Early in December I made a bonus visit to the soup kitchen because one of my fellow chaplaincy students wanted to see what it’s like there. I thought she might get the best feel for the place if she suited up and did some bussing, and after being warmly welcomed by about ten people, just as I was welcomed on my first day, she put on an apron and plunged right in. After shadowing me for a bit, she went off on her own and bussed like a pro.
I didn’t see B. or D., who I had not seen in weeks. It was kind of rainy, as on many of the days I’ve been there recently, so it may be that D. was snuggled up in his RV. He seems like the kind of person you’d only see when it’s sunny. Maybe something similar happens for B.: if he has a dry spot, he very well may not want to get all his stuff wet. Then again, maybe he is dead, or in the hospital, or has gone to another city. I might never know, and I might never see him or D., again. I know my heart is going to get broken a million times at the soup kitchen. There is an inspiring quote from Viktor Frankl in the front of every issue of The Sun: “What is to give light must endure burning.”
A member of the intentional community that runs the soup kitchen has a friend, G., who comes from New York City a couple or few times a year to visit. G. is 90 and plays the piano in the soup kitchen dining room. He’s a lovely fellow. I got to chat with him at one of the volunteer potlucks. On this day, I thanked him for the beautiful music, and not 20 minutes later, I saw some commotion in his area: something had happened. I was worried that he had had a heart attack and expired on the spot, but it turned out that, as he sat on the piano bench, he had suddenly started to fall over backward. Fortunately, the guest sitting just behind him caught him before he fell entirely to the floor, likely preventing a head injury. The paramedics were summoned and took him away. He was lucid and able to walk, slowly, to the ambulance, but he looked forlorn and dazed.
I got a chance to visit with my new friend, H., a guest who is a poet and playwright. Re Ferguson, MO, and Cleveland, and NYC (and NYC, and NYC) he said he thinks that police officers should not work more than three days a week, given the extreme stress of the job. That’s a good idea. We agreed that if white police officers had African-American or brown-skinned friends, that might help. When we don’t know a single person who is gay, it’s easy to be homophobic, but when we have gay acquaintances, friends, or co-workers, gay people start to seem not so bad. I wonder how friendships could be facilitated between police officers and people of color. I heard lately some mention by a police officer of knocking on every single door in his area and meeting the people who live there. I’ll bet if every police officer did the same thing annually, that would make a profound difference.
The first Saturday in December was my long-awaited first visit to Laguna Honda as a chaplain. I called Bob several days prior and left him a message reminding him I’d be coming, but was fortunate to find him in his office, as he had not gotten the message. Normally he has people shadow him on a few resident visits before they solo, but he had a group of volunteers he had to be with, so he was forced to deploy me on my own.
List of residents lately arrived at the hospital in hand, I went to the rehab unit and met the resident I will likely never forget, simply because he’s the first person I spoke with at length there, just as I will never forget B. at the soup kitchen, the first guest I had a long chat with, on my very first day.
I might also never forget A. because, like the soup kitchen’s guests, he is homeless, and kept out of trouble by “recycling” (picking up cans and bottles with a resale value) in the “TL” (Tenderloin). Two months ago, he was shot in the back by an unseen assailant—the bullet is still in his back—and now he is permanently paralyzed from the waist down. He was at San Francisco General Hospital for acute treatment for two months and had just arrived at Laguna Honda a couple of days earlier. He was remarkably equanimous, saying he must now learn how to live this new life, though he teared up a time or two.
He said that he had made a point of trying to help others get food and clothing, etc., while on the streets, and in particular he helped a certain woman, who, in those two months, had not showed up to visit him. Painful. However, he has a brother in another state he hopes to be back in touch with soon.
After A., I visited with six other residents, including a slight fellow who said money had been stolen from him, ditto his credit card. His medication is wrongfully being withheld from him and he can’t sleep. There’s something wrong with his wheelchair and he wants it fixed. His roommate, C., said it’s been a long month, and here I would deploy a smiley face if this blog went in for that kind of thing. C. insightfully observed that his roommate’s problem is that he thinks he can change everything. As C. and I spoke, I could hear his roommate moaning, “This is a nightmare.”
C. told me he was assaulted and has had to have one of his eyes operated on. Next the other eye must be operated on, and then his brain. The first eye surgery went well and he thinks the second will be fine, too, but he’s worried about the brain surgery, whose outcome is not as certain. He asked for my card when I left. I don’t have one, but I wrote down my name and “Spiritual Care Department.”
At the end of two hours, I went to make a report to Bob, who seemed pleased that I’d visited so many residents. He said next time I can shadow him on a few visits.
Back at the elevator, who should be sitting there but the fellow who told me I’m lucky I can walk, precisely where I saw him before. Near him was another guy in a wheelchair, kind of a country-looking guy, who said to the first, “You haven’t told anyone to go to hell lately. Did they tell you to stop doing that?”
Complete silence on the part of the other party seemed to indicate an affirmative answer.
I got into the elevator with the country-looking resident, who observed, “You’re an interesting-looking person.”
“Because of the big mop of hair?”, I suggested.
“That’s part of it,” he agreed.
More flattering was the resident who, upon passing me in a doorway, shrieked, “Wow!” (I politely said “Wow!” back.)
And then there was the woman I passed in a dining area who called to me, “You’re a sweetheart! You don’t know how much I love you!” I hope that’s the kind of old lady I will be, or the kind of dementia I end up with.
Back at home, I made a nice document with a table of contents to keep track of my visits with residents at Laguna Honda. I may or may not be a good chaplain, but I’m going to chart like a mofo.