It’s cold in Salt Lake City during the last vestiges of winter in March…
They woke us all up at 5 am each morning at the homeless shelter.
This morning is ‘cold breakfast’ morning.
Cold breakfast is pretty self explanatory, but in a homeless shelter it’s a whole different animal.
Homeless shelters depend on donations.
Donations depend on charity.
Charity depends on people.
People are…..not to be counted on sometimes.
This particular morning we are getting Special K cereal™, Borden’s Powdered Milk™, doughnuts of different types, bananas and coffee.
The cereal box is 2 years old.
The Borden’s ‘Dry’ Milk is water thin and warm.
The doughnuts are stale, hard and tasteless.
The bananas are over-ripe and the coffee is as thin as the milk, but cooler than the milk…
We get one serving of each…..
Most of the people in here are men. There are a couple of women, but they seem to be matched with some of the guys.
Except for Trish….
She argues with herself over trivial matters.
This morning it sounds like she is not happy with one of her “selves” and is berating and cussing “them” about losing her toothpaste.
She stands up, flailing at invisible people, and runs straight into the opposite wall, knocking herself out.
She lays sprawled out on the floor with her hospital wrist band, from her release 2 days ago, still on her wrist.
The library card hanging on a piece of ribbon around her neck looks strange next to stained bandages around her throat from where she went after herself with a curling iron that had been dropped off at the shelters Donation store.
“I’m glad I’m not crazy….” I think to myself.
We are all walking different directions to begin our day as the ambulance pulls up to the shelter.
No lights….No siren.
“It’s only Trish….again” says the cop.
“Maybe she’ll do us all a favor and die this time” laughs the guy paramedic.
“They should have never let her out to walk the streets, where’s she gonna go!?” says the girl cop.
“She comes here” said Mr. Larry, the shelter director and “20 year sober drunk” he’d say with a grin and a cutting gesture across his throat.
We are turned out from the shelter at 6 am on the dot.
It is dark and cold…There is no traffic and the buses don’t begin the route by the shelter until 7 am.
We walk the 1 1/2 miles just for something to do, plus not freeze to death.
The daily evicted walk down the sidewalks, through the vacant lots full of trash and weeds, under the fence surrounding the Union Pacific rail yard and some are lucky enough to have money or a free token from the churches for a bus to SLCity.
I guess that’s a polite way to say “We want your soul to be saved, but don’t come back until after dark”
I take the bus.
I am a college student in my early 40’s.
I am a highly functioning alcoholic.
I’m going to beat it this time, but first I have to be at the plasma center before 8 am so I can get in and out early and get my “Special Starbucks” before the shaking and panic starts so I can concentrate in class.
We say “But first….” a lot.
Some men head for the railroad yard to catch a ride….somewhere.
“Anywhere but here” they’d say.
They’ve probably been saying that for years, and every where they’ve ever been.
“I don’t want to be…..” is a better way to say it.
“I can’t stay here”
We don’t know why….
We just can’t stay here…..or there.
We have to get away….from something…..Everything.
There are rules for shelter admission at 6 pm Monday-Thursday and 5 pm on weekends.
1) No drinking of alcohol
We are all given breathalyzers as we sign in.
No one has alcohol on their breath except a few new people that also have grass in their hair and smell like cow shit and urine.
But they don’t frisk the “regulars”
The one’s they know they can trust….
I usually had a ½”diameter, 12ft piece of surgical tube that I stole from the Biology lab where I worked in the college, wrapped around my waist under my shirt.
It is full of Vodka or another clear libation, if I have to have something cheap between student/employee paydays and the 3 Plasma donation visits I’m allowed every other week…
After we all pass the breath test, we poor beggars head to the chapel and wait for the preacher of the day to show up.
We have to do this every night in order to get dinner, a shower and breakfast.
It lasts for an hour.
It could be considered torture and inhumane treatment at times.
My favorite ‘preacher’ was a 14 year old boy that came along with his preacher dad to save our “treacherous, ungodly souls!” “Can I get an AMEN!!!?”
