5:00pm I can't stick around for the performance of my new composition for baritone and string quartet (the first in a series of art songs about homelessness), so I arrive at the dress rehearsal to listen in and thank the musicians for all their hard work. The ceiling is covered in saints, one of the few buildings that survived the Civil War thanks to a chaplain who threatened to excommunicate all the Catholic Union soldiers should they start burning churches. General Sherman, fearing mutiny from the Irish, relented.
6:30pm I meet my oldest friend for dinner and a play, a birthday gift arrangement we've had for years since we'd much rather have a fun night out away from the kids and laundry than ship each other another DVD. She uses glow-in-the-dark viruses to pinpoint a single neuron on finch brains as a means of determining how they learn new songs. She hates having to kill them.
10:00pm I was invited to Julio's birthday at that art collector's mansion, so I change outfits and my scientist pal and I arrive at that auspicious moment when the cake is half-gone and everyone's about to leave for the strip club, which means I can say hi without feeling the need to talk to a bunch of drunk hiphop producers who either spent a LOT of money on their clothes or are excellent thrifters. My friend Julio is in good spirits, he received several painting commissions in Abu Dhabi and is considering a permanent home there. I want him to be happy. I wrote a song about the last time we met, we were drunk on tequila in New Orleans and he admitted that after he came home from running anti-narcoterrorism teams in Peru he'd been so depressed that he gave away all his guns except an SKS for fear he'd be tempted to kill himself at night.
The whole night I text with Captain J, a former combat pilot in Afghanistan who at that moment was in a horse arena at a suicide prevention conference for veterans suffering from moral injury (i.e. when you are The Bad Thing that happens to someone else). I wrote a song about him too, the juxtaposition of attending a party where everyone was nerding HARD about Star Wars while Captain J described the last transmission of cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov as he burned alive upon re-entry.
I meet all these men, brilliant and productive and damaged, and can't quite put a label on my unease.
Midnight: I come home to a happy, tired husband, half-conscious on the sofa in a red union suit because all the other dinner guests had arrived in squirrel onesies and "it's that kind of party".
9am We arrive at the abandoned asylum where we were scheduled to build a shelter for a blind vet and have to cancel because someone stole all the panels. My husband and the volunteers (a father and son team, the kid wants to be an architect and has shadowed us for some time) and I search the property, where we eventually find three panels leaned against barred windows as wind breaks, and everything else is busted for firewood. I find my blind vet, make the teenager observe my doing a housing assessment, and leave him with blankets and promises to return with more food.
Everyone else leaves. I have an hour to kill before my next appointment, so I scan the horizon and notice a newly built shed at the entrance to the cemetary, where a skinny white man paces back and forth with a machete. I have to be friends with THAT guy.
The homeless man/groundskeeper was leary at first, but it was Sunday and I was handing out blankets, so he lay the machete on the ground and offered to walk me into the forest where the crack dealer runs a gambling operation (we'd be okay, they don't sell crack on the Lord's Day). We pass a dog house and his voice catches.
"I had a dog named Boogie. Best dog ever. But two weeks ago he attacked my wife and she had to kill him with her bare hands. I can't even process it right now. I just keep working, the wife and I we got us two plots here at the cemetary so we gonna be okay."
Then he tells me the real reason he hates going back into the woods, because he found a fresh grave two days ago and doesn't know if it's a dog or a stillborn baby from the crack dealer's girlfriend (I ask her, she says it's her compost pile. I look at the clean little shanty she keeps lashed to trees and 2x4s and I believe her).
I text with Captain J. The people running the suicide prevention conference are encouraging him to become a social worker, and we go back and forth about narrative medicine, the need to externalize nightmares. I know I'll write a song about the graveyard dog and spend the car ride doing harmonic analysis.
