Author’s Note: Homeless shelters are a terrible symptom of our country’s broken housing and mental health system. Homeless shelters give shelter workers God-like power over people’s lives. We are a flawed species, and it should be no surprise that when placed in a confined space and put under a great deal of pressure, terrible things happen. In shelters, I have seen the best of human behavior, but more often I have seen the worst. This is part three in a series of memories from an emergency family shelter I worked at in Portland Oregon. Click here for part four.
“Let us toast to animal pleasures, to escapism, to rain on the roof and instant coffee, to unemployment insurance and library cards, to absinthe and good-hearted landlords, to music and warm bodies and contraceptives… and to the ‘good life,’ whatever it is and wherever it happens to be.”
— Hunter S. Thompson
I had arranged to work doubles the week of Christmas and New Year. I had learned years before the shelter was the place to ride out the cruel sentimentality of the season; shocked, exhausted, and terrified people made for a good temporary family.
Christmas some years prior was when I lost my son and career and spent time in a shelter myself. Christmas was a time of the self-imposed exile to protect society from my morose scrooge-like attitudes. The shelter was half empty as temporary holiday couch surfing arrangements had been made for many folks. That didn’t stop the volunteers and other shelter workers from having elaborate breakdowns in the reception area when people didn’t appreciate all they had done. Needless to say, I spent nearly the entire holiday hiding, smoking in the parking lot with the folks who couldn’t stand the shelter.
As Mike rambled on about his childhood, I thought about my own. The two narratives combined into a white noise of self-pity, a sort of back-of-the-brain hum akin to the sound of the gin actively pickling your cerebellum. A car drove slowly by, throbbing bass. It was Christmas, and we couldn’t help but dance; indeed, if we stopped moving our feet, they’d freeze in the snow. So in place, we trotted, drank and whined, and smoked.
Ron and Janet shambled up joined at the hip like one strange ancient piece of machinery, their cigarettes tiny exhaust pipes.
They seemed to face some nonexistent fire as the snow and rain accumulated on their hoodies. They were in good spirits and loved to bitch. It was bitching season.
“The one, the ballet dancer, she’s gonna get it. She thinks she holds the keys to the prison. I don’t understand if you hate people so much, why do you work with them,” Ron said.
I noted the wristband from an ER visit on Ron. “Did you go to the ER?”
“I went in because my feet are swollen, my heart is racing, and the mother fuckers said to come back if I was getting lightheaded. Well, I did what they said, and I get back there, and the mother fuckers tell me to quit smoking. Is that what they get paid all that money for?
“Fuck, can I open a little shop and bill the fuck out of people to tell them to stop smoking? Someone comes in with a gunshot wound, and I act like a prick and tell them to quit smoking. I could be dead right now, but those pricks at the ER wouldn’t care. They think they are saving lives by deciding who gets medical attention and who gets a cute little lecture on smoking. I hate it, hate it when people exploit technicalities to be judgmental,”
Ron testified with impressive clarity, his grammar guided by rage.
“Shit,” continued Janet. “Remember last Christmas? You had a heart infection, and they wouldn’t treat you? What did you do?”
She turned to face me now. Both of their moods were becoming euphoric, either affected by the righteousness of their stance or influenced by some other agent.
“Ron gets in a fight with an ER nurse because he was sick last year, too… We storm out, we go back on the hill, but he goes to sleep. For two days or some shit, I don’t know. It’s raining, and mud is pouring down the hill.”
“Yeah, two days. Janet, it was four days. You left me,” Ron said.
“I’m not going to watch you sleep for four days. I got shit to do,” Janet replied.
“You left me,” Ron said.
“So, he says I’m not feeling well, screams he can’t breathe. Nothing is working, and the hospital is worthless. That’s a weird fucking feeling when the hospital won’t see you. It’s like you are in outer space or some shit. Courtney is this junkie in the next tent, and Ron tells me to get Courtney’s big syringe. What? Ok, I get it. No sooner do I hand it to Ron than he pushes that thing into his own chest. He then sucks out some fluid and then relaxes. I was like … fuck.”
“Fluid around the heart. I was in a ton of pain. When they showed me that EKG, I took some mental notes, you know. I felt so much fucking better, though. I shoulda told myself to quit smoking and sent myself a million-dollar doctors bill, eh eh eh eh,” Ron lit another one.
Back inside, over the sound of Janet and Ron swearing at each other, the Ballet dancer pointed out a sign she had printed about the length of smoking breaks. She didn’t say we had exceeded her newly imposed time limit. However, the implication was clear.
I was eight hours into a sixteen-hour shift and had tuned her out, waiting for her to leave. She droned on something about getting her husband a Virtual Reality headset, and I mused how he would appreciate the escape from her.