(this is one person’s story that I wrote as a monologue in April 2016)
Setting: a monologue by a 40ish year old woman, although gender could be easily changed, who walks out to center stage carrying a two-inch thick notebook. She sits on a bar stool, getting up and strolling around several times.
I currently volunteer as a doorkeeper at a local soup kitchen once a week. My job is to welcome the guests coming for dinner, to turn away people who have been banned, and to discourage any problems in the parking lot. I’ve been volunteering at homeless shelters, women centers, and foster homes since I was in graduate school about 12 years ago. I’m now a sociology professor. I like college kids and publishing stuff but when I serve the homeless and the needy is when I feel most alive—like I am doing what I am supposed to be doing—what we ALL are supposed to be doing.
I remember when I first committed myself to serving the poor. Back in grad school I was looking for a master thesis’ topic. My advisor wanted me to expand a paper I had written on a critique of behaviorism in social science but I wanted to write “a postmodern critique of TV crime shows” because I had watched a lot of LAW AND ORDER, CSI and BONES. He wasn’t going for that so I was kind of stuck for a topic.
After one of our frustrating meetings I was walking down High Street when a homeless woman asked me for spare change. I looked at her but declined and walked on. After I few minutes I thought “I should have given her a dollar.” For some reason, I turned around and went back and asked “you want to get a sandwich with me?” She said “Sure, I haven’t eaten today.” We walked a few steps and went in a local sub shop. I told her she could get any sandwich she wanted but that I usually ordered a turkey on wheat. She said “I’ll get that too.” I asked if she wanted anything to drink and she asked “what do you drink?” I told I just got water and she said “I’ll have that, too.” We never exchanged names but I have taken to calling her Tina.
We sat inside and talked about the day. I asked where she was from, what she will do if it rains, and if she goes to the women’s shelter. She answered all my questions in a few sentences. After a while I noticed a local newspaper laying on the chair next to mine and the headlines read “Council to Ban Panhandling.” I acted like the paper was mine, folded it and took it with us when we left. We exchanged “have a nice day” and went our separate ways. I went straight to the campus library, sat down, and read the article on the proposed ordinance. It must have mentioned the words “criminalizing the homeless.” I immediately did an internet search and found thousands of articles on local regulations in other cities prohibiting soup kitchens, replacing street benches with ones that had a divider, and closing parks to eliminate places where homeless gather. Right then and there I decided “yes, that’s it. I will do my MA thesis on “criminalization of the homeless.”
As part of my research, I volunteered at a shelter and I have continued serving the poor wherever my academic career took me. Here is my Master’s thesis—about criminalization of the homeless. I remember that sunny day talking with that women in the sub shop back in graduate school when I decided it was okay to study poverty but only if I really tried to understand it. Here, look, I included Tina in the acknowledgements. (shows a few pages in her thesis).
For some reason, I never talk about it with my colleagues and only mentioned serving the poor a few times in my classes. I give lectures on the causes of poverty, the deserving versus the undeserving poor, work disincentives, drug addiction—all that stuff. Students don’t understand. I doubt most of my colleagues understand.
The last few years I’ve worked at soup kitchen. After a few months I knew most of the guys and women who come regularly. I always smile and hold the door for them, call them by name. Usually they return the courtesy. Some know my name, some call me ma’am, only a few ever say “good evening, honey” or “how’s your day, babe?” Occasionally, at least two-three times a night, I will have a longer conversation with one of them. Maybe it will be about a broken leg, or how to find a sleeping room, or about getting the bus across down.
(A slight pause. Tone because more personal, and then more intense, growing to anger).
I’ll tell you about one night a few months ago that I can’t forget. Maybe I don’t want to forget it. You know how every organization has to have rules? The soup kitchen has rules about opening and closing time, not allowing in people who have been banned—things like that.
It was a rainy late afternoon, not that cold but a spring storm was blowing in and the temperature was dropping rapidly—maybe 70 degrees when we started but probably under 50 at closing time.
We are supposed to open the doors at 4:45 but by 4:15 at least 20 guys were huddled near the door, under the small overhang but they were getting drenched anyway. I let them in early and told them there couldn’t be any trouble and that it was 45 minutes until dinner would be served. I just prayed everything would be cool. I kept one eye on the door, one eye on the dining area—and tried to stay calm and peaceful.
Right at 5:00 when the serving line just started moving, a young woman Megan shows up at the door. I knew Megan was banned—she had a habit of creating a disturbance almost everywhere she has been. Sometimes it is about borrowing a cellphone, or bumming cigarettes or sometimes about what sounds like lining up a drug deal. You could tell she was once a pretty girl but now her hair was matted, her teeth were black, she was dirty—and tonight she was soaking wet. I opened the door and she said that the director said she could eat there. I knew that was not true. I said “Megan, give me a couple minutes.” I walked a lap around the dining area so I could think and went back and said “Megan, you can come in, but absolutely no trouble. I will keep an eye on you” My stomach became more tense, I squeezed my fists and thought “Oh, Megan, I want this to work so badly—please just sit down and eat your dinner.” I know that by now, Megan doesn’t even remember how to just sit down and just eat her dinner.
(stands next to the stool)
Several times, I left the door area—which I am not really supposed to do—to watch the dining area, there were lots of conversations, some guys were trying to dry off their packs, a few had small towels, some were wringing out their shirts over a trash can. I appreciated hearing laughing and thought it was good for about 100 homeless folks, street people we used to call them, to gather together. Because of the rain, of course, more people came for dinner, and they stayed longer. The place was packed. There were several outburst—two that seemed rather serious. I sat down next to one of the arguments—it seemed to be about using the new synthetic drug—between a man and a woman. The woman told me several times rather nicely “don’t worry about us. He knows he is wrong, he won’t do nothing.” I put my trust in her. After a while it cooled down and peace reappeared.
At closing time, it was pouring. I had found a few plastic bags that I handed out when they were leaving but they were too small and too few. Several groups got into cars, some duos and trios were bunched under umbrellas, most were now walking with soaking feet. It would be a cold night. I felt mad and frustrated that there was nothing more I could do. My fists and stomach were tight. So many people volunteer, try to serve the poor, but it is hard to see men and women wet and cold.
Megan and about six guys were bunched near the door. After a few minutes some bickering sprang up—I swear you never know why or where this will happen. I opened the door and said in my school teacher voice “Hey, it’s fine to hang around here because of the rain but there can be no trouble.” I know I was pleading.
To my surprise Megan replied, “She is right, she is a good woman, she deserves our respect.” I mouthed “Oh, thank you, thank you.” I almost collapsed in relief.
A few minutes later, they dispersed. I checked the bathrooms, the back hallway, turned out the lights, locked the door, and got in my car. I realized I was dry from the rain. I thought about breaking the rules for Megan. I cried. I could feel my face and my neck and shoulders relax. I was beat. I knew I would be back next week.
(She gathers her notebook from the stool and exits).