by Jane Hertenstein
We're all dancing, frozen in time
I work at a homeless shelter. Mayor Daley has declared that by 2010 there will be no more homeless people in Chicago. Homelessness will be obsolete.
The shelter is an old building, a former warehouse beside the El tracks. There used to be an old water tank for the trains on the rooftop. The last owners manufactured emergency products dispensed in public restrooms: heel band-aids, aspirin tablets, a single tampon or condom. Residents from Goodwill helped assemble the individual capsules. But that operation shut down in the mid-80s leaving the building vacant until the non-profit I work for took it over and rehabbed the five floors. The location is perfect for a shelter because it is situated in a short alley, out of the way, just like how Mayor Daley wants it to be.
After a rainy fall the hundred-year old roof began to leak and the basement seeped. Swamp-fever puddles collected on the broken cement floor, a breeding ground for rodents. We retain an exterminator and have them come in once every week. They're practically part of the staff, we know them by name. I'll have to let Marco know about the mouse feces I've been finding on my desk. I think I might also mention the bird feathers that keep drifting down from the hole in the ceiling in the ladies bathroom where pigeons are getting in and molting.
In this business there's no such thing as an agenda. Catastrophe is the norm. Interruptions are expected. We like to call it organized chaos. Who could predict that Estelle in bed 36 has snuck in her cats or that the lady in the wheelchair is actually a man, a disabled veteran, a casualty of a conflict that happened sometime in between Vietnam and the First Gulf War? He's saving up his checks for a sex change operation.
Since being hired a month ago I've done everything from running down to the currency exchange to pay late bills, to re-charging the executive director's phone card, to buying paint supplies to cover the water damaged walls. One of my jobs is to interact with our pre-schoolers for an hour while the moms get computer training. I've tried reading out loud to them, but something as subtle as a picture book is like, What the hell? So I end up deviating from the words on the page and make up a story with their names. Like once upon a time Jamal got stuck in the freight elevator and rats came and ate his eyes out. That usually gets their attention.
Their favorite thing to play is freeze dance. Freeze dance is where you act all crazy and be-bop to loud Disney music and then suddenly stop, hold the pose for a few minutes. If you're caught moving, even just to scratch your nose, you have to sit down. One by one the players get eliminated until just one kid is left and she is declared the Freeze Dance Queen. It is very, very hard to stay still, and eventually we all collapse into a pile from exhaustion.
Currently the director has me looking into the possibility of a green roof installed on top of the shelter. That is the mayor's other crusade. He wants Chicago to be known as a Green City. I've done a bit of research into green rooftops and attended the Green Fest downtown. Aside from the obvious benefits—reducing rainwater runoff, lowering heating and cooling costs, and putting CO2 back into the atmosphere—studies have proven that when people nurture something like a pet or a garden they are more likely to become responsible citizens. When I talked to the director yesterday about having the families care for the rooftop garden, maybe grow some herbs, the director mistakenly thought I meant marijuana. We had a good laugh over that, then stopped because we both realized it could very well be the truth.
I'm also checking into beekeeping. I had this idea that maybe the ladies could work the hives. Money from honey and beeswax could be funneled into other projects. I talked to a guy from the Windy City Honey Co-op who said our roof would be perfect for an apiary because of being so close to the lakefront and Graceland Cemetery. I pictured myself in a white silky veil like a priestess swinging a smoke censor to and fro, emitting menthol-blue smoke.
Once a week I lead a creative writing workshop. The women are supposed to go out and look for jobs or take classes at the community college close by, but there are exceptions, such as those incapable of holding jobs or taking classes. There's a name for them: MISA (pronounced mee-za), mentally ill substance abuse. I pop up a big bowl of popcorn and make a couple of pitchers of Kool-aid and invite the MISAs to express themselves.
