Hey there Sunshine, I’m back yet again! Sitting at work today, trying to put back together the pieces of my life recently. You know how things go with me (and with pretty much every one else out there these days): as soon as things start to fall into place, other things start crumbling down around them.
One thing that had been crumbling for me for many years was my identity. I would find an event, or an activity that I really enjoyed and that brought some sort of sense of accomplishment into my life. Then I’d try to cram my life full of a reasonable facsimile of that thing. I didn’t sit down and think, “What about this makes me happy? What about it brings me joy? What other things could bring me the same feeling?”. No, I just rushed out there and tried to cram crap into my life.
Case in point, for 10 years I helped out with one very specific fundraiser. The frat boys I hung around with did an event every fall called Homeless for the Homeless. Basically, they would make a shelter on campus out of wooden skids, cardboard boxes, tarps, and twine. Then, they would “live” in this shelter for three days. No one person stayed the entire time. They made a schedule so people could go to class, and go to work, and take the time to eat and warm up somewhere. But at night, a bunch of people would all hang out until the wee hours of the morning, and part of that group would actually sleep in the shelter. The entire time everyone involved would be collecting food, money, clothes, and blankets for the local Downtown Mission.
I spent a few year sleeping in the shelter. Every year, I would gather up bags of clothes and food to bring down to donate. There were even a few times when no frat brother was available to supervise the site, my friend and I were the ones left in charge. I helped build 6 different shelters, tore down 8 of them, and got to remind the design team each year why we needed a peaked tarp roof (the Year of the Flat Roof also happened to be the Year of the Sleet Storm and the Year the Roof Caved In in Multiple Places During the Night). It didn’t matter how cold, or wet, or sleep deprived I got. Something about this one particular fundraiser seemed to give me life.
So what do I do? I sign up for ALL the fundraisers!
I joined student groups that I didn’t give a crap about in university. I marched in protests, walked in parades, sold cupcakes for charity, baked cupcakes for charity, and even once walked around in a blizzard wearing a banana costume over my clothes. None of these things gave me the same feeling as that one fundraiser, so I figured I just needed more fundraisers.
Looking back now, I see the error of my ways. That one fundraiser had meaning to me. At one point in time, I spent sporadic nights sleeping on the street. I had to make a box of mac’n’cheese last me three days. I once had nothing to eat in my cupboard for a week but two cans of corn, a Mr. Noodle, a loaf of bread, and half a jar of peanut butter. I had a very rough idea of what it’s like to be homeless (though I did have somewhere to go back to after a day or three, it’s a very long story). I knew what it was like to go to bed hungry and not know if I would eat the next day. I had used the food bank at the mission quite a few times, bringing home zip-lock bags of rice and butter wrapped in tin foil.
Basically, this one fundraiser I did every year was super important to me, deep in the cockles of my heart. Maybe in the sub-cockles, maybe in the liver, maybe in the kidney, maybe even in the colon. But it was me giving back to somewhere that had helped me so much 15 years ago now, and helping people who were in situations similar to what I had been through. My heart wasn’t in the act of fundraising, it was in helping the homeless.
It took me many, many years to realize this, though. I poured myself into volunteering with every single organization and campaign that asked me. I can remember standing in the Student Center in my fourth year of university, selling Cinnabons for a social justice organization. I was on their board of directors and chair of their Event Planning and Fundraising Committee, but couldn’t find the need in me to throw myself into any campaign. I think I failed at every single event I tried to put on, the Cinnabon sale included.
When I was transferred to the store downtown last year, I knew that there were changes coming. I swore that I would be true to myself, and not lose what made me me. I was determined to be the girl behind the counter who wore funny hats, danced to the radio, and marathoned Vines like they were going out of style (which they kinda did, since Vine is just gone). I thought that these were the things important to me, that these were the things that made me special.
