Saturday, September 1, 2012

Gehenna (Part II)

Photo courtesy of Chips and Salsa Today blog

These are the things that haunt us.  There is a woman floating among the tables on the Catholic Worker patio.  Shrouded in white, clean, hair freshly washed, eyes vacant.  She is dream-like, hallucinatory.  Then it registers, across her chest, LAC+USC Hospital.  I realize she is wearing two gowns, one tied in the front, one tied in the back.  Barefoot.  On her wrist, the distinctive plastic bracelet.  She sits on the corner of a table, spine straight, dignified.  I know her story.  Homeless patients from the county hospital get dumped back on Skid Row, often without their possessions or any provisions for their self-treatment.

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“Water man!  I need water over here!”

The clients have taken their seats at the picnic tables on the patio.  The line still runs out to the street, and they cannot get enough water.  As I move quickly, table to table, the clients in the line also ask me for a cup and some water.  It is the heat, the humidity, and something else:  the food is spicy hot.  In an effort to create flavor in blandness, the cooks have loaded up on hot sauce and peppers.  There is also a cart manned by an attractive volunteer.  Clients stop by on their way to the tables to put more spicy condiments on their food.  They ask for spoonfuls ladled over their plates, or to fill paper cups.  There are tables set up nearby with bins of diced onions, jalapeno peppers, and the bell peppers I chopped.  They want taste, but the sauces and vegetables simply create heat, and then, no one can get enough water.  It is comic irony, but there is no time for a chuckle.

“Water man!  Hurry, I need water.  My mouth is on fire.”

I draw my pitcher from a barrel, and rush from one end of the patio to the other, filling paper cups.  “Sir, agua?” I ask one man.  “Ma’am, more water?”  When I call them sir or ma’am, it is as if I have given them a compliment.  They visibly straighten and smile, the lost look runs away from their faces, and they lock eyes with me.  Dignity becomes a tangible thing, all because of a sir or ma’am.

Several complain that the water from my pitcher is not cold enough.  I go back inside to the kitchen to find another water barrel; this one has been full of ice and water for longer, so it’s colder.  I scoop up a pitcher and make for the patio.  On my way out, I notice that many people in line for food have containers and jars.  Once they have a full plate, they ask the server to fill their plastic containers for later.  One man has only a vegetable bag from the supermarket.  “I’m afraid it will melt,” the server tells him.

“Please, please, fill it.”

She ladles the tuna noodles into the bag.  The man twists and ties a knot.  The bag holds for now.

Back out on the patio, I continue to move quickly to fill the outstretched cups.  At the back and center of the dining area is a fountain.  In this oasis of food and comfort, the fountain offers a Zen-like peace.  A woman crouches at the very edge, rocking gently back and forth on her heels.  She is humming to herself, but I cannot make out the tune.  It sounds like a lullaby.  “Ma’am, would you like some water?” I ask her.  She visibly shrinks from my words and from me, waving her hand frantically in the air.  I move on and leave her alone.

“Hey, hey, man,” a toothless Latino stops me.

“Would you like water?”

“No water.  Listen, man, could you help me.  I’ll work for it, I’ll do whatever you need.  I have to get a bus ticket home.  You know, it’s like ten or fifteen bucks, and I ain’t got it.  But I’ll work for it, I promise.  Do you know someone who can help me?  I need to get back home to Santa Maria.  It’s up north.”

“I’ll get you some help,” I offer, and go to find one of the workers.  When I return, he tells the woman the same story, but she cannot give him fifteen dollars.  They do not just hand out money to people.  The man becomes a little more edgy and insistent.

“Look, I just need to get home.  Can’t you help me?”  Then another thought strikes him.  “Listen, can I use the phone?  I can call someone to wire me the money.”

Another diner nearby, a man wearing several coats in the heat and humidity, perks up.  “Here, man, use mine.”  He holds out a cell phone.  Homeless people with cell phones?  When I pass by them later, the bus ticket guy is talking urgently into the cell phone, pleading for help.

“Ma’am, some water?” I ask a chubby, middle-aged woman with a cherubic face.

“Oh, dearie, you must be new here.”  I nod breathlessly and catch the corner of the table for balance.  “And you don’t look so good.”

I fill her cup while pondering her English accent.  “I’m fine,” I tell her.

“Where am I?”

I notice she is very clean and her nails are painted.  “You’re at the Catholic Worker.”

“Oh, they are so nice.  That’s the place started by Dorothy Day.  When did she die?”

All I have learned and read runs away from my dehydrated brain.  “I think in the 1960s.”

I go to the barrel to swoosh up another pitcher of ice water.  Jeff Dietrich, the leader of Catholic Worker L.A., stands nearby supervising the patio.  I ask him when Dorothy Day died, and he snorts out a reply:  1980.

