It's not all heartwarming moments around the Day Center, though this week had its share. Tension and conflict, held back with meditation, medication and protection orders, percolate just under the surface.
Colin came into the Day Center with a cast on his hand, boiling. He'd been jumped the night before.
A new guy, Larry, filled out his intake papers. Or tried; he said he didn't have his glasses, but I doubt he could read the form. He told me he'd been robbed and was only waiting to get bus fare so he could head home to Indiana.
People pulled a gun on him behind a gas station, he said. They took his phone, money and wallet with his social security card, then punched him in the jaw. He showed me where and said the doctor told him he had cracked something. I didn't see swelling.
I told them I'm in a gang, he said, and they made a big mistake. A motorcycle gang. I was born into it and didn't have any choice. They are going to be sorry.
Larry's hands were covered with crude jailhouse tattoos. A slightly better one in script on his neck. A few unfinished tats crept out of his hairline, giving the impression of a cracked skull or maybe just insufficient attention to complete the task.
Later that afternoon I saw him hanging at a bus stop. Apparently, he didn't get his ticket out of town after all.
A guy with the Black Sabbath hair of a rocker whose band never got out of Idaho stormed in. Rocker was looking for someone. Before long, he came back out saying, there's people back there threatening to kill me.
I went back to check the patio and found a few regulars, including Shorty, a woman who goes about four feet tall and seventy-five pounds. Another volunteer was out there cleaning. He said the trash talk had gone both ways.
Later, the cops showed up with some questions. Rocker had claimed he was punched in the mouth. He'd described two people who could have been people on the patio. It was unclear when this happened, but it wasn't here.
"Anna" brought her two year old in while she checked her mail. Kids aren't supposed to be inside, but it seemed like a quick in-and-out, so I let her bring in the stroller instead of leaving the kid in the vestibule.
She got to chatting and the bored kid started shrieking. I should have asked her to leave then, because people come here for peace and quiet, but gave her a chance to deal with it first. Another guest working on a coloring book at the table had words with Anna, and now we were into full drama mode, with Anna repeatedly talking to her kid about the "evil woman," who left shortly after without escalating the conflict.
Being homeless and unemployed is stressful, even if you don't have other issues, and you spend more time than you may want to in the company of others who have similar stresses. Soup kitchen, shelters, park, street, Day Center, river, jail.
We volunteers can be a moderating influence in these conflicts, but we're not in their lives. We get to go home and grab a beer, read our own paper instead of sharing with eighty people. We don't wait for the bathroom. We don't even have to see our neighbors if that's our choice.
The next day in the Blotter, I read about an alleged assault the police had investigated. It sounded a lot like Larry's story.
[I]nvestigators determined the man’s story contained too many inconsistencies to be substantiated.
I suspect Rocker's charge will end up the same way.
But whatever the truth of the stories, the strife is real.