Monday, June 11, 2012

Taco Night

Challenge no. 8 was to spend the night in a women's shelter. I have to be honest, this one scared me a bit. Not because I'd have to spend the night in a women's shelter, but because I'd be exposed to a world that I usually try to avoid. Obviously I'm going to keep the name and the location of the shelter private, but I will say that it was a church-based facility and in Manhattan. I was one of two overnight volunteers for this particular shelter.

I arrived at 7:30 p.m. just as all of the "guests" were arriving. Some went straight to the food. It was taco night. Some grabbed their cots and rolled them to their desired area of the large room. Some were talkative. Others kept to themselves. Some stared at me. Others pretended I wasn't even there.

Like I mentioned in my teaser post (check it out to see a few pictures), I sat and talked with some of the women. The whole evening took on an oddly narrative form. I felt like I was in a movie, hearing scripted dialogue and learning more and more about each of the characters as the night went on:
A large woman sporting short hair, thin-rimmed glasses and a Walkman enters the room. When she speaks, asking for a cup of salt, I hear a deep, soulful voice. She's had a tooth pulled today. But don't worry -- she has a high pain tolerance. Tracy is the veteran of the group. She knows the ins and outs of the shelter, when to talk and when to keep her mouth shut. She simply shakes her head when another woman threatens to make a scene after failing to bum a cigarette outside. Sitting around the dining table, Tracy stares at a pineapple chunk for a few seconds before going for the creamed spinach instead. She is listening to the basketball game on her headphones.

Her hair is wrapped in a white scarf, piled high on her head. She's thirty-eight but I would have guessed twenty-five. She is the most talkative at dinner, eating fast and smiling wide. The plantains are her favorite. Kenya's mother was a twin. Kenya looks more like her aunt. Her mother was a doll maker, and her twin sister made the doll clothes. She learned how to crochet from her aunt. Tonight she crochets a red, pink and white blanket with a geometric pattern. I tell her it is beautiful, and it really is. I make a mental note to buy her some purple yarn. It's her favorite color.

A tall woman with curly white hair introduces herself as Olga, of Native American and African American descent. Before dinner, when everyone is setting up their cots, she teaches me how to tie my sheets under my cot so that bugs won't crawl up them in the night. I find this extremely helpful as I prefer my sleep to be bug-free. Olga believes that when you sleep somewhere, you leave a little bit of your soul. She lingers at the dining table with me and tells me a story: In the 1970s, when she was in her twenties, she traveled to a place called Cumming, Georgia. I have not told her where I am from. She had to hide in the backseat of the car and scurry indoors and face dirty looks and dirtier language. I do not think it's a coincidence that I ended up at this shelter with this woman hearing this story.
Lights out at 10:00. I sleep on a cot among all of the other guests. I hear the air conditioning and the hum of the refrigerator in the kitchen and the distant sound of the basketball game on Tracy's headphones across the room. As my eyes adjust I see various traps around my cot, not knowing what exactly they are intended to catch. It smells musty and muggy and unfamiliar. I'm not sure when I finally fell asleep, probably around 1:00 a.m. Before I knew it, it was time to get up. At 5:30 a.m.

By 6:15 a.m. everyone had grabbed something to eat and started to leave. The other volunteer and I put the cots away. We put the dirty linens in a large bag. We put the coffee maker back in the kitchen. And then I went home.

Home. Where I can go anytime. Where I can shower and choose what to wear and cuddle with my dog and watch TV. Where I can order food or cook food or throw a party or do yoga. Where I can live.

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