Friday, late November. Morning shift. In comes an asthmatic wheezing woman with her face covered. She moves quickly to the back, out of the line of my sight.
She is followed by a familiar face, an older, Italian looking guy with a black beard who usually wears a leather jacket and looks like a cross between a biker and an existentialist poet. He is one of the not-quite-street-people, a member of the Hopian drug subculture: people who live at the Motels or in friends’ basements or garages or are actually homeless, who move around a lot and who all know each other.
Many of them give the impression of being on the hustle, even if they aren’t. This guy is polite and likable, soft-spoken and handsome. He seems less damaged than most. (I later found out from my wife that he tried to steal that leather jacket and she asked his “girlfriend” to pay for it. This is probably why he’s so polite now.)
He asks if I can help him with the woman. I don’t know at first if he means with money or just clothing. I assume the latter, and nod noncommittally. It’s raining outside and has been for days. We have been giving out rain ponchos to the homeless and the otherwise disenfranchised, but they are all gone.
The guy says the woman is sick and needs to get to the hospital. I can’t help him with that so I say nothing. He says something about how she needs dry clothes. I tell him she can take whatever she needs.
Another homeless guy comes in, with a backpack and a guitar. He is young, tall, and thin, with short black hair; probably autistic, awkward and unfriendly. He gives off an air of resentful helplessness, which is a really bad combination. He seems to think it is everyone else’s fault he is in need. Probably, he is just embarrassed to have to ask and always expecting to be rejected, but it comes out as surly entitlement. As a result, he tends to evoke just the sort of treatment he seems to be darkly expecting.
He wants to know if there’s a shelter anywhere. I tell him what I know, which isn’t much, about the new shelter just outside of town (a fifteen-minute walk at most). I am not even sure if it’s operational yet, so I ask another street person who has wandered in: a small, grey-stubbled, wiry guy who rides a bike and comes in often. This guy is less the drug-addicted hustler type and more the lonely, unshaven, not-quite-old-man type.
After seeing him for years, I still don’t know his name, so I say “Hey you!” to get his attention. He turns and I apologize and say, “I still don’t know your name.” He doesn’t offer it, so I ask him about the shelter. He tells the younger guy to go to community services and ask there.
The young surly guy leaves and then comes back a few minutes later, asking if we have a tent. We don’t. He stays a while and eventually selects three blankets and asks if he can have them. I tell him he can and he takes them and leaves. He doesn’t seem especially grateful.
At the thrift store, I have a front row seat to desolation row without actually being on it (though I have come close in the past). The wounded, the damaged, the desperate, the needy, the hungry, the lonely, the scheming, the conniving, the stoned, the deranged, the demented, the piteous, all show up here sooner or later, some asking for help, some not.
The wheezing woman is still wheezing in the back, meantime, talking to the poet-biker through wheezes. Another regular customer comes in: a middle-aged woman with pigtails and a high, squeaky voice with a slight lisp. She talks and dresses like a child, or a child’s doll; she is unreal, eerie, but also very sweet. She asks if everything is all right with the wheezing woman. I explain the situation, and she offers to give the woman a ride to the hospital.
I go back to talk to the two of them. The woman is hunched up next to a circular metal clothing rack, with no shoes on her feet, looking hunted and anxious. I recognize her now: a thin, wiry, dark-haired woman, somewhere around sixty, half-crazy at best. She comes in from time to time and babbles as she shops. She is about as damaged as a person can be and still be walking around.
The guy is trying to hand her a pair of sneakers that are obviously too big for her. I tell them about the ride. The doll-woman comes over and asks the wheezing woman if she is alright, moving closer as if to support her.
The wheezing woman snaps at her angrily to get out of “her space.” She seems to be on the verge of panic, and the doll-woman backs away obediently. I follow her back to the front, commiserating with her slightly. I grab a smaller pair of sneakers and hand them to the poet-biker, who has also followed me.
“These should fit better,” I say. He thanks me and takes them.
The doll lady buys a few picture frames and leaves, her kindness unwanted.
Another street guy, I didn’t recognize him at first, is looking through the men’s T-shirts. He asks me how much. I tell him $2 and he makes a sound. I think at first it is surprise at how cheap they are, because I don’t realize yet he is another of the desolate drug hustlers.
He brings a pair of socks to the counter and offers a nickel. I tell him not to worry but he gives me the nickel anyway. It is only once he’s left that I realize he hadn’t had money for the T-shirt. I consider going after him but decide against it. It’s hard to stay on the ball in this job.
