Tuesday, October 14, 2014
Tonight at the Post Office
I walked into the local post office this evening to drop a package in the bin, and a young woman was sitting by the door on a blue plastic mail tub turned upside down. She was packed for travel — her belongings in disposable sacks — but she didn’t appear to be going anywhere. It’s unusual for anyone to be hanging out in the p. o., and as I left the lobby, I said to her, “Is everything OK?” “Not really,” she answered. Me: “Do you need some help?” She: “Yes, but I don’t suppose you’ll be able to do anything.” I’ve been out of the “homeless business” for several years, but, as things happen, the h.b. doesn’t let me go, probably because people without homes are everywhere.
“So what’s going on?” I asked her. “I need a place to stay for a couple of nights,” she answered, “I’m about to be out of a place to live.” She made it sound immediate and temporary, but I wondered if it was and asked, “Are you sleeping out tonight?” — not a good idea for anyone, and never for a woman alone. She said yes. “I know a few people I can call who help people who are homeless…” I hesitated, “I don’t know if you are…” “I am,” she replied. “Well, let me go to my car and get my phone and make a couple of calls,” I responded. “If I don’t reach anyone, I will give you some numbers to try later if you have a mobile.” “I do,” she said.
I asked her first about the local shelters, and she knew the ropes — too late to get in. I mentioned the possibility of emergency beds opening at midnight for overload, but she said that would only happen if the temperature was below freezing. “Should be 40 degrees,” I commented, for no reason, as it’s in the 70’s here today.
As I got back into my car and reached for my phone, I felt in a hurry — I was doing errands on my To Do List, and was running behind schedule. “Oh, no you don’t,” I chastised myself for feeling that there was anything more urgent than this lost young woman who had crossed my path. One of the things I’ve learned since being out of touch with “the street” the past few years is that one forgets… about what matters, about how it never is Us and Them, about the primacy of Now. We want life to be slick and smooth, and every cultural message around us tells us that is should be… but it isn’t.
I knew who to call — friends who run organizations helping unhoused people — and the first call I made was the right one. “Karen! How are you?” said my friend, who was still at work at 9 P.M. and still answering her phone. We exchanged regrets about not having dinner in a while, and I told her the situation, asking, “Can you find a place for her?” “If it’s an emergency,” she said. This woman always comes through for people in trouble as no one else does. “How will she get here?” my friend asked. “I don’t do this any more,” I said, “but I think I’m just going to bring her. We’ll be there in fifteen minutes.”
I used to take strangers in my car from time to time, but I’ve stopped for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it started to feel like not-the-right-thing for me to do. But most importantly, my eleven-year-old granddaughter, who is very wise, learned about it and asked me just last week if I did it still. When I said not usually, she replied, “Good, I don’t think you should.” I trust her judgment.
Back in the p. o. lobby and ignoring that judgment, I told Lakita, “I’ve found you a place, and I’ll take you there if you want to go.” She hesitated and asked where it was. I told her — “Not the best neighborhood, I know, but you’ll be safe there” — but she shook her head. “OK,” I said, “then here are the numbers of some people who can maybe help you tomorrow. If you get in trouble tonight, I think it’s safe these days to call the Dallas Police — didn’t always used to be, but I think things are better.” “Oh, they know me,” she smiled, “It depends on who’s on duty.” “So I’ve heard,” I smiled back. Gallows humor.
“Best of luck,” I told her. “Thank you,” she said, and I left the building.
As I walked to my car, Lakita opened the door of the post office and called out to me, “If I could, I’d give you the world!” I replied, “Right back atcha’!”