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07 Apr 98

Shelter

At the Shelter

There's a woman named Mary, she grabs my vest from the chair back and says, "this would look good on me." She puts it on.

"But I need it," I say. "For work."

"Yah, I know," she says, giving it back. Lots of missing teeth in that grin. Alcoholism and no brushing, or heroin. Probably alcoholism and bad nutrition. Junkies aren't fat, right?

One night I sat in on the coin distribution. Ordered straight from the Hazelden catalog. 30 days abstinent, 60 days abstinent, 90 day coins, a year. They held hands. The social worker pulled the coins from her purse. One of the women took my hand. God Grant Me The Serenity.

A very pretty woman gives writing lessons for the homeless women every Wednesday. To help the women tell their stories, making sense of them. She also sat in on the coin distribution. She'd just come back from Hong Kong. She gave out fake money, the Hell Notes that you burn for your ancestors' spirits, as a gift.

They all say it, or something like it, as the meeting moves in a circle: "If I can do it, anyone can." Then they sleep, and I go into the other room and spread out on the green plastic mattress with my book: Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony. I'm finding it hard to follow. The sheets say, "Department of Homeless Services" in black stamped lettering.

They need one non-homeless person to sleep there, by law, when there are homeless people in the other room. That's me, or some other volunteer. I used to not tell anyone I did this. I figured they'd think I was bleeding heart. But it's part of the fabric of my month, two or three or more nights over in the basement of the Ethical Culture Society on 63rd St. Maybe because I had a bed given to me when I went to Milton Hershey School, a school for poor kids in Hershey PA. Or maybe because it's a place to sleep like any other.


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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