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.