Of course, the apartment was empty when I returned Friday night, but with a new twist. There was a note on the kitchen counter. Following my cue, Claire had gone home to Providence for a couple of days. No reason was given. She asked me to phone when I got home.
I called her parents' and interrupted dinner. I labored through a five-minute chat in which it was determined that both of us were indeed fine, Memphis was fine and so was Providence, the families were fine, and she would return sometime Sunday afternoon.
I hung up, fixed coffee, and drank a cup staring out the bedroom window, watching the traffic crawl along P Street, still covered with snow. If any of the snow had melted, it wasn't obvious.
I suspected Claire was telling her parents the same dismal story I had burdened mine with. It was sad and odd and yet somehow not surprising that we were being honest with our families before we faced the truth ourselves. I was fired of it and determined that one day very soon, perhaps as early as Sunday, we would sit somewhere, probably at the kitchen table, and confront reality. We would lay bare our feelings and fears and, I was quite sure, start planning our separate futures. I knew she wanted out, I just didn't know how badly.
I practiced the words I would say to her out loud until they sounded convincing, then I went for a long walk. It was ten degrees with a sharp wind, and the chill cut through my trench coat. I passed the handsome homes and cozy rowhouses, where I saw real families eating and laughing and enjoying the warmth, and moved onto M Street, where throngs of those suffering from cabin fever filled the sidewalks. Even a freezing Friday night on M was never dull; the bars were packed, the restaurants had waiting lines, the coffee shops were filled.
I stood at the window of a music club, listening to the blues with snow packed around my ankles, watching the young couples drink and dance. For the first time in my life, I felt like something other than a young person. I was thirty-two, but in the last seven years I had worked more than most people do in twenty. I was fired, not old but bearing down hard on middle age, and I admitted that I was no longer fresh from college. Those pretty girls in there would never look twice at me now.
I was frozen, and it was snowing again. I bought a sandwich, stuffed it into a pocket, and slogged my way back to the apartment. I fixed a strong drink, and a small fire, and I ate in the semidarkness, very much alone.
In the old days, Claire's absence for the weekend would have given me guilt-free grounds to live at the office. Sitting by the fire, I was repulsed by that thought. Drake & Sweeney would be standing proudly long after I was gone, and the clients and their problems, which had seemed so crucial, would be tended to by other squads of young lawyers. My departure would be a slight bump in the road for the firm, scarcely noticeable. My office would be taken minutes after I walked out.
At some time after nine, the phone rang, jolting me from a long, somber daydream. It was Mordecai Green, speaking loudly into a cell phone. "Are you busy?" he asked.
"Uh, not exactly. What's going on?"
"It's cold as hell, snowing again, and we're short on manpower. Do you have a few hours to spare?"
"To do what?"
"To work. We really need able bodies down here. The shelters and soup kitchens are packed, and we don't have enough volunteers."
"I'm not sure I'm qualified."
"Can you spread peanut butter on bread?"
"I think so."
"Then you're qualified."
"Okay, where do I go?"
"We're ten blocks or so from the office. At the intersection of Thirteenth and Euclid, you'll see a yellow church on your right. Ebenezer Christian Fellowship. We're in the basement."
I scribbled this down, each word getting shakier because Mordecai was calling me into a combat zone. I wanted to ask if I should pack a gun. I wondered if he carried one. But he was black, and I wasn't. What about my car, my prized Lexus?
"Got that?" he growled after a pause.
"Yeah. Be there in twenty minutes," I said bravely, my heart already pounding.
I changed into jeans, a sweatshirt, and designer hiking boots. I took the credit cards and most of the cash out of my wallet. In the top of a closet, I found an old wool-lined denim jacket, stained with coffee and paint, a relic from law school, and as I modeled it in the mirror I hoped it made me look non-affluent. It did not. If a young actor wore it on the cover of Vanity Fair, a trend would start immediately.
