`I think I will not forget this'

I NEVER learned her name. But she spotted me across the room - the common area of the shelter for the homeless which served as her living room. If I wasn't exactly a guest in her house, then I was just another reporter doing another story on the homeless. She was the one who lived here. She was the one with a story to tell. I arrived at the shelter in the early evening. Just before supper. Just in time to catch the nightly intake of the hundreds of men and women who, through alcoholism, or mental illness, or just plain hard times, had nowhere to call home but this shelter. It was one of a dozen in dozens of cities, tucked away in a commercial part of town where warehouses and loading docks didn't form neighborhood coalitions against the housing of the homeless.

I was here to put a face on what I thought was an all-too-faceless social problem. I had stepped around my share of breathing bodies lying on the side-walk in front of department stores. I had argued with myself over whether to feel anger or pity or simply gratitude that it wasn't me lying there gloveless and filthy. Mostly, I wondered how people could live like that.

That's where the woman came in. The woman with neatly filed nails and beautiful skin who didn't wait for me but simply walked across the room and asked me if I was from a newspaper. Her breath smelled faintly of mint and she wore a yellow sweater. I thought at first she was a staff member, and told her I was touring the facility. Come back and talk to me, she said. I'll tell you what it's like to live here.

I was taken first to the men's side of the shelter, to their front door where I watched them being frisked, a man in a black baseball jacket running his hands lightly down their sides as the men stood silently in the first of many lines - a line for admittance, a line for supper, a line for bed. Here, there are only two rules: no guns, no violence. The men had only to get across the threshold to get a bed for the night. If they came late, they joined the 200 others lying on benches or the floor of the day room or the lobby. Every night it was the same. No one was turned away.

One man was lying in the doorway with a pink electric blanket wrapped around him, cradling a boom box. The man next to him was snoring. His coat was greasy with dirt and served as a pillow for both of them. Neither of them noticed me stepping over them, or the officer who stood a few feet away. A policeman was posted here 24 hours. Just in case. Overhead fluorescent lights blazed. They stay on all night, I am told. All night someone will be awake - awake and walking, awake and talking to someone or to themselves. All night the phone will ring.

Upstairs in the painted cement block rooms, I walk by rows of twin beds with rounded edges - nothing sharp here - and plastic-covered mattresses. Three hundred men sleep on secondhand designer sheets and under donated blankets. Each bed is made up for the night. Outside in the hall, someone's heels click by, and the low rumble from the men standing downstairs, crowded and jostling, rises up the stairwell.

It must be easier to be a woman here, I think. It is less crowded for them. They are neater. No torn bread crusts and spilled cups of soup in the corners. No loud bursts of laughter.

WHEN I am taken to their side of the shelter, a woman pushes open the door wearing a rabbit fur coat and suede boots. For a minute I think she works here, until I am told that the donations here are good ones, that the bulging sacks under the stairwell belong to the bag ladies, that the women do not steal from one another, that some of them do arts and crafts here. There are homemade paintings hanging on the walls.

Now, it is dinner time for the women. They sit on benches alongside a wall waiting for an empty chair. It is almost like a restaurant, I think, but not quite. Women from a local church are serving the meal, cafeteria-style. The handwritten menu is posted at the head of the line: three kinds of sandwiches, pea soup, and fruit. At the plastic-covered picnic tables, the women eat neatly. They do not talk, only peel back the wax paper from the sandwiches and take small bites. They do not look at one another or anyone else.

Soon it will be time for bed. Lights here go out at 9 p.m. No exceptions. The women will go upstairs, stand in line, put their clothes in a bin, put a rubberized band around their wrist. The band has a metal tab with a number on it. It is the number for their bed. In the middle of the night, if someone should call, the women can be located by number. Next, a woman staff member takes their clothes, hands them a nightgown and a towel. Both are clean and folded. There is some lace on one of the nightgowns. The women's own clothes are put into the ``oven,'' where they bake all night. This is to dry them and to kill lice. Then they take a shower. No exceptions. The women's showers are stalls fitted with curtains, not like the men's, a bare room with a guard posted. ``No more than 5 minutes in the shower,'' says a sign taped to the wall. It is almost like being back in gym class, I think. But it isn't. It isn't a school. It isn't even a home. And I still wonder how people can live like this.

I make my way down the stairs, under the cold fluorescent lights and with the smell of antiseptic all around me. Now the woman in the yellow sweater finds me again, corners me here in the common room. She doesn't wait for my questions, but starts to tell me that all the women here are unique, that it is not easy or right to categorize them. That is her word, categorize. She tells me that the women are divorced or displaced or just couldn't deal with the life they were dealt. She tells me that it is hard to get stabilized when you do not have a job. She has lived here 3 weeks; this is her address. She tells me she is going back to school, that she is working on her secretarial skills. She tells me she is from Cleveland, has a job here now but not the $600 a month for an apartment. ``You know they give foot soaks here every night,'' she says. ``Some of the women really need them.''

Outside it has begun to snow. I would like to go home. Or sit down, just for a minute. But the woman hasn't finished. She hands me a scrap of paper she took from the bulletin board that morning. ``This says it for a lot of us,'' she says, looking right at me. She is not smiling. Someone yells for her to come pick up her things from the floor. I look down at the paper. The handwriting is in faint blue ink: ``These times remind me of a situation I never want to realize again.''

I LOOK up at the woman. She is not smiling. Remember, she says, everyone here is different, everyone here is an individual. I think I will not forget this, when I am out walking and see a woman pulling bottles from a trash can with dirty, ungloved hands and I start to wonder how can people live like this.

I think I will remember this when I am tired and want to go home or sit down, just for a minute. I will remember the woman with no home, the woman with the neatly filed nails practicing her typing skills. I think I will remember that persistence does not have any particular address or wear any specific outfit; that courage can be found in a gnarled hand gripping the lip of a garbage can.

But mostly I think I will remember that compassion is not limited to those who can write checks or their representative or articles for newspapers, that empathy might be most easily found among those with their heads bowed over bowls of donated soup, and that concern for one's fellow human beings, as in the case of this one woman, does not even have to come with a name.

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