He was having a hard day, which seemed to be a symptom of a hard year. Some of it had to do with being the father of a new son he couldn't see. He'd seen the boy once in the hospital before the infant was taken from the mother, who had some legal and mental health issues that required her to be handcuffed to the bed rail.
Someone, Kelvin had been unable to find out who, had dressed the child in pajamas with mock prison stripes. The insult of it was still raw months later.
We talked for a while outside. I did my best to convey my sympathy and sincere hopes that he might get things resolved, but I was aware enough of his situation to know that I really couldn't help him. Kelvin knew it, too.
He said, You ride up here on your bike with that funny British helmet on. I know you're happy to be here, but you don't have to be here. The rest of us, we don't wear helmets. What's the point? What would we be saving ourselves for? You get to leave and go back to your beautiful life. It is beautiful, isn't it?
Yes, I said. I've been very fortunate.
He wasn't scolding me or asking for anything. Just stating reality. Of the hundreds who walk through that door, I'm the only one who brings a helmet.
He walked off toward the soup kitchen then. I've only seen him in passing once or twice since.
I hate leaving that moment hanging open, but today was my last day at the Day Center until winter. Leaving reminds me of how little control I have here, how little influence in the affairs of people we try to serve. When I return, things will be different, and I will have to gather up what loose ends I can.
Six weeks ago, I wrote about Ben showing up at the Day Center, worried about his missing EBT card. He got some help and I thought maybe "things will work out. He's a generous man and has friends who'll pitch in a little."
The last time I saw Ben, a few weeks later, he looked bad—red faced and fragile. He sat briefly in the vestibule but didn't come in. I asked another guest who went outside with him if Ben was all right.
"Yeah, he's okay," he said.
Besides being a gentle soul, "Uncle Ben" was a heavy drinker of the sort where drinking, once it starts, ends with obliteration and incontinence. One of his fellow campers told me when Ben was drinking alone by the river, he used to sit with his legs in the water up to his knees, so if he passed out, it would be easier for others to clean him up before dragging him to his tent.
Ten days ago, Ben died along the railroad tracks south of downtown. The coroner's news release said, "there was nothing suspicious regarding his death and it was related to a preexisting condition," which I suppose is a kind summary of a sad end, but also bloodless and sanitized beyond recognition.
The Big Girl borrowed our clippers so one of our new guests could remove the stubble that had grown out on the sides of her scalp while she was in jail. As she got her hair cut, the Tiny Girl came in to check her mail. T.G. was wearing fingerless leather gloves that looked like something from a ultimate fighting getup. She told B.G. she was taking self-defense classes and B.G. said if T.G. kept it up, she had a pair of boxing gloves she'd give to T.G.
Within an hour, B.G. was grousing about T.G. acting like a child and getting into her business. Before long, they were shouting at each other outside, T.G. accusing B.G. of messing with her man. B.G. swatted T.G. in the back of the head, and T.G., who weighs about 65 pounds, went down on the sidewalk, screaming at the top of her lungs.
There was no blood and the boyfriend chose to calm down T.G. instead of go after B.G., which was the right decision on several counts.
The new guy who'd trimmed B.G.'s hair had steered clear of all the drama. All he wanted to do was get to the animal impound building when it opened so he could claim his dog. He'd tried without success to find a ride. I told him I would have given him one if I'd driven instead of biking in. I gave him directions how to find the place, which is nine miles out of town.
Last I saw him, he had started walking south, a route that would take him right past where Ben's body was found.
I put on my helmet and pedaled back into my beautiful life.