Today I spent my entire shift at the Day Center, where Grand Junction's homeless come to enjoy some of the features (if not comforts) of home — a place to store valuables or extra clothes; coffee; a shower and laundry facility; a telephone, message machine and mailing address.
The mix of guests ranges from chronic homeless to people temporarily down on their luck, from babies of seven months to dessicated old timers of more than 70 years. Every dental variation is represented, from perfect teeth to nothing but gums. Some people look downright normal; a few are clearly disturbed; at least one could play a role in the next Kevin Costner Cowboy movie and a pair of brothers would look right at home on Newhart.
I watched a woman with perhaps five teeth fix her hair for an upcoming job interview, while man carved away at his head with hair clippers. As it became apparent he had nowhere to go but bald, she helped him take it down to his scalp. He looked pretty good.
I listened to a young woman as she wrote an angry letter to her mother. "She says it's my fault," she fumed. Silently, I felt solidarity with the parent telling her daughter a truth about responsibility she didn't want to hear. Later, I learned the mother is an addict who is in prison, and she blames her daughter for her problems.
A man shows up looking for two people to help him move out of his apartment. He'll pay $10 an hour. A couple gets a call from a woman who wants them to tend her yard. They head off for work. So does the father of one of the babies.
There are some really ill-advised tattoos in poorly chosen locations here.
A mother and her 20-ish son stop for a shower on the way out of town. They could be anyone heading to a ballgame, ready to board a flight, waiting for a table. As they wait their turn, the young man sits quietly, observing the others. I wonder if he notices the man next him and how much they resemble each other 15 years removed. Both of them dark and handsome. One hasn't figured out what to do with himself yet. The other may have stopped figuring.
Two young men who are camping rough down by the river stride in. Of all the guests who turn up here, they project the most menace. They wear their hair in long dreds which are not improved by smoke, dirt or the bottle caps one has bent around some of his locks. The other, a bit more clear-eyed and powerful, has a swastika on his inner forearm, one tattoo among many. When he signs in, I notice he is left handed, like the woman writing the letter.
On previous shifts, I've been over at the food pantry and have not been through the routine of closing the place. About 11:30, most remaining guests leave to find a place in line at the nearby soup kitchen. The showers, bathrooms and floors must be swabbed down, trash emptied, coffee post and cups washed and put away.
A few men stick around to help us with these chores. Among them, the two toughs from down by the river. They work efficiently, wiping down the tables and chairs with disinfectant, then stacking them out of the way, vacuuming the reception area and emptying the wastebaskets.
I begin to revise my estimate of the two and recalibrate my antenna once again.
Perhaps they have some community service obligation to work off, but maybe it's just a good impulse. Either way, why should I judge them any differently from the other guests who are helping with these mundane tasks? We're all volunteers here.
It's my last volunteer day before I return to Minnesota and go back to working with kids in the shelter preschool. I started out with kids because I thought it would be more satisfying than working around adults whose mistakes have been made, whose ways are set.
But now, I'm not so sure. I've seen a lot of people struggling and stuck, but also helping each other and trying to do better.
If my tax money is being redistributed to the undeserving, I sure haven't seen much of it land here.
I'm going to miss this place.