Degage at night is a different place.
Only the women's shelter is open, and all the homeless men who would be inside during the day are out on the sidewalks. Loud arguments are going on. There's singing. People I talked with in the morning are drunk or high this time of night.
Last week I met with Shellie, the director of The Open Door, and talked with the women who stay there about doing theatre games at night. When do we start? they asked. After having had trouble convincing folks in the morning to join me during my sessions, this enthusiasm was welcomed. I eagerly planned out which games I'd do with these women.
Monday night is "meeting." Sometimes there's a speaker; this week, there was me. No one can take showers during meeting. They can't mess around in their lockers. They don't have to participate, but they can't do anything else; in other words, they're not allowed to go to bed until I finish.
It's understandable, then, that these 25 or so women were belligerent from minute one. It had been a terribly muggy day, and they had been battling the elements since 6:00 a.m., when The Open Door closed its doors, until evening when they opened them again. As Brenda told me earlier, "We've got to walk the streets all day. By night, we're tired."
I asked everyone to come and stand with me in the large open space. Two women joined me; no one else could be persuaded. I began a game, but the audience so greatly outnumbered these two volunteers that I feared I was putting them on the spot. I tried a few ideas that would include people who wanted to stay in their seats, which got the ball rolling a little. The next time I asked people to stand with me, four women joined; my empathy was leaving me, however, and I pointed to a poster that announced my morning session at Degage and asked for someone to read the quote on it.
"Every human being is an artist and in the moment of creation, we are at our most sane, most healthy, and most fulfilled. Robert Alexander."
"Do you believe that?" I asked. One woman said yes.
"So do I. That's why I'm here."
(Much to my surprise, I'm becoming a motivational speaker. The crowd remained hostile, however.)
About then I thought I'd try a Theatre of the Oppressed exercise (Emily's Morph) that might just rile them up in a bad way, or it might get them talking. What did I have to lose? It got them talking--whew--about who we follow and why we make decisions. I finished early by doing Body Prayer, an exercise I've been tinkering with and that I described in a previous post. It's a time of vulnerability, but many women took part, even some who had been shooting me hostile looks throughout the evening.
I can hardly pinpoint all the dynamics going on in the room. First, all women. A hierarchy within the women, between old-timers and newbies. The hot day. A white girl trying to make them do stuff. Showers being withheld. A woman who, periodically and unprompted, would perform a dead-on impression of Michael Jackson.
Tanya and Brenda, who had been in my morning group, didn't participate, but they acted as my anchors while I was put through the ringer. I stood my ground pretty well--ranged from cheerleading to pleading ("Look, no one made me come here")--but mostly stood firm.
After I finished, women began coming up to me and thanking me. Not all of them, mind you, but a surprising handful were sincerely thanking me for coming to be with them. It was like the cartoon with the sheepdog and the wolf who cause trouble for each other all day long, only to punch their time cards at the beginning and end of their work hours and agreeably wish each other well. "Mornin', Sam," "Oh, good mornin', Ralph."
Shellie, the director, confirmed my suspicion that I was being tested. "They just needed to check you out," she said. "You come back next week." I went home beaten up but high on the knowledge that I had passed the test.
At home, my life began parsing itself out in stills, as it sometimes does when I cross between these very disparate worlds. I reached in the cabinet for some Ritz, and snap! There was a picture of Amy's cracker shelf. I have a cracker shelf! I checked on my sleeping children, and frozen momentarily in time was a picture of clean, well-fed boys with nary a care.
I've been brought up in the school of never turning the marginalized into metaphors, never seeing work in a homeless shelter as a story for Chicken Soup for the Soul. But the fact remains that these women have things pretty rough, whereas my greatest trial last evening was having to use a white wine glass for my bottle of red. They were rolling their mats out onto the floor right about when I was climbing into a soft, warm bed.
To paraphrase Rumi, out beyond having and having not there is a field--or perhaps a sidewalk--and I hope to meet these women there.