Last night, I took refuge in the doorway of my parish church. It was a cozy nook, all things considered: the stone was fine-grained and gentle to lie upon, especially when I wrapped myself in a fleece stadium blanket, the archway kept me from the elements, and there was a fine view of a stretch of Elm St. in New Haven frequented by Yale students, and therefore heavily policed for violence, but not towards victimless crimes, like sleeping in the open.
Why wasn't I in the shelter? Ah, long story. Suffice it to say that the heat wave this summer made for overcrowding, budget cuts made for insufferable conditions, lack of trained, empathetic staff made for a lot of regimentation to stem the rising tide of anarchy that resulted. Which made conditions ripe for a lot of scapegoating and bullying, especially directed towards people who didn't fit the "good resident" standard: broken to the demands of the System, dependent on psychiatric drugs, and grateful to "the Program" for their Nth recovery from the abuse (defined as use more than once a year) of other, more amusing substances. Then, too, there were the problems of race, class, education, and to a degree, religion.
You see, you're not supposed to discuss race. This is to discourage bigotry and racial tension. However, ethnic pride is warmly encouraged. Programs with names like Nefertiti or Women of Substance "to empower women of color" advertise freely on the bulletin board, "urban contemporary" music plays over breakfast, likewise Hispanics are encouraged to speak Spanish, display flags and the like, and so on and so forth. Whites fare less well, if only because there are few, say, Irish-targeted resources, and anyway, whites are supposed to show tolerance with others' ways and, well..."pride" isn't exactly the right word...
Instead, you're supposed to show "respect". Ordinarily, I guess, it would mean that you should be quiet, polite, and patient, but it's not exactly the same here. What it means is saying 'Squuuuze me!' whenever you find someone else to be impolite and intolerant. Or doing something you find intolerable, like snoring. Or passing you in the hallway a little too close. Or just not acting the way you would act, like being sooooo quiet and cheerful and saying all those dumbass words like "Please" and "Thank you" and smiling all the time. (Who does she think she is?)
I try to be patient. I realize that a good deal of it is that I make people uncomfortable. I'm what they "should" be, and yet what they most hate and fear: educated, apparently affluent (at one time), whitebread, mainstream. In a world where every girl is told and told and told again that despite having rotten teeth, bad grades in dismal schools, early pregnancy, and a deadbeat dad, they are royalty, whether of the Benin tribes, of Egypt, or simply a Disneyfied "Princess", I've grown up as a Preppy in a democratic Republic. And yet, the family I'm supposed to have doesn't help me (I've told them about my lousy stepdad, and the fact that I'm both siblingless and childless) and neither does my church (they have so little money because they've just installed a Lively-Fulcher pipe organ, which I've been told is quite a status symbol, and they do give away sandwiches and knit little prayer shawls...). In some ways, I'm the enemy -- after all, like any white woman (they think), I believe that Michael Jackson is guilty, which is, after all, just a step above thinking of them as property. Above all, none of this makes any difference. I'm there, with them, and none of my campy extravagance nor my good nature can break it.
Some of the abuse is meant toward me. A Black mother would never let her husband do that. Who do you think you are? 'Squuze me, you're not 'specting me, passing me in the hall like that. You snore. Your clothes smell. 'Squuze me, you shouldn't do that. You can't brush you hair here, get you dandruff all over, people eat here. You wash that fat ass? 'Squuuze me, I was talking to a friend of mine, you don't like it, don't listen. 'Squuze me, my radio is my business. I'll bust you ass, you smart mouth. Fuck that shit. Some of it just slipstream, like second hand smoke: obscenity, taken to the every-other-word extreme, makes me cringe, especially when it's mingled with "nigger". Spontaneous singing of gospel hymns makes me feel like breaking out into Tom Lehrer, except no one gets the joke. Some of it's the staff, who feel much the same way, but that's another story.
The shelter can't place me elsewhere -- why not just go home, or ask your church? I decide to leave nonetheless. One day I simply left -- nowadays my mother comes by every few days to get me fresh clothes and money for food. I have a bedroll, a small knapsack, and this doorway is really cozy, as I said.
My only problem is my bladder, and I'm praying the Lord doesn't mind me watering a bush now and then on his property. But the priest is beginning to suspect.
At six, he opened the door where I slept. "You've got to go." he said.
"Me or you?" I said, still sleepy.
"You. See you in church."
Later, I heard him preach on charity, forgiveness, and not turning away the needy from your door. Give to the Katrina fund, and please be generous in the collection plate.
The Lively-Fulcher organ played. I left.
In an hour, I had a new apartment. I'm to move in Wednesday.
The night is warm, and I'm sure the Green isn't all that bad for a few days. I can get a shower down by the beach. But I wish I had the doorway.