He calls me over. Wants to know if I work out. “‘Cause you sure got a nice shape.”
The breakfast St. Mary’s offers for those currently homeless is almost finished. He’s mopping up his grits. His friend on the other side of the table is interested in my answer to his question. The friend cranes his neck, surveying my shape to form his own opinion.
“I have metal hips,” I tell the questioner.
That sets him back.
“Uh hunh,” I say, doubling down. “Two metal hips.”
“Well, you sure don’t look like it,” he concedes and returns to his grits.
“You look younger today,” she says. She’s been talking the entire Door of Hope Writing Group session, this woman who heretofore I’ve only heard say five words in a row. Now she’s turned her streaming attention on me.
“I don’t know you that well, but I’ve seen you. And you look younger. You look younger today. It’s your jeans,” she adds, indicating the tattered jeans I’m so proud of having boro patched with my own two hands.
“Well, I thank you for that,” I say as her friend chimes in.
“My aunt does that,” he says. “She’s in her fifties and wears urban clothes. They look good on her. Better than on some people our age.”
I decide to wear these jeans forever.
Sometimes I see him at Wednesday morning church service. Sometimes at Caritas Village. Sometimes on Sundays at the main 11:00 church service. We see each other often enough, I know his name. He knows mine.
Today I see him at a funeral when I’m dressed in my best black suit. I wave. Call him by name. Finally, his face lights up.
“Hey, Ellen.” He gives me a hug, smiling big. “I didn’t recognize you. I’ve never seen you looking so good before.”
I take this as a compliment.
She’s studying my hair, a young girl at the shelter. I can’t remember if I washed it today. Maybe I did, but let it dry naturally? As I recall, the last time I looked in the mirror, I noted it might need some attention. A wayward tendril creeps into my eye.
“Your hair looks . . .”
“Like you belong at the beach,” she finishes, her face beaming.
“You remind me of the girl on that show.”
We talk for a bit about what girl on what show that might be.
“She’s a redhead too,” he says.
Hmmmm. We soon exhaust my list of redheaded actresses.
“She’s a cartoon,” he corrects me. A girl cartoon. With red hair. And a dragon.
A week or so later, he returns with the answer: Jane and the Dragon. I look up the cartoon show. She’s 12 years old. She found her life as a lady-in-waiting boring and, after a series of adventures, was allowed to train to be a knight instead. She’s funny. The dragon is her best friend. She’s known for her spunk. Did I mention she’s 12 years old?
“Yeah, yeah,” he says, and offers to loan me his taped collection of the show.
“You’d like her,” he says. “She’s cool too. Like you.”
It’s funny when people gush over my “working with the homeless.” Selfless, they say. Or such a good person. Or something else totally wrong.
I might’ve begun volunteering with those who live on the street because the durn Spirit told me to. Fair enough. But I keep at it not because I’m obedient or nice or selfless or a do-gooder or even because I feel this is what Jesus spent his life telling us to do. I volunteer for a very, very selfish reason.
I work with the homeless because those who are going through a period which for most of them is the most difficult time of their lives still find a way to cheer me up.
Think of that the next time you’re knee-deep in seventh-rung-of-hell cocktail party chatter. Go home. Look up your local homeless shelter. Go volunteer. Bet you’ll keep at it too.
Tags: "Writing Our Way Home: A Group Journey Out of Homelessness", book by homeless authors, Door of Hope Writing Group, homeless church service, homelessness, homelessness in Memphis, Jane and the Dragon, the homeless, volunteering at a homeless shelter, why volunteer, why work with the homeless, working with the homeless