Morning arrived with fury, and I was not well rested. The shelter staff was kicking the beds of everyone still asleep into gear and yelling out the time-frames and instructions for breakfast.
To say the morning wasn’t cold would be a lie; at least it was for me. I was freezing, but the weather outside was warm and muggy, and I was very ill. Luckily, my diet had primarily consisted of liquids throughout this experience. I also didn’t draw too much attention to myself as I fit in with the dope-sick crowd in the bathroom who were also involuntarily flushing their systems, but for another reason.
I then made my way outside to stand in the chow line that starts in front of city shelter and thanks to the delay; my place in the line was in the street. Here I was, increasingly ill, and thought that I just needed to eat, but I was out of my element and confused. The people at the front of the line were fighting over who is first in line, while I moved to the end of the line as I was increasing nauseous. I tried to take in the morning air and observed the clatter of the line. From my new vantage point, I dug out a small notepad and began writing my notes and observations as if this was to be my last act on Earth.
The Chapel Waiting Area
A thousand thoughts were racing through my mind as I was trying to capture the details and high points from the last day and a half. My headline was a scribble to the effect of, ‘Is this breakfast and is this part over yet?” Although it was not, nor would it be anytime soon. There was a delay on breakfast, the volunteers had not shown up to cook it and we were herded into an adjoining structure, a chapel. You would have never known it was a chapel until you were inside.
We were instructed to fill the pews. Directly behind me, a group of people with extreme southern accents played Insane Clown Posse over portable speakers in competition with the noise of the chapel. This noise within the chapel was a wave and the wave not praising the name of the lord. Conversations about things to do, narcotics had followed them inside, as well as stories of recent arrests, robberies, and being sold bad drugs. Dialogues such as this carried on until a scene worthy of a prison movie exploded loud enough to turn the chapel quite.
The silencing event occurred only a few pews in front of me. A man had left his coat on the pew and walked off, but shortly after he left another man sat down where the coat was. When the man who left returned he did not appreciate that his coat was being sat upon or that his seat was taken.
The two men rose to their feet and began posturing and name calling. They half-circled around each other, sizing themselves and the situation up, while shouting like savage beasts in the wild. The crowd was oddly quiet, no one jumped in and no one antagonized the situation. There were, of course, murmurs and rumors about the cause and outcome, but nothing based in this reality.
Suddenly, and as if nothing ever happened, the man who originally possessed the seat took his seat back without conflict and no further verbal exchange. He simply sat down and the other man found another seat a few pews back.
The wave of noise immediately returned, and it swelled again into a surge of speech about the odds and ends on addiction and being homeless. Throughout the room, a buffet of idioms and catchphrases that were consumed too swiftly to be held or digested filled the air. When this noise seemed to reach the peak from before the seat incident, a man appeared amidst the chaos of the crowded chapel. He went to the altar, and near the podium he opened a tiny trapdoor on the floor. A new noise was inflicted upon us, as he played a tape of poorly produced, Christian Contemporary Music at a level loud enough to drown out all other sounds.
I scanned the room for a reaction, and observed the looks of disgust, confusion, discomfort, and anger on the faces of the people in reaction to the music. This music has produced side effects worthy of an FDA-regulated warning. I don’t know how long we were in there for, I just know that it was entirely too long.
The music finally stopped and conversations picked up across the room as if they were simply paused, but an announcement for breakfast was called. The crowd only then turned from chaos to order like cattle to their pens for feeding time. Food had method out of madness and a chow line formed.
Breakfast was made simple with my tray hosting only a glass of water. I found an empty chair at a table where at least one of the men present appeared to be a veteran. There I introduced myself and listened. I concentrated on one man who was the most interesting, because his attire is what caught my eye to the table.
This man wore a safety vest and a hard hat, and on the hard hat the left side was covered with site safety stickers, the other with Disabled American Veteran Stickers, all of them were worn. At the table, he discussed his job and the construction work he was to be performing after eating. He voiced concerns about what to do for lunch as was hopeful to be off work before dinner was no longer being served.
This at first glance was almost heartwarming; a man who can’t afford to pay for it all, but is still trying his best. Then the reality of the story hit, while this man is trying his best, there is an issue.