I've been contemplating getting an MFA in Creative Writing. Northwestern University has an excellent program and I went to an information session at a downtown hotel. The fact that it costs like a $100 a minute gives me pause. I have no idea of what I want to do with my life. My liberal arts degree from Denison University hasn't been of much help. I remember the day I graduated and my father showed up at the ceremony. At the tail end of small talk he asked me why I had even bothered. I didn't have an answer then, and I don't have one now. I come in early to the shelter office to get in some writing time. By early I mean 5:30 a.m. I've been working on a one-act play, at this point an outline. I type and eat candy stashed in my top desk drawer. Probably one of the reasons I've put on twelve pounds since starting the job.
For Creative Writing I rearrange the drop-in lounge, move the couches around to face each other and set out paper and pens and old magazines for the women to write upon. I have no idea why people would donate their old issues of Scuba Digest, Town & Country, or Financial Times, to a shelter. I have to be careful when choosing a subject for the women to write about—even the Cubs can bring up dark stuff hidden inside of them. I have one lady who continually focuses on her rape. She writes about it all the time in pornographic detail. I'm not sure if she was disturbed before, but she is certainly paranoid now. I'm always surprised to find out which of the women are college graduates; a few have been to better schools than me. Which makes me question the value of that MFA degree after all.
This afternoon I sat in the dim lounge trying to think of something for the group to write about. It felt as if the shades had been drawn. I desperately needed sunlight. Tom Skilling, the WGN meteorologist, says we've only had eleven minutes of sunshine the past eleven days of February. Yesterday we had a foot of slush fall out of the sky, and last night the thermometer plunged. I came out this morning to discover that cars parked up and down the street were entombed in ice up to the hubcaps. My downstairs neighbor tried to break out using the rocking method. Parvi is obsessed with Abraham Lincoln, a true aficionado, even to the point that he emulates him by growing a scraggly chin beard—though he lacks that weird bump, the one that I've seen in pictures protruding from Abe's sallow cheek. I had a travel mug of hot tea and thought I'd help out by dashing it around his tires. This did little except to stain the sooty corrugated ice pack, and after a second or two it crystallized onto his sidewalls. Parvi heaved a melancholy Lincoln-ish sigh.
I scanned the lounge, waiting for the group to assemble. One lady was already asleep at the end of the couch.
The application for the graduate program was downstairs on my desk. I called my dad up the other day and told him I was interested in the graduate program at Northwestern. He was like, What?! More money down the toilet? He co-signed on my Denison loans and is still paying them off. I tried to tell him that by enrolling in an MFA program my student loans would be deferred at least for a couple of years, giving me more time to pay him back, double the amount. Sometimes I feel like I'm on a debt treadmill. I'll never be able to get out from underneath it.
Normally before giving out the topic, I try to loosen the women up by talking. I can usually get a sense of how the session is going to go by how well I can engage them in conversation.
"How's it going?" No one responded. "Today is President's Day," I announced. If Parvi were here that would have generated excitement. Or, at least a conspiracy-theory rant from Ursula about who killed JFK.
"Where's Ursula?" I asked.
The wheelchair transvestite rolled up to our circle. Gloria Whitewing wandered over. "What're we writing about?" she grunted.
Some of my best topics have been feather pillows, favorite recipes, a day at the beach. One productive afternoon we had a lively discussion about basements and I think every one of us had a particular memory about either a scary basement or a playroom basement or a basement where we received our first kiss. Ursula wrote about a dark basement where her Eastern European grandmother stored moldy vegetables, and where, ultimately, a stranger attacked her beneath the stairs.
"Where's Ursula?" I asked again.
I can't seem to find a center, a place to stand in my one-act play. I start and then stop, lost. What is it I want to write about? It's only later, while Xeroxing or hauling donations from the entrance hallway to the upstairs Freestore or while waiting for my bagel to pop out of the toaster that an idea or phrasing will come to me and I'll contrive to memorize it until I get a chance to jot it down.
"Okay, let's get started," I began.
