The Rules of Sustenance
This past week I bought a kitchen mat; a new shower caddy; two blankets for the kids' beds. The cold is coming, and I'm settling. It's a good time to remember those without this luxury; for them, I reprint here an essay of mine published by The Other Journal, recounting a night at the homeless shelter.
She’s standing in front of me, pulling her sweatshirt up to reveal a pale, heavy belly. “I think it’s pretty obvious,” she says in response to the pregnancy question on the intake sheet.
Kelsey had been driven to the shelter by her father, who held out a twenty, patted her back, and said, “You’re doing what your mother couldn’t.” Leaving a man who beats her.
Kelsey was needy. Could she have a locker? Well, no, they’re for long-timers. Could her bag be locked up in my office? If I did that for everyone, it’d get pretty crowded in here. How about some paper and pens? And then: “I’m hungry.”
Pregnant, hungry, homeless girl. Of the many scenarios I encounter on my five-hour shift at the homeless shelter, this ranks among the toughest. No food is allowed except what we provide, and tonight, we’re nearly out of our usual snack: granola bars, vanilla yogurt flavor, the Best By date long past.
On my first night working at the shelter, I gave a green mat, which has about an inch more padding than a black mat, to a woman who was in so much pain she couldn’t make it up the steps alone. The next night, three women had valid reasons why they, too, needed green mats. Soon everyone was demanding a green mat. I learned my lesson: digest the relevant rule and be tough. Distribute the mats in the order in which they are piled. Find a woman with Fritos, make her throw them away. Tough, yet fair.
And then: “I’m hungry.”
Snacktime is soon, but I shouldn’t offer a granola bar to Kelsey if I don’t have enough for everyone. But Kelsey is hungry. And Kelsey is pregnant. As I think through the implications of giving Kelsey a granola bar, another woman, Anne, grabs one and heads toward Kelsey.
Anne needs to know I saw her at the fridge—another unlawful act. The other women need the security of knowing I enforce the rules. “No,” I tell her.
“She’s pregnant and she’s hungry,” Anne says, not kindly. I don’t know her well, and I get the impression she could cause me a lot of trouble.
“I’ll help her after we’re done with our meeting,” I say, but Anne isn’t convinced of anything except my callousness. She takes her seat.
Today’s group time is structured around an autobiographical piece written by a female prisoner. I read the short essay aloud and ask about its themes of anger, love, and religion. How anger can start in childhood and flare in adulthood. How religion offered in love is more convincing than threats of hellfire and damnation. Love over legalism.
Anne perks up. I see intelligence in her eyes, not anger; a thoughtfulness sated, finally, after long days of walking the streets and biding time.
I usually end our sessions with a blessing, as it’s the last time the group is assembled before bed. This time I choose something from Psalm 3, and by the end, I have a plan.
“There are not enough granola bars for everyone, I’m sorry to say. Here’s the deal: I’m going to hand one to the pregnant girl in our midst (I throw her one) and hope that the rest are like the loaves and fishes. You know that story? Good. I’m going to put them right here and trust that only those of you who are hungry will take one. And I’m going to trust that they will multiply.”
Another rule broken: Don’t leave a pile of anything up for grabs. Write HOUSE in black permanent marker on a bottle of lotion and it’s gone in a day. Put a pile of food out and handfuls are shoved into pockets.
I set the box on the floor. There are maybe ten, twelve granola bars in there, and twenty-two women at last count. I make like I’m not paying attention, and soon enough I’m distracted by other tasks. And by Anne. She’s off by herself, reading. I wander near her, hoping to feed off that connection I felt during the discussion.
“I’m looking at that psalm you read,” Anne says. “It’s good.” I nod and happen to glance over at the snack box as she talks. Four granola bars, I see. Not exactly multiplication, but everyone who wanted one got one. Good thing they weren’t hungry tonight, I think to myself.
I reach for the remainders and Anne says quietly, “If everyone else had theirs, I wouldn’t mind one.”
Then Jenny says, “Me too—if there’s enough.”
Two more women sheepishly ask, as well. They’ve held back, for the good of all.
Later, as the women sleep on their mats, green and otherwise, I look at the psalm again. A phrase I hadn’t noticed before catches my eye, like a fish waiting at the bottom of a basket among leftover loaves or a granola bar in a box that should be empty.
“I lie down and sleep; I wake again, because the Lord sustains me.”