Funny thing was I didn’t know who Mike was or that he was looking for us. Mike had been walking up the strand when he ran into us. When he found out that we were retreatants, he was so excited! He couldn’t believe that Mobile Loaves & Fishes hadn’t called to let him know we were coming.
Yes, he has a cell phone. Mike is an interesting fellow. He’s a thin Hispanic of average height with a brilliant smile that although missing a few teeth is as bright as the sun! He’s a day laborer whose parents live in a farming community close to town but too far to easily find day jobs. So he lives on the streets during warmer months and lives with his parents in the winter.
It was pretty obvious that Mike had plans that evening, but he dropped everything to spend time with us. He said he’d help us find a safe place to sleep that night. Snuffy however wasn’t ready for bed. He was eager for a cigarillo (mini cigar). A small group was going with Snuffy. The rest of us were about to head out with Mike.
Now this was a dilemma. Do I go with Snuffy downtown to learn the fine art scoring a cigarillo or go find a place to sleep? Then Mike said before we get ready for bed we need a lesson in the fine art of dumpster diving. Ok – with Mike I go!
We kept to the alleys as we made our way across town. I’ve lived here for a while, but from the alleys I had no clue where I was! Mike told us all about dumpsters. We learned the difference between trash dumpsters and recycling dumpsters. We were after recycling dumpsters, specifically cardboard recycling dumpsters. He explained that if you sleep on concrete without padding you could freeze. Now it wasn’t supposed to freeze that night but we did what he asked. We set up the most curious assembly line picking out useable pieces of cardboard and passing them down the line.
When we exhausted the supply, we carried our cardboard unto the street. To my surprise, we were right by the capitol. How on earth did we get here? He took us to a nearby church where we could find a safe place to sleep outside. By this time the shelters were full. But there’s safety in numbers so sleeping on the church steps was our best bet.
When we got to the church, all the stairs were full so he led us around the side to a cement ramp which leads up from the parking lot. We arranged our boxes two-by-two along the ramp and prepared to bed down for the night. One guy asked about the bathroom which caused Mike to smile again. He pointed to the parking garage across the way. He said just past the garage is a wood fence. Then with a serious expression on his face he said, “don’t hit the fence.” We all looked at each other.
When I laid down I was struck by the beauty of the sky that night. The stars were so clear in part because of the lunar eclipse. What a peaceful place in the heart of downtown! Then I looked down and I saw it – the top of the capitol dome. Light seemed to radiate from the gold-like dome. Then it hit me. Here I was sleeping on the street surrounded by homeless people and there not a stone’s throw away was the very symbol of power and wealth. The only thing separating me from there was an iron fence.
That night I had a restless sleep in part because of how chilly it got and in part because of the irony of my situation. Not a week ago I might have been the person who drove his car ignoring the homeless guy on the side of the road. A few years ago, I might have been the guy who could recite a litany of reasons why people were homeless and what they should do to get off the street – like I had a clue! And yet here I was walking in their shoes. To say I felt uneasy would be putting it mildly.
Despite how easy it had been for me to look away, to not make eye contact with the homeless, it was the homeless who made sure that I had a meal. Despite my checking to make sure my car doors were locked as I approached an intersection where a homeless guy was panhandling, it was the homeless who made sure I had a safe place to sleep that night. I did so very little for them, and yet they were doing so much for. Why would Mike drop his plans for the evening to help us out? Why should he care if whether we were warm or cold that night?
I felt like I was going nuts! I couldn’t wait for the morning! I couldn’t wait to get on the move. The sooner we packed up the sooner I’d be able to get some coffee and more importantly the sooner I’d be able to distract myself from my thoughts.
But the morning is another story!