I desperately wanted a bulletproof vest. I was scared, but as I locked the door and stepped into the snow, I was also strangely excited.
* * *
The drive-by shootighs and gang attacks I had expected did not materialize. The weather kept the streets empty and safe, for the moment. I found the church and parked in a lot across the street. It looked like a small cathedral, at least a hundred years old and no doubt abandoned by its original congregation.
Around a comer I saw some men huddled together, waiting by a door. I brushed past them as if I knew exactly where I was going, and I entered the world of the homeless.
As badly as I wanted to barge ahead, to pretend I had seen this before and had work to do, I couldn't move. I gawked in amazement at the sheer number of poor people stuffed into the basement. Some were lying on the floor, trying to sleep. Some were sitting in groups, talking in low tones. Some were eating at long tables and others in their folding chairs. Every square inch along the walls was covered with people sitting with their backs to the cinder blocks. Small children cried and played as their mothers tried to keep them close. Winos lay rigid, snoring through it all. Volunteers passed out blankets and walked among the throng, handing out apples.
The kitchen was at one end, bustling with action as food was prepared and served. I could see Mordecai in the background, pouring fruit juice into paper cups, talking incessantly. A line waited patiently at the serving tables.
The room was warm, and the odors and aromas and the gas heat mixed to create a thick smell that was not unpleasant. A homeless man, bundled up much like Mister, bumped into me and it was time to move.
I went straight to Mordecai, who was delighted to see me. We shook hands like old friends, and he introduced me to two volunteers whose names I never heard.
"It's crazy," he said. "A big snow, a cold snap, and we work all night. Grab that bread over there." He pointed to a tray of sliced white bread. I took it and followed him to a table.
"It's real complicated. You got bologna here, mustard and mayo there. Half the sandwiches get mustard, half get mayo, one slice of bologna, two slices of bread. Do a dozen with peanut butter every now and then. Got it?"
"You catch on quick." He slapped me on the shoulder and disappeared.
I hurriedly made ten sandwiches, and declared myself to be proficient. Then I slowed, and began to watch the people as they waited in line, their eyes downcast but always glancing at the food ahead. They were handed a paper plate, a plastic bowl and spoon, and a napkin. As they shuffled along, the bowl was filled with soup, half a sandwich was placed on the plate, then an apple and a small cookie were added. A cup of apple juice was waiting at the end.
Most of them said a quiet "Thanks" to the volunteer handing out the juice, then they moved away, gingerly holding the plate and bowl. Even the children were still and careful with their food.
Most seemed to eat slowly, savoring the warmth and feel of food in their mouths, the aroma in their faces. Others ate as fast as possible.
Next to me was a gas stove with four burners, each with a large pot of soup cooking away. On the other side of it, a table was covered with celery, carrots, onions, tomatoes, and whole chickens. A volunteer with a large knife was chopping and dicing with a vengeance. Two more volunteers manned the stove. Several hauled the food to the serving tables. For the moment, I was the only sandwich man.
"We need more peanut butter sandwiches," Mordecai announced as he returned to the kitchen. He reached under the table and grabbed a two-gallon jug of generic peanut butter. "Can you handle it?"
"I'm an expert," I said.
He watched me work. The line was momentarily short; he wanted to talk.
"I thought you were a lawyer," I said, spreading peanut butter.
"I'm a human first, then a lawyer. It's possible to be both--not quite so much on the spread there. We have to be efficient."
"Where does the food come from?"
"Food bank. It's all donated. Tonight we're lucky because we have chicken. That's a delicacy. Usually it's just vegetables."
"This bread is not too fresh."
"Yes, but it's free. Comes from a large bakery, their day-old stuff. You can have a sandwich if you like."
"Thanks. I just had one. Do you eat here?"
"Rarely." From the looks of his girth, Mordecai had not maintained a diet of vegetable soup and apples. He sat on the edge of the table and studied the crowd. "Is this your first trip to a shelter?"
"What's the first word that comes to mind?"
