Collaborate2011

Three encounters: number two – Melody Nixon

In Melody Nixon, nonfiction on July 26, 2011 at 10:25 pm

2.

He (it’s usually, most often, a he) is letting people enter the basement kitchen for their free dinner in groups of ten. When ten people have entered, he raises his hand like a caring cross-guard swinging a STOP sign out onto the road. Stop. The line stops. The gathered people stand patiently for their turn, and he makes chitchat. “Didn’t I see you at lunch?” he jokes. “Can’t get enough of our food huh?”

Sometimes he’s in the middle of letting ten people in when the chef shouts: “That’s it, buddy, hold them off!” His arm swings out like a stop sign again and he nods to the line: don’t worry. You’ll get fed. We are all in the same boat.

I’m in the kitchen, serving, and I try to get plates out as fast as the people are arriving but when there’s a big rush of them – or some mayo falls on the floor so we have to clean it up – it’s not possible to keep up. Scoop, splat, scoop, splat. He keeps chatting at the door until: Okay boss, let ’em in! Let ’em in!

Afterwards I stop to talk to him, Chev, after he and I and all the service staff and volunteers have been fed and it’s the clean-up phase of the evening. The lights are neon and they make the basement too bright. The plastic tiles are being mopped and the fold-away tables stacked in a corner. The next stage of shelter night-life is about to begin, with television, or worship, or prayer. Lights out at 9pm.

It turns out Chev is recently off the streets himself. I had taken him for a staff member but he is actually a resident at this shelter. Like the other long-term residents, he works and holds supervisory responsibilities. I ask how he ended up homeless and he begins his story like so many people I’ve talked to recently: “I made a lot of mistakes.” The downward spiral stories so often begin this way. Contrary to what I’ve been expecting, there’s no blaming of society, of the inequality, of the institutionalized discrimination. There’s not any talk about the fact that almost all of the homeless people you see or talk to or find in the shelters of the City are black or latino (85 – 90%, despite the fact each group makes up about 27% of the total population). He, and almost every other homeless person I have talked to, is black. I’ve talked to one latino homeless man, and one white homeless man. I’ve talked to about a dozen black homeless people. It’s a topic I really wish to explore. But there’s no talk of society, of inequality, of race. Perhaps, I think, when you’re just trying to survive, you can’t worry about the injustice of the situation. You can’t worry about fixing the bs of society. Leave the proclamations to the activists, and pray. Or maybe you don’t want to – can’t – talk about it with a white person.

“I was miscreant,” he says, simply. “I thought I knew what was right. I didn’t want anyone else telling me what to do. You know, I was the kind of person who, if someone said to me ‘hey boy, you better not do that’ I would do it anyway, just for the sake of it. I was a rebel. Drink, drugs. And I needed to learn. I needed to take a look at myself and say – actually, these are my choices. I have chosen this way of doing things. And I am the only one who can fix it.” I wonder if proclaiming responsibility is a necessary (prescribed) step in the recovery process. Not blaming others.

“Everything in life is a trial, at different times, you know?” he goes on. “And it’s the trials that we learn from. Interacting with people, with others – having relationships, you know – that’s never easy. Surviving – that’s never easy. But… there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.” He looks around the basement and I mistake his meaning. “So you’ve found that light then,” I say, but he looks confused. “I mean, here – you’ve found this place, you have shelter, that’s a light…” I taper off as he starts scowling. “No,” he says emphatically. “No,” he gestures around to the basement, the neon lights, to (I think) the earth “- this is the trial.”

*

One homeless man I met has an Ivy League education. Another, I discover, is far better-read than me, an avid reader of international literature and non-fiction. He turned down scholarships to graduate school. They both ended up on the streets. Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise, but it does. A thin line is chalked between us, and then sometimes rubbed out, when we talk.

 

 

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  1. Your stories are super fascinating!

  2. I wonder if dreams can find their way in when the only thing someone worries about is surviving… or maybe that’s why they survive.

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