Doug is my friend who travels around in his turtle (aka camper) with his wonderful border collie Kate. He sent me this today. It's the story of how he spent his Christmas in Portland, Oregon.
First I am sending this to you, not to have you think, hey Doug is a good guy, but to share my Christmas day experience with you. This is in the inner city, Portland, Oregon, but it could have been in Louisville, Tampa, San Diego. Away from the suburbs where you and I grew up. The people, I met today, may have known life in the burbs at one time, but not now. Of the men I saw today, many were my age, Vietnam vets. Some could have been in 41's war, a couple could have been in 43's war. In the meeting in the kitchen before dinner was served, Justin, the big fellow in the blue shirt told us. "Don't be surprised if someone cusses at you. Don't take it personally, they may be drunk, on drugs, you don't know, just don't let it get to you, smile and wish everyone a Merry Christmas". Justin asked if anyone would mind if he said a prayer, a short prayer, if that would be OK? We all held hands and he said a prayer for the people we were about to serve their Christmas meal. He asked God to bless the food, to look after these men and women" and at the end, "to watch over the group who had come to help today." Everyone responded "amen."
I arrived around noon and was told there was nothing to do for a couple of hours. I watched and listened, Closed my eyes a couple of time but mostly just observed. I had decided to volunteer on Christmas day but set out to find a location only a few days before the 25th. Several phone calls were made Monday morning, trying to find a shelter that would be serving a Christmas meal. Of the four I called, none were serving. One place gave me two other shelters to call. I decided the best approach would be to go there in person. I figured it would be harder to turn someone down in person, much easier to say no on the phone. The first shelter was in downtown Portland, next to the river. I parked across the street and walked past a group of men standing outside smoking cigarettes. Most of their personal belongings were in backpacks or black garbage bags. Inside I looked around and a fellow walked up to ask if he could help me. I asked about their need for volunteers; he said they had more than enough and while he appreciated my offer he just shook his head no. I was not needed.
We wished each other a Merry Christmas and I turned and left. I drove around and found the second shelter about a mile away. I walked in and sitting in a small cubicle were four men all in their thirties. Most in t-shirts and jeans. I was told the same thing, Thanks but we don't need more help. I just looked at this one guy and said "Jesus Christ, I really want to work", "I'll wash dishes, sweep, mop". I was not going to take no for an answer. That surprised the fellow, I guess most volunteers don't say things like that. "Be here at noon tomorrow, what's your name"? "Doug" I said, we shook hands and I left. I had gotten what I'd come for.
Justin asked if I could carve a turkey? "Sure, one of those things my father taught me when I was twelve". We all had jobs on the line. Everything was about ready. I could see Justin was looking, figuring. He said he had gotten enough for 75. We had a hundred. Justin said he needed a quick break and was going outside to smoke a "cancer stick". I made a remark about cigarettes and he turned and looked at me and said, "Cigarettes aren't bad, gave up heroin two years ago," he grinned. I shut up. An interesting man, probably in his late 30s, he'd been in that line outside the building a few years before. I asked him what he did when he wasn't running the kitchen. "Building a chopper" (motorcycle), he said his wife and daughter had been killed eighteen months ago, a head-on with a drunk. I shook my head "Motorcycles and working here keep me from going crazy."
Of the hundred or so homeless, only six or seven were women. When I was waiting to start my job a women came and sat at the table. I heard someone call her Mary. Mary had a sweet face but sad eyes, Bad dye job, red. Red was a popular color for the ladies today. She wore a parka, hiking boots and jeans. She asked someone if she could borrow their cell phone. We were sitting close enough that I could hear the conversation. She was calling her husband or boyfriend. She told him his brother had beating her up last night; she had 18 stitches in the back of her head and three in her knee when she had fallen down. The cops had come but the brother had told them she had a seizure and had fallen causing the injury. My take was she was bleeding pretty badly and he or someone call 911. After the ambulance had picked her up and taken her to the hospital, the brother trashed the tent where she was living and had thrown all her positions out in the rain. She told her husband/boyfriend the doctor had checked and the baby she was> carrying (pregnant) was OK. She was crying softly and asked when he was coming home. She then giggled, said she would be at the bus station to meet him, but not to look for a blond. "I dyed my hair red." I had a daisy stuck in a shirt pocket buttonhole, I gave it to her, she smiled said nothing just put it in her jacket pocket. These were but two of the hundred.
I'm sure there were a 98 more stories like Mary's and Justin's. Later when we were cleaning up, clearing off the tables, I noticed a very nice looking man, about 30 maybe 35, I asked him if he'd gotten enough to eat? He looked at me with cold eyes, but did not answer. I asked him a second time, again no response. I just wished him a Merry Christmas and moved to the next table. A man came up to me and said he had seen this fellow for two years now and he had never heard him speak to anyone.
There are times in all of our lives when we feel down, not loved, even forgotten. I have times like that, I think we all do, but I'm so lucky to be able to do and go as I choose. Guilty only volunteering once a year; yes I am. These people lead lives I/we know little or nothing about. Hopefully we never will be dealt a hand that has been handed to this segment of the population. As this Christmas day comes to a close, I hope you will take a minute and think about the men and women who live under bridges, in alleys, in boxes. I don't have an answer, I wish I did. I'm thankful for my friends, food and a nice camper where I can work, stay warm and get a peaceful nights sleep. Plus a sweet puppy to share my adventures.
Before I fall into bed...
1 day ago