This week at the Day Center I realized I have survived three breakdowns.
Put another way, I am now pushing my fourth vacuum cleaner. (Or maybe the fifth, counting a little hand-held one.)
The work we do is the same every day, a limited menu of tasks, most of which involve cleaning. Laundry, showers, shaves and haircuts, toothbrushes and tooth paste, Q-tips and deodorant, health checks—and scrubbing restrooms, tables and chairs, coffee urns and ashtrays.
If you want to feel a sense of progress or improvement or global advancement, you have to look at the people in the room.
Over time, you witness big transformations, but you also see sudden falls and a cycle of dysfunction. For some, success simply means they are still standing.
Maybe we had some victories this week, but it's much easier to count the six new intake forms I collected today. They mean six individuals walked in our doors for the first time.
Some have been homeless for years. One woman, my age, has been homeless for three days. One man is passing through town and needed help with a prescription. One woman walked in that morning feeling overwhelmed. She left with clean laundry and smile on her face. As she headed toward the Catholic Outreach office, she said, "I have a lot better outlook now."
I saw one young guy for the first time since I've been back. He had a new girl friend with him, the third in past three years. He's always seemed like a person who has the tools to make it. But he's here and the girl friends aren't.
Then there's this new vacuum. I thought I was losing my mind when I couldn't find the on-switch. It's not as if I'm unacquainted with these things.
Finally, I had to ask. It's the red button halfway down the side, invisible from the position of someone ready to start cleaning.
There's a metaphor in there somewhere about experience blinding you and change requiring you to learn simple things all over again.
Outliving those vacuums is a good measure of longevity—and a caution.
If you're only about the dirt, you'll wear out fast.
Tracy and Kelvin were among the very first Day Center guests to open up to me when I was a newbie. Without their friendship, I might never have written my novel, Inhabited.
There were hugs all around when I gave them their copy.