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.


Sometimes the blankets are warm from having been slept on just minutes before. This happens when someone gets up, gathers up his blankets in a bundle, and makes a beeline to the storage room. They seem to be saying, here’s my bed. I’m done with it. Take it. It feels strange receiving still-warm blankets, an action too intimate to occur between strangers but that is what we do.

Other times, the blankets are folded and stacked, cool as if displayed on a counter in a department store. Always the largest blanket is on the bottom and the smaller ones are centered atop, the corners aligned. Nothing haphazard for the people who fold their own blankets. Maybe it’s a message they want to send; we are more careful and thoughtful than we seem here.

Both the gatherers and the folders have spent the night sleeping on the floor of a cavernous gym in an old church, a place formally called a warming room. It is where homeless people can come to keep from freezing outside. The room is only open if the temperature falls below 10 degrees; this has already happened 23 times this winter. It’s been harsh.

There is only a thick blanket between each person’s tired back and the floor where sometimes children in Sunday School might play basketball. There are basketballs appearing now and then so that could be true though I’ve never seen it. I wish the people staying in the warming room could shed all their heavy clothes, their thick rubber-soled boots and layers of hoodies and put on t-shirts and basketball shorts and play pick-up games all night long. They can’t do that though. They need to spend the time they have inside sleeping. I wonder if they even remember having fun.

Along with my storeroom partner, I take the blankets from people’s arms and stack them along one wall of the storeroom. There is a science to this because blankets stacked too casually quickly become a pile and we don’t want that. We want order and symmetry; we want something to be tidy beyond 72 homeless people sleeping on the floor, their blankets all laid, by them, east to west.

Our town has about 1,500 people who are homeless on any given night. The authorities say that about 130 of them are unsheltered, people living on the street or in parks. Yet every morning that I go to the warming room to clean up, I see new people. I see new old people, new young people, new disabled people. Oh, some are the same, but many are new and I wonder where all these new people are coming from. They are all coming from someplace worse than a warming room, that’s for sure.

I don’t tend to them. I tend to the blankets. Other volunteers tend to other things like breakfast or mopping the floor. No one tells anyone else what to do and no one has a solution to why some people end up sleeping on a gym floor. No one is healing or praying except to themselves and that makes the room quieter than one would expect. People, all of us, are simply tending to ourselves the best way we can at the moment. A man carefully folds his blankets; I carefully stack them. And when all is done we lock the door and leave and wait for the temperature to drop again.


The Daily Post


Morning at the Warming Room

We had already folded and stacked most of the blankets and sleeping bags. A few people stayed sleeping on the floor, abandoned by their comrades who had already awakened, gathered their things, and moved to the other room where there was coffee and big boxes of donuts – chocolate and glazed.

I worked with a young woman with long dark hair. She was thin, slight, small, but muscular and fearless. She would heave heavy sleeping bags to the top of the stack, climb up blankets to rearrange the pile so it wouldn’t avalanche like it had days before. She seemed competent and sure and, for that, I thought she was a fine partner in this task we had, gathering blankets and sleeping bags from homeless people who had spent the night sleeping on the church gym floor.

We folded our arms and leaned against the door of the storeroom. We kept an eye on the few sleeping people, not wanting to hurry them but not wanting them to linger either. I asked her what she did when she wasn’t folding blankets and she told me she was an accountant. But then she told me she was a recovering person, 7 years. And that immediately changed our conversation.

I asked her what was the hardest thing about recovery. She looked at me long and hard and I wondered if I’d asked a wrong question. She was thinking. “Making the decision every day,” she said. I looked at her, puzzled, and she elaborated on her experience and how so much of it was still with her. When she said that, I could feel it coming off her, radiating, like she was making the decision that very moment.

She told me she volunteered as a recovery coach, helped people struggling with addiction to get themselves into treatment, but then she told me that wasn’t what she was doing at the warming room. She was just there to say hello, good morning, how are you, and fold people’s blankets and sleeping bags. I liked her for this because that was why I was there.

Then she told me about things she disagreed with as a recovering person, tiny things about how the warming room was run, but then she said that she welcomed the opportunity to be humble about her views, to meld with the whole, and that statement so resonated with me. I, too, welcomed the opportunity to be humble, but about different things, and to fold blankets and sleeping bags with no judgement.

I wanted to tell her things I would have no business telling a stranger. So I left to go gather up the small pieces of litter and empty water bottles and then to pull the heavy trash bag out of the garbage can next to the coffee table in the other room.

When I came back, she was stacking the last blankets and our work was almost done.