Saturday, June 24, 2006

like mustard without beef

I work at a shelter once a month. It's a no camera zone which are becoming increasingly rare in my life as I grab shots in the oddest of places (random sidewalks, the bathroom at Bloomingdales, Chicagoland tollways).

I work the sign-in table with my darlin' companion. Our job is to greet the guests and capture from their ID cards (the organization that runs the place hands them out) their name, birth date, gender and race on the sign-in sheet.

We also note whether they're there for dinner only or overnight; would they like a bag lunch in the morning; how about an early wake up call?

It's lights on at 6AM at the shelter, so an early wake up means 5.30, 5, 4.30AM.

A lot of them take the early call. A lot of them are working.

When I was working a job that was getting me down in a huge way, my monthly shift had a knack for hitting just when my tolerance had reached the limit. I was ready to walk -- just walk, because of all the bullshit around me -- and then I'd sit down and sign folks in -- old men, young men, women, women with their children. And by the end of the night I'd know with confidence that I didn't have it so bad.

Signing folks in gives me a chance to say hello and make eye contact with folks who spend a lot of their day invisible. I like that.

But there's also an emotion that attends that sign-in period that I've had a hard time defining. I try to stay friendly and warm during that hour, but not too perky, ‘cause these folks especially can smell phony a mile away. Lot of the faces have become familiar friends -- we'll chat some more during the evening ahead -- so the welcome is genuine, but it's always hard.

None of them would be there if they had another choice. There's always a little bit of embarrassment. It's my job to make that shame invisible – and to see them without it. As the hour passes by something strong wells up in my chest: card after card passes in front of me -- this guy has the same birthday as my younger brother; these kids will be heading out to their high school in the morning, where no one knows where they spent the night; this woman is probably a grandmother: does her daughter know she’s here?

It's not pity that I feel -- I made a pact with myself a while back to banish that emotion because it has none of the heft or empathy of compassion -- but the feeling that comes is still a feeling that's hard to handle.

I decided to blog about it a little when I rec'd a spam email this morning -- I opened the message (subject line: NEW’n’HOT Get the Recognition You Deserve!) to see if it had a #*@*! opt-out option, and I found this in the footer, along with some other inchoate ramblings:

Sympathy without relief is like mustard without beef.

The sign-in shift is kinda like that: Stirs up a fire in the gullet, with nothing to cool it down.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

the tao of spam. who knew?

;-) db

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