When the boy is through skipping across the pulpit, throwing himself to the ground, jumping up and down and waving his arms so hard I think he’s gonna pop a joint out of place, I feel really glad that I’m not a Jew, a Mormon, a “damned rag head Muslim”, a Fag or a Queer.
We all feel better now that we have all been brought to Jesus by an alternate route for the 3rd time this week as we head to the lunchroom.
There is no talking.
There is only a shuffling, clinking, sliding plastic tray sound followed by a rhythmic “glopping” noise.
Most nights it is a ‘stew’ or ‘goulash’ of some type, a piece of bread and a vegetable to be named later.
The ‘stew’ is heavy on the carrots and potatoes with little eyes looking at you…
There’s also a kind of shiny petroleum broth film covering it, undoubtedly from the ‘cooks’ not knowing that they should drain the oil from the cans of Spam™ before they add the ‘meat’ to our fare.
The Kool-Aid™ or drink mix is always thin and has a slight chlorinated after-taste, but it’s cool to the throat.
We did’t need ice….or sugar.
Beggars CAN be choosy after all.
Don’t bitch Trey…. Jeez, some people would complain about getting hung with an old rope!
But…Most of us think it is the best thing we have ever had to eat.
We’re just glad that we don’t have to dig through the Pizza Hut™ and Albertsons™ dumpsters tonight….
I was always grateful for the shelter.
You see….I know it could be worse.
Did you know that restaurants, convenience stores and fast food joints won’t or should I say, can’t donate left-over foods to shelters?
It’s because they’re afraid to get sued if some poor homeless schmuck gets sick.
Sadly they were probably right, the fact is that someone would have tried to sue them most likely.
Desperate people and all that jazz….
The showers were full of…..men?
It was full of the old and young, wrinkled and pale, bent and straight…..But all broken in one way or another.
The shower was full of tattoos and scars from the Korean War, Vietnam and Desert Storm.
No one spoke in the shower.
All you could hear was the water and men coughing under the Luke-warm spray.
I didn’t take showers at the shelter.
I took showers at the college gym.
I didn’t have to sleep in dumpsters anymore or build a snow cave in the city park.
I had gotten my student loan somehow.
I honestly can’t remember NOW, how I even did that then.
I kept what little clothes I had in a locker at the gym.
I could fit everything I owned in a back-pack….
I washed clothes in the Biology lab “scrubs” room.
I worked as a lab tech prepping slides and cultures for the Biology department.
I worked as a Lab tech in the Computer Science lab
I worked as an assistant instructor with gifted students and I was a tutor in calculus and statistics.
Now I can’t remember shit…..
But that night, like so many nights after and before, I lay in the dark, on my back in a quietly buzzing homeless dorm on the top bunk and feeling my hands start to tremble as I unfurl the tubing full of Vodka from around my body.
The tube held a pint of Vodka.
As I placed my lips around the end of the tube and feel the welcome first sip hit my throat and gut, I am thinking:
“I’m gonna beat it this time. Only 3 more months and I’ll have enough saved up to get a real job and an apartment”
In less than a week, I was found drunk and unconscious in the park of my college…..In the snow.
I could have died then….
I spent 28 days in Rehab….Wearing blue footies.
I got a DUI the day I got out of Rehab.
I spent a week in jail then got arrested that SAME night for public intoxication and disturbing the peace after I called the cops on myself and begged them to shoot me.
I begged for death in an alley behind a bar….
My forearms and knees were in piss, vomit, syringes, used condoms and stale beer.
My hands were tugging at their pants legs….”Please….please…..stop me….”
And Jesus wept….So did I.
I lost my college loans and my student jobs.
My kids were not happy. Dad was still fucking up.
When I was released from my court ordered 72 hour detox session at the mental health ward, I remember asking a fellow shelter buddy on the bus back “home”:
“Is tomorrow hot breakfast day?”
I’m amazed I’m still alive.
I’m thankful that those 2 cops didn’t help me out, back in that alley.
Sometimes I curse them…..
But I know one thing for sure….
IT COULD HAVE BEEN A LOT WORSE.
I could have died…..and not known it.
Heaven has a special place for alcoholics….
It’s called “Hell on earth”
The good part is that we can leave anytime we want to….
We want to be anywhere but here…..
But it’s just so far away.