Is it the fear of rejection, my financial situation, or SAD, Seasonal Affective Disorder, holding me back? My mind wandered to the coyote on the women's porch. This morning on the Mix Radio a lady in the suburbs called in to report that a coyote had gotten into her enclosed patio and curled up in a corner. She'll probably have to call Animal Control—and then what? Will it be released back to the wild or euthanized?
"Hi everyone!" I tried to revive the group. "Well the ground hog didn't see his shadow so we're going to have six more weeks of winter." The notion of taking refuge in an Elmhurst back porch was beginning to sound pretty good. "We can live with six more weeks of this can't we?"
"Don't eat yellow snow." Gloria horsed around. She jabbed a new lady next to her in the ribs with her elbow. The woman wore a puffy ski jacket, the nylon so dirty that the lavender looked gray. I checked the sign-in sheet. Her name was Patricia, though her neck tattoo read Pat.
Steam pipes circumventing the ceiling rattled and groaned. The phone at the receptionist's desk rang and two women from another part of the room ran to answer it. "Have you ever made a snow angel? Captured a snowflake on your tongue?" I glanced around the circle of women. They stared back at me blankly. "Do you remember the sound your boots made walking in new-fallen snow? The tingle in your toes, your nose. That feeling that you are the last person alive, lost in a world of white."
Pat raised her hand. Her flyaway beige bangs fell into her eyes; she tilted her head as if trying to see around them. "Yes, Pat," I said, encouraging her to participate.
She took a ragged breath. "Because of the problems me and my husband were having, I left Florida on a Greyhound bus a week before Christmas. I promised my little boy that Santa Clause would find him in Chicago and deliver his presents. Evan is five and reads road signs. But when we got here, my sister had no room for us and I didn't like how her oldest son sold drugs right in front of my kid. So I found us a room at an old motel out by the highway, but that was no good because I didn't have no car and it was hard to carry Evan because of his leg braces."
The lady in the wheelchair reached out and clasped Pat's hand.
Pat went on. "After I bought him a Game Boy there wasn't any more money left so's we got put out. The night we got locked out of our room it was snowing. Being from the south, I'm not used to the cold and all. It felt like needles in my nose, and my lungs froze up. I set Evan down in the parking lot and threw our duffel bag off my back and bent over to breathe. Trucks barreled down the highway above us. I felt like I was drowning. Evan, he took my hands and pulled me up. We turned around and around. 'Look, Mommy,' he said, pointing to the snowflakes coming down in front of the streetlights, 'diamonds.' "
The room was surprisingly quiet, except for the pffing of pipes overhead and a TV on in another room. Just then a streak of dusty sunlight fell across the area rug in front of the couch. We sat within the glittering radius for a full second soaking in valuable Vitamin D.
"What do you think of a garden?" I suddenly asked the group. They picked up their pens, poised to write. "We could have a garden on the roof."
Bernie from her wheelchair said her family used to farm a patch of land down south in Georgia. Gloria told a story about her and her sister harvesting wild rice up north on tribal lands. Ursula huffed and puffed into the room. She carried a Tyvek bag bulging with empty milk cartons with the words Last Slave Living in America scrawled along the sides of the bag in black marker. "Am I too late?"
I excused the ladies and thanked them for coming. Ursula stayed to help me clean up. She talked to herself while collecting the pens and told me she didn't want to touch the magazines because they were contaminated with the plague.
Downstairs in the office I pulled out my application and work sample for Northwestern. I brushed mouse scat off the top page and read over it, surprised how good it sounded. Good enough to get in, and after that, well, one day at a time.
As I was getting ready to leave for the day, Gloria stopped by. I invited her to sit down and opened up my candy drawer. Together we ate old Frangos donated to the shelter and talked about the rooftop garden.
People tell me, I couldn't do what you do at the shelter, and I say, You get used to it. But you don't, really.
"Have another chocolate," I offered Gloria.