As I continue to move among the clients, a low-hanging branch rips off my hair net along with a chunk of hair.  Oh well.  My Saran-Wrap gloves are also in tatters.  I strip them off and drop them into a trash can.  I am no longer handling food, so I don’t think I need them.  My hands welcome the chance to breathe, but they still feel slimy from the thin plastic sheeting.  A man calls out to me for water.  I come up behind him to fill his glass, but I involuntarily recoil.  His hair is alive with lice.  I am suddenly reminded that the people behind the empty cups are in dire shape.  Many have needle tracks up and down their bare arms.  There are skin infections and sores.  There are casts and splints.  And there are bugs—flies, worms, lice, and other creepy-crawly things.

A face looms in front of me.  “Hey, I don’t want to bust your balls,” the man says, but you need gloves.”  He is a volunteer, and his words don’t fully register.  “Some of the people are complaining.  I just thought you should know.  Go get gloves.”  I do as I am told.

I come to a table in a corner of the patio where the men glower at each other and eat in silence.  One man, white and middle-aged, has a store-bought water bottle that he wants me to fill.  As I am pouring in the water, he sneezes into his hand.  “Bless you,” I say automatically.

“Hey, don’t blow your nose while I’m eating, you dirty sonofabitch!” one of the other guys says.  I take a step back.

“I’m not a dirty sonofabitch, but you’re an asshole.”

The complainer stands up, and for a second, I see a fight coming and I am between them.  “Fuck you,” says the sneezer.

Thankfully, the complainer moves to another table.  I turn to see Jeff Dietrich standing nearby, watching intently.  Is he watching my reaction, or is he anticipating trouble?  And with his small stature and bad knee, what would he be prepared to do?  The trouble, this time, dissipates.

In one corner of the patio, the homeless get to leave their carts while they eat.  The area is blocked off and secure.  This is also where Catholic Worker people issue carts to those who do not have them.  It is a major problem on the street when the cops bust the homeless for “stealing carts” from local businesses.  The homeless lose their possessions when their carts are impounded, and they have no way to move around Skid Row.  The Catholic Worker started a program where they buy carts and issue them to the homeless, clearly marking them so that the cops know to leave them alone.  This is one problem of which I am completely ignorant.  Who knew that a shopping cart might be considered property worth the risk of injury or death, but on Skid Row everything is in the shopping cart.  Therefore, the homeless are simply fighting to protect their last possessions, the things absolutely necessary for survival.

The line is still long, and the diners have changed over several times.  Each table brings new faces, and the demand for water is unceasing.  There are clients with the thousand yard stare, as if they have been in the war zone too long.  There are the normal conversations that one might hear in a restaurant.  Three men are discussing the Lakers with a worker, the ins and outs of recent trades and the team’s chances of winning another championship.  A woman face down on the table suddenly raises her head and calls out for water.  She is black, but her face is coated in what appears to be white paint.  I study her complexion as I fill her glass.  I cannot tell why her face is painted this way.  There are no marks or sores, so the white is definitely not a cream or ointment.  I pass another table where two women are reading the Bible.  As I fill glasses, I realize one of the Bible students is a man in drag.  He is wearing a miniskirt and a low-cut top.  A construction worker carrying a heaping plate of food exits from the line and leaves the patio.  Should a man with a job be allowed to get free food?  He returns several times for more, but no one from the Catholic Worker seems to notice.  There are Hispanic gang bangers lining up as well, with pressed white tee shirts and clean shorts and socks.  Do they qualify as poor and indigent?  Two black guys in suits come through, rings on nearly every finger and big gold medallions around their necks.  Not exactly my view of a person in poverty, but several workers know them.  “I love you all,” one of the black men calls out to the kitchen staff as he exits.

As the diners dwindle, my final job for the day is to dry dishes.  At this point, my legs are rubber and the bustle of activity has taken on a hallucinatory haze.  Spots and shadows cloud my vision, and my tongue feels swollen in my mouth.  I am in no shape for this work, and I hope my condition has gone unnoticed.  But in the middle of drying the dishes, Mike calls me over and dismisses me for the day.  I am the first one to be let go from the volunteers, and I cannot help but think that it is because of my lack of physical stamina.

Before I leave, I take a last look around.  The dining patio is still full.  Some of the homeless have taken the opportunity to sleep on the tables and benches.  Patients still wait at the health clinic.  I wonder what will ultimately happen to these people.  It is good work to feed them three times a week, to try to give them medical attention, to provide them with carts and clothing, but those are immediate needs.  Will they ever escape the street?  Jeff Dietrich and his workers have been doing this for forty years now, and I am sure the line at the gate is just as long today as it was in the 1970s.  The faces change, but the problems remain.

Out on the street, I walk to my car, careful not to step on the bodies already staking out their places on the sidewalk.  The noon sun burns hot.  Across the street, a dog savagely attacks the fence as a homeless man passes.  Near my car, a dead tree offers two men scant shade to lounge on their sleeping bags.  One rolls around laughing, holding a blunt in his hand.  “Hey, dude,” he calls to me.  “Do you know how to sing Hakuna Matata?”  He laughs at his own question.  Aside from the obvious Lion King reference, I find it ironic that the title is Swahili for “There are no worries.”

I wave to the men, get in my car and head for home, full of questions and deeply disturbed.

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