"That's predictable. But you'll get over it."
"How many people live here?"
"None. This is just an emergency shelter. The kitchen is open every day for lunch and dinner, but it's not technically a shelter. The church is kind enough to open its doors when the weather is bad."
I tried to understand this. "Then where do these people live?"
"Some are squatters. They live in abandoned buildings, and they're the lucky ones. Some live on the streets; some in parks; some in bus stations; some under bridges. They can survive there as long as the weather is tolerable. Tonight they would freeze."
"Then where are the shelters?"
"Scattered about. There are about twenty--half privately funded, the other half run by the city, which, thanks to the new budget, will soon close two of them."
"How many beds?"
"Five thousand, give or take."
"How many homeless?"
"That's always a good question because they're not the easiest group to count. Ten thousand is a good guess."
"Yep, and that's just the people on the street. There are probably another twenty thousand living with families and friends, a month or two away from homelessness."
"So there are at least five thousand people on the streets?" I said, my disbelief obvious. "At least."
A volunteer asked for sandwiches. Mordecai helped me, and we made another dozen. Then we stopped and watched the crowd again. The door opened, and a young mother entered slowly, holding a baby and followed by three small children, one of whom wore a pair of shorts and mismatched socks, no shoes. A towel was draped over its shoulders. The other two at least had shoes, but little clothing. The baby appeared to be asleep.
The mother seemed dazed, and once inside the basement was uncertain where to go next. There was not a spot at a table. She led her family toward the food, and two smiling volunteers stepped forward to help. One parked them in a corner near the kitchen and began serving them food, while the other covered them with blankets.
Mordecai and I watched the scene develop. I tried not to stare, but who cared?
"What happens to her when the storm is over?" I asked.
"Who knows? Why don't you ask her?"
That put me on the spot. I was not ready to get my hands dirty.
"Are you active in the D.C. bar association?" he asked.
"Just curious. The bar does a lot of pro bono work with the homeless."
He was fishing, and I wasn't about to get caught. "I work on death penalty cases," I said proudly, and somewhat truthfully. Four years earlier, I had helped one of our partners write a brief for an inmate in Texas. My firm preached pro bono to all its associates, but the free work had damned well better not interfere with the billings.
We kept watching the mother and her four children. The two toddlers ate their cookies first while the soup was cooling. The mother was either stoned or in shock.
"Is there a place she can go to right now and live?" I asked.
"Probably not," Mordecai answered nonchalantly, his large feet swinging from the edge of the table. "As of yesterday, the waiting list for emergency shelter had five hundred names on it."
"For emergency shelter?"
"Yep. There's one hypothermia shelter the city graciously opens when the temperature drops below freezing. That might be her only chance, but I'm sure it's packed tonight. The city is then kind enough to close the shelter when things thaw."
The sous-chef had to leave, and since I was the nearest volunteer who wasn't busy at the moment, I was pressed into duty. While Mordecai made sandwiches, I chopped celery, carrots, and onions for an hour, all under the careful eye of Miss Dolly, one of the founding members of the church, who'd been in charge of feeding the homeless for eleven years now. It was her kitchen. I was honored to be in it, and I was told at one point that my chunks of celery were too large. They quickly became smaller. Her apron was white and spotless, and she took enormous pride in her work.
"Do you ever get used to seeing these people?" I asked her at one point. We were standing in front of the stove, distracted by an argument in the back somewhere. Mordecai and the minister intervened and peace prevailed.
"Never, honey," she said, wiping her hands on a towel. "It still breaks my heart. But in Proverbs it says, 'Happy is the man who feeds the poor.' That keeps me going."
She turned and gently stirred the soup. "Chicken's ready," she said in my direction.
"What does that mean?"
"Means you take the chicken off the stove, pour the broth into that pot, let the chicken cool, then bone it."
There was an art to boning, especially using Miss Dolly's method. My fingers were hot and practically blistered when I finished.
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