by Snow Lake
Just another night in the homeless shelter
|The awkwardly spread blades of the ceiling fan rotate pointlessly, stirring the stale air of the small office. It is both cold and stuffy – the most unpleasant combination. My body becomes intimately familiar with the little love seat, its uncomfortable surfaces and unaccommodating curves. It is way too short for my long body, and if I try to take a nap, I invariably end up in a fetus position, with the neck twisted to one side. The dull blue color of the coarse fabric smartly conceals the dust, the stains, and the undreamed dreams of overnight staff’s sleepless nights.
I check in with my other senses. Vision is the one least engaged. I try to keep my tired eyes shut. Sometimes, weird little flashes of light penetrate the curtain of the half-closed lashes. These must be the reflections on the walls thrown by the bizarre tri-dimensional flower performing its Brownian motion on the screen of the computer that purrs like a kitten crouching in the corner.
The feeble complaints of the PC are overpowered by the even buzz of the refrigerator full of antidepressants – most of the residents in this shelter are on the prescription medications. Worst of all, although it is three in the morning, the TV is still on in the living room, making distasteful inconsequential noise.
Today is a lucky day – the shelter ran out of powder laundry soap! Usually a huge tub of this disgusting stuff is placed near the door, to enable counselors distribute the cleaning substance to the clients, while the toxic pungent smells permeate the office. But, fortunately, we are out of the vile chemical, and, this night, my olfaction may relax.
There is really nothing to say about taste – I am hungry, as always in the middle of a sleepless night, and there is nothing to do about it. Although there are always leftovers in the kitchen, and people are cooking something throughout the night, it just does not feel right to eat at this hour. I will have to wait until five, when I can finally make a pot of coffee. Not that anybody prevents me from making it earlier – but five is morning, and the other day, and now it is still night.
Anyway, there is no time to relax on the short love seat, or to think about my aching senses. It is still night, and all the trials and tribulations of humankind are pouring into my little office. As a crisis call counselor and overnight advocate I seem to be responsible for all the injustices and pains of my fellow-human beings.
X X X
Suddenly the alarm starts to beep. I don’t trust it. Something is out of order in this little machine. Still, I have to check it out. The display directs me to check the playroom window. I slowly shuffle their, stepping over toys and picture book. The window seems to be OK. I peep through the blinds, and find myself looking into a men’s eyes. He is just as startled as I am, maybe more. A young guy, slightly built, with traces of acne – who said that batterers are supposed to be big and intimidating? He retreats to his car. In the light of a street lamp I managed to notice the license plate. As he hastily drives off, I return to the office contemplating whether to call the police now, or leave it until the morning.
The telephone rings. I pick up the receiver.
“Crisis line – how can I help you?”
I hear her breath on the line. She calls every night at this hour. She was a resident a couple of months ago. We heard that her newborn baby died, presumably as a result of abuse she suffered during pregnancy. She needs mental help – but she has not insurance. Not even Medicaid, because she is homeless.
“Hello, who is there?”
Finally she answers, hesitantly, almost inaudibly: “I don’t think I want to talk to you. I need to talk to Betty.”
Betty never works nights, as she knows it, but she only calls at this hour.
“Betty is not here, but I would be glad to talk to you. Are you safe right now?”
Yes, she says, she is safe, but could she please talk to Betty?
Usually we carry on this conversation for at least half an hour, but this is not going to happen today.
I hear a piercing scream from the second floor, which makes me drop the receiver. With my heart sinking, I grab the “Scout” phone and run upstairs.
A Latina woman, whose name I don’t know, stands at the doorway to the common bathroom, and pointing her shaking hand yells something in Spanish.
I glance inside. The first thing that comes to my mind is: who allowed children to play with paint in the bathtub? Then I realize it id blood. Then I see him – her – this person.
I saw her about the shelter a few times, but never had a chance to talk. Her name is Chris – Christa – she is a male to female – she is a woman, of course, otherwise she would not be here in the battered women shelter.
But how can there be so much blood in a person’s body? I look at Christa’s lifeless hand with slashed wrists, her long blond hair floating in the water now has a pinkish hue. I notice a new stubble on her cheeks.
My senses must be all muddled – I hear patter of little feet, and from the corner of my eye notice a couple of toddlers, naked but for the pull-ups, with shrieks of merriment running down the corridor. Am I in the middle of some surrealistic horror movie, or just doing my $12 an hour relief counselor job?
For some reason, the site of the kids brings me back to life. I even recall some of my limited Spanish. “Tus niños! Allí!”
I send the mother after her children and look at Christa. He face is white, but she opens her eyes and looks at me with a mixture of defiance and relief.
“That’s OK, sweetheart, that’s OK. All will be fine,” – I murmur, looking for something – anything – clean to press to the wound. At the same time I push the automatic dial button on the “Scout.” The paramedics are frequent guests in this house, and there number is programmed in every phone.
I cast a quick glance around to make sure that the blade, or whatever she used to cut her wrists, is not anywhere within her reach, then thrust a roll of paper towels on her wound.
“Here, hold on to this,” – and tumble down the stairs to open the door to the paramedics.
As soon as they are gone with Christa, I rush back upstairs with two bottles of milk. The terrified mother holds one of her kids, I hold another, while we rock them to sleep.
“C’est bien, tout sera bien,” – by now my Spanish is all gone, but French seems quite appropriate under the circumstances.
In 20 minutes all the three of them are miraculously asleep. I look at the watch – it is five. Time to make that pot of coffee!
X X X
Downstairs, first of all I tiptoe into the living rooms. Both of the late TV – watchers are fast asleep on the couches. I turn off the TV – what a bliss!
First rays of summer sun penetrate through the blinds, a reminder of bright happy life that exists out there.
While the coffee is percolating, I make and inspection of a large box of old Starbucks goodies donated every week, and finally choose a cranberry scone.
My breakfast in hands, I return to the office. The next hour is usually the most quiet in the shelter. Before the change over I will have plenty of time to complete clients’ records and get ready for my daytime job.