take a picture from my perch atop the bridge but it was too dark and the clock too small. On a tall pole outside his camp flies his American flag.

Other stops weren’t so cheery. A man who had fallen and had stitches over his eye, another lame from having been beaten with a pipe by a stranger, women bundled already for winter, needing hand warmers already, another man who has worn the same canvas jumpsuit the entire year. We pondered giving him the canvas overalls and jacket that were in the bus but, no, he would want a new jumpsuit if anything. He didn’t ask, he was fine with what he had. It was us who thought he needed a change. Judging. It’s the scourge of homeless outreach.

It was on our way back to home base that we caught sight of Billy. He was standing at an intersection panhandling. When I heard his name, I leaped up to greet him, reaching through the driver’s side window to hold his hand. I have seen him a couple of times since I met him the day of my son’s terrible accident and each time it feels like a reunion. He knows and I know and somehow it’s a bond.

It was my other son who was with us tonight on the bus and he sat watching me holding Billy’s hand through the window but I didn’t introduce him. There wasn’t time. The light changed and we had to get moving.