It's snowing again and the temp is hovering around 20, which is a major improvement over the subzero temps we've been experiencing around here. I'm not complaining, mind, but this year I've really had a heart for our local homeless and it's been a brutal winter for them.
I work in an interesting part of town. Seventh street used to be the heart of Rockford. The original Stockholm Inn was here, a bakery, music store, clothing. Now it's a lot of empty buildings and a few of us trying to revitalize the neighborhood. A few blocks from us is a homeless day center and we frequently get visits from their clients, which is usually ok. They are pretty harmless and often just need a quick place to stop in to get warm. I am reminded by my boss that we do are a store; we do not offer services, but it's hard to send them back out into the cold.
A couple of fridays ago I was closing alone. I'd like to say that closing alone doesn't happen very often, but it does and I am generally ok with it. We have a police sub-station not far away and they make their presence known in the area. It was less than a half hour to close and there were several people in the store. I saw a man with a bag come in and greeted him, but after that there were other customers that needed my attention and I forgot about him. When the store emptied I went to close up and found him sitting at one of the tables in the Listening Room.
It was that one back in the corner. We keep tables set up for groups that hold meetings here or to make unpacking shipments easier. On his table he had unpacked a bag of chips, a slim jim, a twinkie, a HUGE can of Fosters and 3 hand rolled cigarettes of unknown origin. He was quietly humming to himself enjoying his gas station dinner. I explained that I was closing and that he would have to leave. He nodded, said he was aware of that and kept on eating his dinner.
To panic, or not to panic? He didn't seem like he would hurt me, but you never know. I decided that maybe turning off the lights would send the message a little more clearly, but even in the dark, he just kept on eating. I got my phone, dialed in 911 and went back for another confrontation explaining that he would have to leave now or I would call the police. At this point I was aware that he was VERY intoxicated and he started to engage me in conversation about where the nearest liquor store was (like he needed more of that) and where to find the door.
Slowly he packed up the remains of his dinner, carefully placed the cigarettes in his shirt pocket and moved to the door, all the while crying and begging me not to call the police. I'll admit that at this point I was beginning to get a little uneasy. He was fumbling with his coat and hat and he made me so sad to watch him. I told him I was going to lock the front door and if he wasn't gone by the time I got back I was pressing send. When I got back he was still standing, looking out the back door, still begging me not to call the police.....and I pressed send. He looked at me like he couldn't believe I would really do this, and left. The 911 operator sent a patrol car around. If they found him they never came back to tell me.
Later, when I had stopped shaking and had time to think about it, it occurred to me that something as simple as a quiet place to eat is something we/I take for granted. All he wanted was a little place to find some peace and eat. Ok, to drink and probably smoke something wacky, I'm not a complete fool. Still, how sad. It was obvious that he had not always been on the street, had not always walked in the dark looking in windows for a place to sit safely and warm. He reminded me to be always grateful.
Grateful for a roof and heat and warm showers and a soft bed that I share with the other half of my heart and soul. Grateful that winter can make me feel happy and safe instead of desperate. In this economy the distance between he and I is frighteningly narrow.
There by the grace.