The most reliable sign of spring in the Day Center—aside from the lack of bulky coats, knit hats and gloves—is the increased number of times the hair clippers are checked out. The front vestibule has a small mirror mounted on the wall and the heavily traveled floor is the one place we allow hair cutting.
Last week, three haircuts were given during my shift and a fourth was aborted after the guest cutting his own couldn't get the clippers to mow through his thick hair.
Yesterday JD, a tall, skinny wraith who walks with the sideways curl of a stroke, allowed his long white hair and beard to be taken down to the skin. Others who'd wintered with long hair came in looking clean cut, including one regular who, without his ubiquitous ball cap in place, might've passed for a banker.
I suspect the skinhead look is most popular, a long with a few mohawks, because it extends the time until the next cut. Also, the style is easy for volunteer barbers with limited skills—no trimming, evening or fades.
As you might imagine, not many of our male guests are highly invested in their appearance, and a radical change from time to time may even be advantageous for a few of them.
But the biggest reason may be that spring is also the time to find work.
Road work, construction and landscaping jobs come back with the warmer weather, and spring is a critical time for pruning the valley's vineyards and orchards so the vines stay healthy and the trees are shaped for efficient picking.
One new guest, fresh out of prison and living in the nearby mission shelter, was doing a phone interview for a job he'd found in the morning paper. A request for an in-person interview was complicated by the fact that he doesn't have a car and the work is in Palisade—a fruit-growing town about 13 miles away with what you might call spotty bus service to the local farms.
An additional challenge was the ankle monitor he must wear as a condition of his probation. He can't leave a proscribed area of the city without prior authorization—all of which he explained to the woman on the phone.
I know another man who found orchard work a few weeks ago. He's a firefighter on permanent disability from being caught in the collapse of a burning school building, and he's survived a bout with cancer. Shortly after landing the job, he was stricken with migranes that kept him awake at night in the overflow shelter. Last time I saw him a few weeks ago, he was walking like man trying not to spill a large bowl of water.
I haven't seen him here since, and I hope it means he's working.
James, too, was moving a bit gingerly. He's in his 50s. He'd spent Tuesday loading rock into a landscaping truck.
His primitive crosses are made in all sizes from juniper and other scavenged wood that he carves, planes, sands and varnishes. His sign asks for Donations: $10-$20-$30. God Bless!
This winter he awakened one below-zero morning to severe pain in his left hand. He'd fallen asleep with a wet glove and three frostbitten fingers were starting to thaw. The first half-inch of flesh on the tips now looks like freezer-burned chicken dipped in cornmeal. He's awaiting to see if he can get by without amputation.
He tells me his crosses are in homes, yards and shops all over the valley and have gone overseas with tourists and accompanied soldiers to war zones.
Though he's lost the fine dexterity in his hand, it still works to hold the wood he's shaping and to clamp the finished pieces into a right angle.
As we hear a lot around here, every little bit helps.