I know Mike's gait from a block away. Darting like a wary shorebird he picks his way around the irregular traffic in the Chick-fil-A parking lot.
He's moved on across the intersection toward Lowe's and WalMart before I overtake him, so I turn on my route without speaking.
What was I going to say, anyway? Hi, Mike, how's it going? He's homeless, for Christ's sake.
On Wednesday I cross the river bridge and see Rick heading toward me. He's so grateful at the Day Center. Quiet, hangdog, even. We connect at some level. I try to let him know I know he exists and he gives thanks for my being there. A communion of a sorts. I try, without saying it, to tell him not to die. I try, without saying it, to tell him he matters.
I try not to overinflate my importance. All I'm doing is admitting this man to the shower room.
And here he comes on the narrow passage, me on my bike, Rick walking. I recognize him from far away. He doesn't look up. On the street, eye contact can be a challenge, an admission of guilt. We slip past each other as I grant him his privacy.
It's been three years since I started volunteering at the Day Center in Grand Junction. You'd think that would be enough, even part-time, for the job to get old. After all, most of what I do is sit on a stool, calling people when it's their turn to shower and then breaking out the cleaning supplies.
There's more to it, of course, and each week I discover something new.
One of the first Day Center posts concerned my lack of a name tag, yet I never got around to wearing one until this year. I'd made a joke about not being around enough to rate my own name tag—they're digitally engraved plastic with a magnetic back—and in response, Joey the crew coordinator covered someone else's badge with masking tape and handed it over.
Almost immediately I noticed that guests related to me differently. It wasn't that my name was secret before, but now it was easily accessible.
Guests sign in every day just to get in the door. Then they sign up for showers and for laundry, too. This created a subtle assymmetry in which I had the power to summon them by name, but they couldn't address me in a familiar way.
I was a capo, I guess.
This small change made me easier to approach and many people took the opportunity. Now, when I greet them by name, they can do the same. And they do. They use my name. They thank me by name. They're reading it off the badge, but they are making the effort to connect. Some of them may even know my name.
I wish it were the same on the street.
From a block away, I can pick out Mike and Rick and Kelvin and Carl and Melissa and Susan and Erin and Mitch and Linda and Tracy and so many more.
I don't need them to pick me out, but I wish they would raise their eyes up. I wish they didn't have to slink past. I wish I didn't need a name tag.