1pm Housing assessment at a narcotics anonymous office attached to a church. The band is fuckin' killer, drums slapping thru the wall as a dignified old woman insists she's been in perfect health ever since she was released from prison. The room is an after-school space for neighborhood kids, laptops, easels, a map of America above crates of new books. It's such an anomaly in this part of town I almost cry. I scan her documents and schedule a doctor appointment for her husband and hand out the remaining blankets to men in the parking lot.
2pm My husband is about to officiate the wedding of a bipolar tenant he's been counseling for years. He stayed up til 2am making gumbo and pimento cheese sandwiches because the bride's family has no money for catering. He looks great in a suit. I'm so tired and sad I can't move my face, and he hands me a styrofoam bowl full of figs stuffed with goat cheese. I eat the whole thing on the way to retrieving the kids from grandma's house, and the rest of the evening is a contented wash of watching the children dance to bad music and booby trap the living room room with twine and cardboard boxes.
I send a rough recording of the song I wrote for Captain J to Don Red, and wait for notes.
8:30am I am sick. Dayquil and coffee carry me thru work but my voice is shot, and I am the only case manager at the office to see homeless clients. The morning is a rush of letting people try on winter coats and ask which bus goes to the DMV, mostly happy people since they come to me after having had breakfast and sing-a-long in the church basement, and the tearful ones just need another person to confirm that, yes, moving back to Toronto is an excellent idea.
3pm: I am so sick I don't remember falling asleep. Pick up the kids, hang out at grandpa's for dinner, hug them on my way out to teach my violin/viola students. I hug them really hard. I wonder if a homeless person will finally stab me tonight. My oldest student and I work on Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" and his excitement makes me happy.
7pm I am team lead for the homeless night census. My voice is so bad that I pity the poor bastards who have to endure some white bitch sticking her head inside their tents at 2am asking "Got AIDS?" in a Mickey Mouse falsetto. Fortunately I have a badass team that will eventually include my husband, an ex-drug dealer I'm pushing to become a peer specialist, a city planning student, a pastor who insists Magic City strip club has THE BEST wings, and an ex-journalist who's moved to the boarding house business. We are assigned a client-rich nexus of misery that includes the jail, a halfway house, a bus station, a train station, a football stadium, miles of train tracks, and the abovementioned gentleman's club better know for it's bar food than the beautiful bored Ukrainian strippers shuffling for a fiver.
I trace the map. I know every person who sleeps on every sidewalk. Where the dealers work, where cars are stripped, where bodies are discovered. I am reminded of Haq and Captain J's story of their first time seeing the com board in Afghanistan lit up like Satan's Christmas tree, and how utterly fucked the war already was before they arrived. Atlanta has been fucked since before the fire went out.
We survey homeless until 2:30am. I am a zombie walking down unlit train tracks listening to the ex-journalist and city planner debate how property rights are a political construc, and how Ben Carson is cutting psychiatric beds for the homeless. Our last client is a man in a cardboard box who says, "I don't believe in schizophrenia, I believe in Jesus."
Captain J has arrived home from the conference having read another psych book. "In order to treat homelessness we need to reject the Project of Modernity, the philosophical insistence that all problems be simultaneously manageable and simple and for all results to be measurable." For the millionth time I consider writing a book, and for the millionth time remember that no book will accomplish what a night in the field will teach someone about the trauma of poverty.
Don Red gets back to me. He enjoys the song and gave copious feedback on which phrases could do with expanding. I am happy to work with a musician who actually writes for fun and not to be presented at a Bowtie Brigade conference.
My husband hands me food and drives us home. I remember the machete man in the cemetery, how I watched his hands behind his back as he led me into the forest, how drunk Julio got while discussing suicide, how much more frightening Haq appeared when he whipped off his shirt to display his tattoos from the Book of Revelations, and now I recognize that feeling of dread, that moment of ill portent when you discover green storm clouds spinning over your head, that figure of chaos you hope is two towns over when it bursts, and comfort yourself with the words, "I am safe...for now."