Skittering around the edge of the crowd, Penny did not approach me directly. Her dirty pink cap followed her eyes downward, arms folded tightly across her chest, she walked quickly, perhaps hoping I would notice and spare her the bravery of talking. And I did.
“Are you here for a shower today, Penny?”
Her head nodded quickly and I’d barely confirmed her on the list before she darted off to a distant bench, awaiting her turn.
Penny (not her real name) and a couple dozen others show up on Mondays at the shower truck in front of St. Mike’s church in Isla Vista, and for the last month, so have I.
David was rocking back and forth on the bench, waiting his turn for a shower. Last week, before his shower, he’d trimmed his hair in the parking lot, asking for help for the back of his neck, and it still looked good. Others shave while they wait, or charge laptops, or sleep. A few pairs take turns watching their dog while the other showers. But David was just sitting there waiting, glancing over to my table every now and then, hoping to hear me call his name.
I waited too, wishing one of the shower doors would open so I could relieve David of his temporary powerlessness. I thought about times I had waited – in a hotel lobby line to check in, at a restaurant table to order a second drink, in a phone queue with the credit card company. I don’t like waiting, and on my more assertive days, I might ask for the supervisor, or take my business elsewhere.
David was just waiting for a shower. And I was learning to wait with him.
The day I first went over to see what the shower truck was about, the volunteer coordinator Diane wasn’t there, so I met everyone else, observed, and became convinced of two things. One: how smart the Showers of Blessing organization was, to have asked the local houseless community what they needed most. Before launching their own ideas, they asked. And were perhaps a bit surprised to learn that one of the great needs of the community was something I have every day: a shower. Other volunteers have since added sack lunches, occasional boxes of clothes, and a fresh pair of socks and underwear for every shower taker.
The second thing I’m not as proud of. With my bias toward efficiency, I was convinced on that first day that they were well staffed and didn’t need my help, and told Diane that when she called to follow up. “I want to make a difference,” I said, “but I don’t want to go and do nothing.” (My deepest fear in life is boredom)
But the minute I got off the phone I felt the weight of it – that privilege again – and knew I needed to lose a few of its pounds. The feeling that my time is important becomes a self-righteous backpack that I rarely set down; its heft blocks me from looking someone in the eyes.
It’s about relationship. It’s about proximity. It’s about people.
And so I went back the next week. And this time, before I sat down at the white folding table where clients sign-in, I took a purposeful breath and said to myself, just like I’d learned to do in a quiet meditation: Be. Here. Now.
That’s it. Just be here. And see what happens.
And because the “here” was not my comfortable desk chair at home, something different happened.
By the way, Diane did put me to work: signing people in, handing out toiletries, keeping the shower queue moving. Turns out that first week had fewer clients and I was meant to be training anyway.
But there is still plenty of lag time, and sometimes I’ll use it to go sit on the waiting bench next to someone. Or listen to Jack’s rant about gas prices (many of the clients live in their cars). Or just look at the sky through the overhanging sycamore trees and think about the long shower I’ll take when I get home, where no one will knock on the door with a 2-minute warning.
With her shower done, Penny cautiously approached the food table next to me, where Wade was handing out sack lunches. Food now in hand, she hesitated – she seemed to want to ask something. Quietly, Penny asked Wade if there were any extra shoes. Wade dug around, and eventually directed Penny over to the truck where a box of spare and mostly men’s clothes sat. A few minutes later her quick pace had returned, approaching our table in a newish pair of women’s size 9 tennis shoes. She lifted her head just enough to show her eyes, and found words: “Thank you so much. This is unspeakable. Thank you.”
Peace to you, and may your thanksgiving is filled with, well, thanks giving. And hot showers.