LONSBERRY: An Afternoon at the Mission

They came to the mission door looking for socks for the one guy’s wife and kids. It was about 35 outside and the sidewalks were wet with slush and melting snow. They had walked. They didn’t say where the wife and kids were.

               “I just got out of jail two days ago,” the other guy said, his half a snubbed-out cigarette cupped in his hand. He didn’t say where they were staying or how they came to pair up.

               The socks were gathered and handed over and the one guy lit up when he saw a pair of pink fuzzy ones for his wife, knowing she would like them. He tucked them in his sack and smiled nervously and, hesitating, he said, “Do you have boots?”

               His pants were oversized and he might have had more than one pair of them on, but just sticking out of the bottom of them were a pair of brightly colored running shoes. Running shoes about the size and style of those worn by middle-school girls. His feet were wedged in the front of them and the back of his foot extended past and pressed down the back of the shoe, something like a sandal, his heel exposed and sometimes making contact with the ground.

               The day before, the high temperature had been 10 degrees.

               He thought he was an 11, and a couple of pairs of winter boots in that size were fished off the shoe shelves in the back. Racks of random pairs of used footwear, all helter skelter, the sizes written on little stickers on the toes.

               He wasn’t an 11.

               Then out came a pair of nines, nine and a halfs, and tens. The nine and a halfs were worn work boots in that yellowish tan color and he laced them up with pride and excitement. And the other guy asked if he could have a pair, and he took the tens, winter boots he carried out as they said their thank yous and good byes.

               That was midafternoon, at the donations door, where a few minutes earlier a young mom had walked up with a box of baby clothes, washed and folded, a bib and a minion on top. A thin woman with gray hair brought a bag of dozens of brand new socks, still in their packaging, and a big man with gold chains on his chest brought in two heavy bags of packaged meat for the kitchen.

               One elderly gentleman offered a sack of used clothing, a box of cookies and three dollars.

               All said, “God bless you” at some point.

               Across town, in an old convent, where the mothers with children stay, the facilities man hefted the parts of a single bed from the basement to the second floor, to assemble them for a family coming in. Later, he would stand with two electricians at a panel box, working on a problem. There were young children in various places, a little fellow who looked about 3, and a pair of sisters following their mom, the older maybe 5 or 6 and the other a year or two younger. Others were in rooms, playing or receiving instruction. The little fellow danced around sock footed, a worker warning him away from the melting snow from the workman’s boots. The sisters trooped up the stairs, the elder in the lead, chatting happily to the younger about when she goes to her school she will make a pretty picture and bring it home for her.

               These are children who have lived in cars, had police officers in their homes late at night, lived on aunties’ couches, and known hunger and fear.

               But here they bloom.

               “I’m not homeless,” he said as he came through the donation door. “I stay on Brooks.”

               Thirty-six, dressed in layers, with little more than his eyes showing, he put down his unlit cigarette and picked up the sanitizer, rubbing it over his hands.

               He needed a coat. He was wearing a hoodie over a sweatshirt, but the zipper on the recycled Tommy Hilfiger had broken and it’s going to be close to zero by tomorrow night and his mother told him he could get a better coat at the mission. That’s why he came. The executive director, a suburban mom, was in the back, looking through the donated coats looking for one that might do. She came out with a nice Levi’s coat, fleece lined with tight, water-repelling fabric and a warm hood. He was delighted and shed the Hilfiger and donned the Levi’s over the hoodie and the sweatshirt while she went to get him a cup of coffee.

               “God bless you,” he said as he stepped out the door.

               In the back, a man was cleaning up the kitchen, and elsewhere two other staffers were scurrying about covering the duties of colleagues out on quarantine. Around the corner, at the shelter, the warming center was open and the weather was being watched.

               And two vehicles pulled up, both driven by elderly people, bringing clothing and food to the donation door.

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