Over the summer, Strength came into my store without a shirt on and was asked to leave. He came back in a minute later wearing jeans wrapped around his neck like a scarf. My manager came out to talk to him while he stood there shirtless in my line. Here was this super buff shirtless man standing here, trying to reason with management that his jeans/scarf concoction was no different than a woman in a tube top or a man in one of those ridiculous tank tops that is basically thread with a loose band of fabric around their middle. I’m not going to lie, Sunshine, the man was majestically gorgeous, all glistening and sweaty. He argued with my manager for a bit, giggled at my reply to his questionable fashion, and then said something I wasn’t expecting.
“I’m homeless. Where the hell am I supposed to get a shirt?”
This majestic being in front of me didn’t look like my preconceived notion of what a homeless person should look like. He was goofy and sincere, muscly and in shape, and he was cute as hell! In the movies homeless people were always dirty and stinky and covered in poop. This man looked like the opposite of that, and I was seriously shocked.
After arguing for a while, Strength was asked to leave and not come back. A few months later, he stopped in on a Sunday when I was in charge. He said he didn’t want to cause any trouble or bother anyone, he just wanted to apologize for his behaviour. He shook my hand and told me that he was all kinds of messed up, but he wanted to at least be the kind of man who could walk into our store and buy something. I got him to talk to our manager later that week, and soon Strength was a regular fixture.
One day, they shut down the streets for a festival for half the day. Strength was running around cleaning up garbage, directing traffic in our tiny parking lot, acting as security for roadside stands, and even playing basketball with random people. Once the festivities had died down and the streets had reopened, I found him curled up in a ball in the back of our parking lot. Up until that point I had been very hesitant about getting to know any of the regular homeless folk in the area. But for whatever reason that day, I just walked right over and plopped down next to him. We spent my break talking about how much work he had done, and how much I appreciated him keeping our parking lot clean and accident free. In the end I gave him the last dollar I had, plus the bag of snacks I had just bought.
From that day forward, something changed. Strength and I started hanging out in the parking lot. When I started my second job, he would (and still does) randomly meet me so that I don’t have to walk back to my car alone. After he was banned again from our store (another long story), we spent a month apart and then jumped right into coffee dates and hanging out in fast food places together. I had started keeping bags with socks, snacks, and rain ponchos in my car for him. In that month apart, I would search downtown for him and pass out whatever I had in my bag to others who needed it.
I know it sounds more than a little crazy, but hanging out with him awoke something in me. Being with him, helping others in his position, it gave me the same feeling as the old Homeless for the Homeless fundraisers. Ironically, this past year was the first time in more than 20 years that fundraiser hasn’t run. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine myself walking through alleyways in the middle of a rainy afternoon, passing out ponchos. I never expected to be happy to see a homeless meth addict walk through the doors of my workplace. These were not things I was taught were good things.
I know that some people take issue with me doing some of the things I do, and that they especially take issue with my friendship with Strength. But the people who know him, the people I work with at both of my jobs, for the most part get it. We all worry about him, but no one there does more than me. Sounds crazy, right?
But this man somehow reminded me of the things that were important to me. When I looked at him and thought, “Well that’s not what a homeless person looks like”, I had to ask myself “then what did I look like 15 years ago?”. Most people don’t know much about that part of my life, but since meeting him I’ve been able to talk about it a lot more freely. I’m a lot more comfortable in my own skin, and I’m doing the things that make me feel like me.
The strangest thing, though, is that the things that I thought made me so special before really don’t hold much meaning to me now. I didn’t bust out the tiny hats this Christmas, at all. I still dance at work, but not in the same way I used to. And I haven’t had a good old Vine marathon in ages (although a coworker and I do still quote them to each other). The things that I thought were important to me were just things others noticed about me, regardless of how I felt about them.
I guess in finding myself downtown, I lost the West End me. I had to lose myself to find myself?
I know this is all rambly, Sunshine, but there is a lot going on here. I’ve gone through some super huge changes since my last run on this blog, and it looks like I may have some huge and super hard changes coming up in the near future. This change, finding both strength and Strength, are a precurser to many things going on right now.