"Do you work here?" he asked. We'll call him Joe.
I'm a volunteer, I said.
Joe stared at me but I couldn't see his eyes. They were squeezed between a squint and full closure. The gaze of a man shutting out as much of the world as possible.
"What does that mean?" he said.
I help out once a week... Talk to people.
A terrible answer but what more could I say? That I am being present? That I am working out some strain of guilty privilege? That I am trying to tilt the universe in a more benign direction?
Joe didn't say anything. He did not want a conversation. He was looking for someone in charge, someone who could authorize him to get something to eat, although he had arrived too late for the free lunch.
In the middle of the five hours Peace House Community is open each weekday, we lock the doors and conduct a group discussion called a meditation. A meal is served to those who attend the meditation. Afterwards, the doors are opened to those who choose not to participate and trickle in later.
Usually, the subject for the meditation is introduced by a volunteer. Last week I led one based on the stories we tell about ourselves, the stories we make up about others, and whether it's permissible to share stories that might not be ours to tell. Some meditations may have a more spiritual or inspirational tone. Current events are a recurrent topic.
This Friday, I was sure the volunteers were prepared to talk about the terrible week of graphic shootings that began in Baton Rouge, followed by the deaths of Philando Castile and the Dallas police officers. But when one of us expressed her concern, there was a quick reaction against discussing it.
"We'll talk about this among ourselves," said Calvin, "but there's enough negativity when you're homeless. Let's have the meditation be something positive."
Mel, a burly employee who functions as something of a sergeant at arms, then led a game that was a cross between an AA meeting and "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me," in which people were encouraged to tell three things about themselves, one of which could be lie. The rest of us were to pick out truth from falsehood.
The tales ranged from positive moments (a year of medical school, appearing as a schoolboy on the front page of a newspaper) to humorous declarations (I'm not a lesbian but I like to hit on women) to police chases, claims of drug convictions and prison stints, and surviving a hammer attack.
Mel said his game was pointless, but it posed a reminder of the resilience in the room without going all heavy. There are lessons to be found at Peace House without some volunteer circling them with a Sharpie.
With the help of a Native woman who's a regular, Joe got some food from the kitchen—a sandwich and a frozen pasta dinner for later. He left the packaged food on a table and went outside, where he managed to get the sandwich stolen before he could eat it.
When Joe returned, I was sitting on the porch. Once again looking for something to eat, he denied he'd been given any other food. Maybe he'd forgotten. Maybe I was mistaken. I went inside to sort things out.
I came back out to tell him the pasta was still there and it was his. I didn't expect my little intercession to be met with cold fury.
"Don't ever go in there and talk for me, understand?"
I think I do.
Here I was, dragging in my politics, my sincerity, maybe my need to expiate. Trying too hard to be the good guy.
Joe doesn't want a savior, he wants something to eat, and he felt capable of sorting it out himself. Of course, he is. He knows more about finding food in this town than I ever will.
Mel doesn't want a heavy discussion, he wants to give people in the room a chance to say, I've been through hell, I've made stupid mistakes and kicked away chances, but here I am.
None of them came to hear comfortable old white people say how much we care, even if this week we badly need to hear ourselves say it.