At Rosie’s Place, the homeless women line up before fouro’clock, when they will be admitted to the cafeteria, starting off with soupand sandwiches. The line this day is quiet, little talking, more older womenthan young, some with children, many women of color. Some are heavy-set inshapeless clothes, and make little eye contact. One woman is neatly dressed ina blouse and skirt, well-spoken in a soft voice. There’s a woman with a panelof gray dreadlocks down her back; she’s a smiley character. And another, thefeisty Irish gal, who comes on initially both defensive and antagonistic, butshe soon quiets down.Many are regulars andknow the routine.
The line moves. Women with Spanish or Haitian creole accentspoint out which sandwich they would they like, turkey or baloney, brown breador white, the chicken and rice soup with “little broth” or a lot. They departwith orange trays into the large, high-ceilinged dining room, shadowy on thisrainy day. Tables sit three or four or five; extra chairs can be pulled over,or women may sit alone. The chairs have backs and the seats are cushioned. Inone area is a small library of books, mostly for children with child-sizedtables and chairs. Some women choose to sit there, too. At one table, threewomen hold hands, heads bent, praying intently.
The room fills quickly, close to a hundred; some womenreturn for more soup or half sandwich. Others make their way to the main, widecounter that separates kitchen and volunteers from the ladies.On the counter is a big stainless steel bowlof apples, which go surprisingly quickly, deposited into pockets or bags – “forlater”.Those ready for coffee or teacan self-serve in ceramic mugs, but must request the sugar packets, regular or“pink sugar” — not so much for watching calories as keeping the worst ofdiabetes at bay. Some ask for tampons or sanitary pads, kept in a drawer. Thereare condoms, also, but this evening, no one is asking.Almost all say thank you; no one lingers tochat.
Aside from the two women who are in charge, there are abouta dozen volunteers, a group from a church in Watertown, a couple of youngpeople doing community service, and a white-haired lady, an old pro, who was alitigator for many years before she dropped out to do creative writing and helpout at Rosie’s Place.The volunteers,many first-timers, are eager to do their little jobs well and chat easily witheach other. The coordinators are low-key, only once in a while making aspecific request; otherwise the group is self-managed, rotating from spot tospot, task to task. Mostly women, there are a few guys who have taken on someof the grunt work, including a lively, gregarious fellow who has been relegatedto dishwashing. On an earlier trip, he had been out front attempting to engagethe homeless women in small talk, a little joking around, but it didn’t go overwell, he says, and now he stays in the kitchen. Some of the volunteers are shyto go out among the tables, clearing away dirty dishes, asking if so and so isdone, or still eating.One friendlyvolunteer asks if someone will accompany her to the bathroom, which is outsidethe dining area in the more public part of the building which connects to theshelter. It is, after all, in the heart of the city.
At six o’clock, dinner is served, literally – brought to thetables. Tonight it’s taco’s, a pain in the neck to assemble; they fall apart,lettuce is everywhere, the beans and rice are sticky. Still, no one complains,and a few are complimentary. After they’ve eaten, it’s time for coffee anddesert, a brownie and cookie; the women linger a moment after pouring the milkand taking the sugar packets. One mentions that today she’s having a monthly sweettreat; otherwise, she has to stay away from the sugar. Of those who havefinished, many stop by to say thank you. One woman says quietly, intently, “Thebest thing is that you are willing to do this.”
After three hours on my feet, I’m tired and ready to leaveRosie’s Place. I have come because I was asked, and because I’m not afraid to.Sometimes it’s hard to get enough volunteers to come out from our church orother places, because of the uncertainly of what they might find, and becauseof the embarrassment that keeps those on one side of the counter from contactwith those on the other side.“Poverty,”I read somewhere, “is the new obscenity.”
At night, I have a dream, a bad one, about that timein my life when I was in difficult circumstances, out on a limb, the safety netbelow dangerously frayed.In the dream Iam out of money, can’t find a job; I’m afraid and ashamed. It isn’t for nothingthat the poor and the homeless keep appearing in my writing: characters from smalltown Marylandor the streets of NYC, even though I didn’t know then, or when I startedwriting, how long they would be with me.