He kept telling his story and not for my benefit, but he was catching up with an older woman at the table. The man explained that he can’t afford to fix his car because he was trying to support, his now ex-wife’s addiction. He stated that they were sharing an apartment uncomfortably and that is wasn’t looking good. The woman explained that he needed to get out of there, not because it was unhealthy but because, “she don’t need to be smoking your money.”
Their conversation carried on throughout breakfast and it stayed with me because the man involved was trying to keep it all together no matter the cost.
It was not apparent if he was a veteran, so as his conversation tapered off I asked about the stickers on his hard hat, and he replied,
“Oh yeah, these. It’s all I got left to remember my time.”
I followed up, “May I ask what your time was?”
He shook his head and smiled, then said,
When I was young and stupid. I ran off and joined the Navy, and I wish I had stayed. I ain’t never seen as many things as I saw then, done so much, been so many places. Man, I had it made. But the whole time I was there all I could think about was rushing home, for six years. Damn.
On that, he wished everyone at the table a good day and excused himself for work.
Airborne, Ranger, SEAL, Green Beret
In that moment, I forgot about being ill and I took a moment to let his words and situation sink in. I took out my notepad to get it all down. As I was writing, another man sat down in front of me and introduced himself as Chris. I continued to write as we spoke and this is our conversation,
Chris: Are you asking about veterans? You know he was a SEAL right, but he don’t tell no one.
Buck: Who, the man I was just speaking with, and how do you know he was a SEAL?
Chris: Yeah, yeah, yeah – that’s my man James. You see, we were SEALs together, yes sir.
Buck: Is that right?
Chris: Mmmhmm. That’s right, yes sir, yes sir. Me and James, back in ’96. We joined the Marines together, as Airborne, Ranger, SEALs, we put our Green Berets on that year too. Yeah, we were good boy. Ain’t nobody could fuck with a couple of badasses like we is. Oh, oh, sorry about the language.
Buck: Why are you telling me this?
Chris: Oh, well, uh, ain’t you with that teacher from that school? I heard, ya’lls is coming this weekend. I figure ya’ll need help, you know, security and all. Keep you folks safe out here. But, uh, you know, uh, James if gonna have to work. But I gots ya. I keep all you folks safe.
Buck: I’m not with the school. I am here just like you.
Chris: Nah, you ain’t fool us. We saw you yesterday. You were here before with that teacher.
Buck: OK, I was. But, let’s do this. I was also in the military and everything you just said was a lie.
Chris: Oh, well, uh. You see, what had happened was that, uh. Well, you too young to know about this stuff, uh, it’s classified, highly top secret. You don’t know nothing about our level, boy.
Buck: Alright, well I have to get going.
Chris: Hold up alright. Damn, be cool. Hey, what you gonna tell that teacher?
Buck: Nothing, I’m not with him.
Chris: Look, uh, look. I’m having some hard times. Can you help me out, look I’m trying to get over to the VA, I just need some bus fare. They think I got that PTSD. Man, please though. Don’t say nothing to that teacher, though. I can’t get kicked out of here.
Buck: OK. (I gave him a ball of singles from my pocket.)
Chris: Oh my man, alright. Hey, I’m going to be protection you. You’re, uh, under my protection. I got you, and all your little friends from the school. You go an’ tell your teach that all ya’s is safe down here from here on out.
I was physically ill prior to this exchange with Chris, but now my brain was also in pain. If I had felt better, I would have been more confrontational. Regardless, I just wanted to get to use someone’s phone and get a ride home.
Breakfast was the highlight of my week.
This narrative has been a snapshot of a few people, from one city, in America. If there was one success in the field during the experience, it was to accommodate and better the understanding of the homeless veteran community; even it was a small fraction. In the end, they’re people like everyone else, but they have made decisions which are now impacting their lives in negative ways.
This is where this narrative will end, for now.
As for my illness, I had earned a case of dysentery for my efforts. It wasn’t my first round with that mini-plague. I was off and on sick with it and the after effects of it through this past weekend, good times. Whenever I’m in the dirt and get this bug, I always reflect on my very first case of dysentery, the day I vomited on my First Sergeant’s boots. But that’s a story for another time.
Featured Image – Wikimedia Commons