Saturday, August 16, 2014

Tales from the Past

Stories are true...names have been changed.

Sandy was a petite woman with wavy red hair and curves, generously outlined by snug jeans and tees.  She tended towards cowboys and Harleys and managed the mental health drop-in with steel-laced eyes... eyes that pinned you against the wall letting you know she knew every lie and scam there was so-don’t-you-even-think-about-it. It was those eyes that once trapped me in her office. I had refused an on-call shift and although it was totally within my rights to do so, she wouldn’t let me leave until she found a replacement. I gamely stared back with false bravado but inside I was praying for rescue. It was clear that if it came down to the line I’d have to choose between working the shift or quitting my job. Either way, it felt like a losing proposition.  

I knew from the initial interview—three hours of relentless interrogation—that I didn’t want the job, but something made me say yes. Sure there was an empty bank account but Sandy had the charisma of your more popular despots, the kind you want to share a laugh with over beer. She was queen over a fairly wild membership of mostly dual-diagnosed men and women and a motley crew of employees that felt playing Euchre was the highest form of social work. In theory, the staff’s role was multifaceted: we dispensed meds, arranged shelter for those who found themselves homeless, listened to stories, and gave out food, pastries and such, from local restaurants but mostly, due to an unlocked door in a rough part of town, we were the bouncers—our job was about keeping a tenuous peace.

One day, not long after I got hired, one of the members got into a fight with an old timer. The latter was part of a group of men who had been grandfathered in, years before when the drop-in was for anyone who lived on the street. None of these guys were interested in activities, volunteer jobs or social niceties. When they were in residence our job was solely to monitor the general mood, keep things calm and provide safety for everyone else. The sound of chairs hitting the floor brought it all into focus. It was Stephanos and Jack.

Stephanos was a six-foot-five good looking man with a solid boxer’s frame and a belly gone soft. He had dark brown curls that teased big droopy eyes, a square jaw and dinner plate hands—scarred hands with over-sized knuckles that once performed hard, manual labour before psychosis took it all away. Heavy medication kept him quiet and docile but Crack, among other things, had a way to alter that rather fragile temperament.

Jack was the old timer. An excitable Italian scrapper, he was five foot 5 with a bulging paunch. Squint, and you could almost imagine him as one of Jimmy Hoffa’s retired henchmen. His nose was bent with bulging mercurial eyes, ruddy cheeks and expressive eyebrows that filled in the lines left vacant by brain damaged speech. You always knew what Jack was thinking and it was never something you’d pass on to your grandma. Alcohol was his main drug of choice but, sober or not, he was volatile and foul in both actions and garbled rhetoric.

We ran over to the commotion and found Jack doing a bit of jig on the floor—skirting around the table with false jabs and half-hearted kicks. His body already knew he was no match for Stephanos and his brain was fast catching up.  Stephanos, on the other hand, had no compunction and went in for the kill. We cleared the other members away. Someone called the cops and Sandy barged out of her office like a rodeo bull. She surmised the situation and, in her ever so cautious way, jumped on the back of Stephanos in an attempt to make him stop.

And, just as cautiously, he threw her off.

She crumbled into the corner while Jack used the distraction to make his escape. Stephanos' eyes bore into us, searching for his nemesis. Not finding him, he slammed a chair into the table and stormed out.

I walked over to Sandy who was dusting herself off with broad slaps. As I was new to the job I was curious of her methods. My gut told me it was stupid but a part of me, however scared, was marveling at her machismo. She pushed aside questions of care and so I asked, somewhat hesitantly, if that was policy: are we to get involved in fights? She looked at me a long time. It was if she was measuring me up, debating my worth to hear her response. Finally she said: I’ve never backed down from a fight yet.  

Most times, however, the drop-in was fairly quiet. As long as food came out at the scheduled times and we kept the drunk and wired folk out, the members played cards, drank coffee and chatted about the mundane activities of street life. Some just sat and stared off into never-never land. They were the hardest to engage but that was the most important (or should have been) part of our job: to encourage, support and enliven people; help them feel a part of their community.

I was sitting there one afternoon trying to engage a seemingly lost woman when a couple of older men started conversing across adjacent tables. It was cheque day so the drop-in was almost empty.  Just a few hung out, those who especially wanted to stay away from the mardi gras outside. Dan was a rough looking sixty-year-old with khaki green pants and jacket and a matching soldier’s cap. Never said much but never caused trouble or concern either. He had a sparse, crinkly smile that crackled against his unshaved chin and an almost genteel politeness that was only witnessed by those he felt deserving.

Bill was seated two tables over, enjoying a smoke in the unusual quiet. More heavyset than Dan, he wore ill fitting polyester pants and jacket—the usual findings in free bins—old sneakers and a smudged blue dress shirt. His jaundiced fingers trembled as he rolled a cigarette and his head betrayed a mild Parkinson-like movement, as if forever denying life. He spoke like a truck rolling over gravel at midnight: Just don’t like him, he said.  

Dan nodded, slowly, considering. Time rolled by. Yep.

Ever see him lift a finger to pull his weight?


Bill’s shake gained indignant momentum: Relies totally on his woman. She’s out there working the streets, every night. Him? Ha! Won’t even steal something. Fuckin’ loser.


I refocused on the woman next to me. She was mouthing something in her usual way, no sound but definite words. I paid more attention, the lip movements repeating over and over again. She began to rock to the same rhythm. I mimicked her actions trying to make sense of them and, soon enough, both of us were rocking back and forth, mouthing two words over and over again.  The meaning came clear: fuckin’ loser, fuckin’ loser. She looked up at me and let go a dry, somewhat irritated noise. I stopped rocking. The noise got louder and harsher. I got up to call for help when I suddenly realized she was laughing. 
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