As it happened, he came back in a while later, and I told him to take the T-shirt. He was grateful.
Before that happens, the crazy wheezing woman and her keeper leave. She is wearing her new sneakers, and he expresses thanks as they go out the door. The woman seems like maybe she doesn’t even know what has happened. She is in a world of her own, a world no one in their right mind ever wants to enter.
It goes on like this. No wonder we canonize a Mother Teresa. My mother always disliked Mother Teresa, and truth be told I did too. She seemed like an opportunist to me. Never trust a Saint.
The next day (Saturday), the young homeless guy came in again. He asked if we had a tent. I told him no, then added that we rarely get tents in. He found a large duvet that had just been donated and asked if he could have it. I had given him a duvet a couple of weeks back (we sell them for $10, or at least $5), and he had only just taken three blankets the day before. I knew he was sleeping outside—he’d been looking for a tarp yesterday—and that, after last night’s rain, the blankets were probably too wet for him to sleep in.
I told him he couldn’t keep taking bedding as soon as the previous stuff got wet, because there were other homeless people besides him and we didn’t have an endless supply. Besides which (I realized later), what was he doing with the wet blankets? Tossing them into the bush?
He tried to pressure me, somewhere between begging and insisting. He said this would be the last time and next time he’d pay. I told him it wasn’t about the money and that if he brought the three blankets back, he could exchange them for the duvet. He whined that he would have to walk all the way back to his spot to get them. “What, you’re too busy doing other things?” I might have asked; but I just repeated my terms.
While we were having this exchange, a schizophrenic young guy I know quite well by now came in and stood in front of the counter, with his straggly beard and clear bright calm eyes. I have heard that he used to be a perfectly sane marijuana dealer, before his brain got fried.
Now he alternates between calm coherence and violent ranting and railing on the street, at full lung capacity. Some days, he is too hoarse from shouting to do more than whisper, and then when he does it makes no sense at all. Today was one of those days. There is also, in my experience, a feeling of a latent threat to him. Despite the calm in his eyes, he seems like he could snap at any moment.
I tried to talk to him briefly but quickly realized he was having one of his non-cogent days. I was still trying to deal with the young homeless guy, so I had to ignore him for while. The young homeless guy left, disgruntled, and then stopped outside the entrance to complain to a roly-poly woman as she was coming in.
The roly-poly woman wanted me to give the surly young guy the duvet. I explained the situation to her, and she offered to buy it from me for $5. I reluctantly agreed, not without pointing out to her the problems with giving this guy bedding every time he asked—including where the bedding ended up. She said she would talk to him, gave me the money, and took the duvet.
The young surly guy came back in and began skulking around the shop again.
The crazy former marijuana dealer, meanwhile, was still trying to talk to me, and I had to lean in to hear him. What he said made no sense whatsoever, making it impossible to respond to, so I nodded thoughtfully as if mulling over his cryptic mutterings. The roly-poly woman asked about some green and pink moccasins behind the counter. I showed them to her. Ex weed-dealer guy asked me if there was “a second time for pink.” I told him I was sorry, but I really didn’t know what he meant.
He began to assume a more menacing tone then and said it was up to me if we talked or not—not quite that, since that is perfectly coherent, but something similar that I also couldn’t quite find a suitable response to. I told him I didn’t mind talking to him, but that he was being too cryptic for me and I couldn’t follow his chain of thought.
“You are like a crossword puzzle,” I said.
The roly-poly woman, realizing how scrambled he was, began saying something about his needing medical help. I ignored her and he did too. He became suddenly coherent then and in a perfectly normal way asked if he could have some money for a coffee. I told him no, and explained why.
He gave us $50 a while back, and we turned it into a tab so he could get change for coffee when he needed it. Even though his tab ran out some time back, he was in the habit of getting change when he asked for it.
He gazed at me with calmly menacing eyes and denied all knowledge of the $50 tab arrangement. He said it was someone else, and then reverted to a string of gnomic phrases. I assured him that was what I’d been told, and that his tab was all used up. He laughed and made another slightly incoherent, slightly menacing comment. At that point, to my relief, he left.
“Some days it’s harder to do my job than others,” I said.
I was addressing a middle-aged guy, standing in front of me who seemed like he might be simpatico. He was aimlessly waiting for the roly-poly woman. He didn’t respond, but the roly-poly woman laughed.
I realized later that the aimless man was blind, so he probably didn’t even know I was talking to him.