Arm in Arm

January 25, 2010. The sidewalk on the hill that hugs the shelter is slick, and no one is answering the intercom to buzz me in. I give up, link arms with Catherine, and penguin walk toward the front entrance. Catherine is a large, unstable woman who is often suspended from using the shelter's services; some of the women say she brings bad spirits into the place. We're finally allowed in, and I note that the offices of the director and other staff are suddenly empty. I'll learn later that a drug raid wiped out all but one of the staff, including a woman who covered for those who went back to their old ways, but for now, all I know is that I'm in trouble. When the teacher's gone the students act up, and today, I'm the sub.

The women's spirits are down. I can plainly see that no one is up for participating in my theatre class. I begin with stretches and call it exercise, which relaxes them a little, even the ones shooting me looks of death. They're easing up; they're remembering they like me. But Kay, who is clearly lit, is off to the side running a nonstop obscene rant. It's unusual behavior for her, and it's hard to ignore.

At some point a young women points her out. "I'm getting real tired of that," she says. Someone else calls out, "You old drunk." I try to keep going, but it's getting ugly. The noise from Kay is too distracting, and at one point I hear this:

"Now I love Amy. Love. Amy. But she's full of SHIT."

I make it to the final activity, when I ask the women to list their stressors, intending to lead them in a theatrical practice of finding solutions.

Weather, they say. Jobs. Money. Relationships. Homelessness (yes, it's fifth on the list). Not having my child with me. Not having my own home. Sitting around.

It's hard to recall what happened after I transcribe this list, but in my notes, next to this intimate time of sharing, I see that I've written the words "descended into chaos."

There's this "strange dynamic of them being too stressed to participate, but then doing a lot of apologizing to me for being that way," I wrote. "It's like they suddenly looked up and saw that it was me, and they know how much time I give them, and they love me, and they felt bad for possibly hurting my feelings. Even rude Quita apologized and made the gesture of asking me how the roads are, and saying, You drive safe, okay? Diane--poor, anxious Diane--made a point of saying she has trouble in groups; otherwise, she'd participate."

The night became one of my most difficult times at the shelter, yet one that proved I'd made deep bonds with the women. I wrapped up shortly after the chaos ensued, and after all the apologies a slightly sober Kay cornered me.

She confessed she'd hit the heroin again. "I get unemployment now, and it's not enough money to buy me a house but just enough for me to be stupid," she said in her friendly drawl. I always liked Kay, was flattered, even, to make an appearance in her earlier rant.

"Life's just too damn boring."

Weeks later, when Kay said she was dying, I didn't believe her. All manner of grand pronouncements are made at homeless shelters--some true, some outrageous, and a few you wish could never, ever happen. I had believed her talk of hip surgery, and watched her lower herself to sleep on a mat on the floor. But her cheerfulness contradicted thoughts of death; didn't fit, somehow.

The other day I received word that in August, Kay died from an aggressive form of cancer. A memorial service held at the shelter was packed to overflowing; extra chairs had to be brought in to the dining hall. Her family attended, as well.

In November, I saw Kay with her family. She was so happy to be spending Thanksgiving with "normal people," yet there she was in the cold weather without a coat. Happiness is rarely pure. Grief is compromised. Love and pain are forever treading arm and arm on an icy hill, waiting to be buzzed in.


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