On Monday night I arrived armed with a boombox, Michael Jackson cds, and the thought that a dance party would do us all good.
How often do homeless women get to listen to music or let go and dance? MJ, the most gregarious of the bunch, was at the door while I was getting buzzed in. This is for you, I said, gesturing with the boombox. Oh yeah? She left her boyfriend in the cloud of weed and followed me up the stairs.
Once word got out, "The Way You Make Me Feel" was the winning request; often it was just MJ out dancing in front of the others, but most everyone was groovin' a little in their seats and enjoying the show. After, I told them how I keep thinking about Michael Jackson lately. How, along with the rest of the world, I was rediscovering his music and awed again by his dancing. How I was thinking we don't appreciate people enough while they're living. Here we all are, thinking he's a major talent but keeping our distance because he had turned a little creepy--and there he is, doesn't know how much he's appreciated, and all the money in the world can't buy him some shut-eye. And now he's dead.
Mmmmhmmm, they said, and got to talking until Shanita said, What good is he to us dead? Let him rest in peace. Was she annoyed I'd brought up the subject, or simply making the valid point that the media was overdoing its coverage? MJ took it as the former and talked back. Shanita responded. They got louder, their language fouler. A few others joined the scene.
An impasse. I had a small group wanting to stay on task with me, but no one could be heard over this racket. The games I had planned would not be suitable now. I joked that maybe I should just put on another song and head on out of there; it would have been a legitimate thing to do, given the circumstances.
But then the noise did die down a bit, and I tried a few passes at keeping interest, wanting to please the few who really seemed to want me there. The best results came when I brought out an Improv book and had them choose a number 1-50 that would determine which pose they'd take on and name its connotations.
#48: hands behind the head. To me, this means relaxing on the beach. This group said in unison: Getting arrested.
#27: your palm on top of partner's palm that faces up. Passing something on the street.
We improvised this scene--quickly, as you don't linger while acting illegally, so to speak. I connected these improvisations with the idea that a way to appreciate people while they're still living is through stories--lasssoing, finally, my theme for the day.
By taking turns every couple of sentences, everyone made up a story together. Jessie began: "Once upon a time, there was a woman who was homeless."
Then I asked for true stories. Something that really happened to you, good, bad, or otherwise. One woman spent the morning at the temp agency; she had wanted to be seen today but was instead given an appointment for later this week. Stella told of meeting with a landlord, and how she felt uncomfortable with the questions he asked. Jessie said she had walked a long distance today between job interviews but had some great prospects. She said you'd think that because she doesn't have kids, it would be easier to get back on her feet, with only herself to support. But it's not.
It's tough being homeless, she said. You don't know until it happens to you.
I'd visited these for women six weeks or so now, and this is the first time they talked about being homeless. I had an idea of how to help them explore their feelings further, but just as I started to ask questions, the volume level rose in the rest of the room. The fight was getting out of hand again, and finally Tina, a large African-American woman who was subbing for the director and wearing a shirt with the lyrics of Maino's "Hi Hater," stepped into the room.
CAN SOMEONE PLEASE TELL ME WHAT IS GOING ON, she said.
A few people did.
MJ. NOTHING THIS WOMAN SAYS TO YOU CHANGES WHO. YOU. ARE DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME, she said.
Yes, Ma'am, MJ said.
FIRST YOU NEED TO FIGURE OUT WHO YOU ARE. YOU ARE NOT BETTER THAN HER, AND SHE IS NOT BETTER THAN YOU. KICKING SOMEONE WHEN YOU'RE BOTH DOWN DOES NOT MAKE SENSE, AM. I. RIGHT.
THIS WOMAN HERE GAVE UP HER TIME TO SIT WITH YOU AND HELP YOU DO SOMETHING CREATIVE AND YOU NEED TO RESPECT THAT, DO YOU HEAR, she said, pointing to me. I hadn't really needed saving, but I did appreciate the help with volume control.
Yes, Ma'am, everyone said.
She called Shanita to her office, and as they left the place quieted down somewhat. I turned back to my small group and asked some questions about the stories they'd told earlier. A picture began to emerge of homelessness, showing the complexity of the issue for these women.
It's being exhausted, Jessie said, walking all day long. Not being able to trust others, said Pat; they'll use you for what they need to get by. Feeling hopeful, Jessie said, and motivated that you'll come out of this soon.
But also giving up, said another woman. I was hopeful two years ago that things would change, but not anymore.
Faith, said one. Is faith different than hope? I asked. Hope has a little doubt in it, said Kim.
Usually we end our time by forming prayer requests with our bodies, like human sculptures. But this evening, I asked that each person take one of these feelings and express it with her body, and we'd combine all these into a living picture of homelessness.
Exhausted was on the floor. Motivated stood strong nearby, arms raised in triumph. Not Trusting stood off to the side by herself. Hope was perched midway between Exhausted and Motivated; Faith was, well, in the bathroom, or maybe checking on her laundry.
I pointed out the sculpture to the noisy, still-belligerent other half of the room, said goodbye, and started packing to leave.
Amy! MJ called. One more song?
One more song turned into three. I left the homeless shelter at 10:00pm on a Monday night humming "Don't Stop Til You Get Enough," thinking how glad I was that I had stayed.