Sunday, January 20, 2008

addictions

I can see how volunteering at the drop-in centre can be addictive. I'm fascinated by the people, the other volunteers as much as the people being served. I go for purely selfish reasons, but I'm ok with that because other people benefit and it's not hurting anyone. It just feels good. Why didn't I do this sooner?

A girl in high school tells me that she just finished her community service hours but she loves it here so much she still comes about twice a week. I wish they'd had that requirement for community service when I was in high school. This is really my first volunteer experience. It's shaming. There are also two university students, which surprises me. When I was in university I was far too busy drinking, playing pool, talking out my ass, and occasionally going to classes to even consider volunteering somewhere. But they're science students, and in my experience the science students were much better behaved.

The man who puts ham and potatoes on the plates and passes them to me for creamed corn was here last weekend. He volunteers every Saturday and Sunday, all day, works four days in Hamilton for pay and spends another day walking dogs for the humane society. Wow. Keeps him sober, he says. Six years he's been clean, but that doesn't mean he doesn't still want it. He says he'll never give up getting laid, though, which shocks me. It's never occurred to me to give up getting laid, but I suppose it's different being married.

The man who washes dishes, he was here last weekend too. The box of slightly bruised apples that's been donated also has mushrooms thrown in. We talk about mushrooms for a bit, and when I offer up the tidbit that mushrooms are made almost entirely of protein, he says well, they have very little nutritional value but what there is is all protein. He studied nutrition in university but he made one big mistake: not getting a job in his field 20 years ago. Privately, I don't know how that can be a mistake when it's so difficult and often beyond a person's control. He looks 30 but he's 42.

Sister Christine runs the place and all the shelters in the city. She helped our family member this week too. She is old and small, but you could never describe her as a little old lady, or if you did, you'd realize your mistake soon enough. She has a presence much larger than her body, and she's always directing someone or other, or listening to someone in need. She eats standing up. I don't know why I find it remarkable that she wears crocs but I do. Today I notice her ring, and I remember that she is a Bride of Christ. I wonder what metal her ring is made of -- it hasn't yellowed like my white gold band has. I wonder if I will ever be able to get her to sit down long enough to make a portrait?

A man comes up to order a coffee, no sugar, sugar makes you crazy. He's wearing a tweed sort of English golf hat, and has eyebrows like my dad's right before he gets them trimmed. One of his eyes squints a bit and immediately I mark him as a future photographic subject, if I should be so lucky (I know, I feel like some kind of predator stalking my prey, but on the other hand I'm just interested in getting to know people, with or without my camera. And I have paused to consider the ethics of blogging about these folks like some scavenger feeding on the fragments available to me, but I can't resist sharing with you, even at the risk of appropriation). He talks about his theory of madness caused by sugar in a good-humoured way, then comments that we look like new volunteers. He comes in closer to me and lowers his voice, "This place is amazing. You will meet people here... well some of them you'll wish you'd never met, but some people here are so wonderful, in what they do, and just who they are." And I know he's not only talking about people like Sister Christine. I like him already. I hear someone call him John later and I hope I get the chance to use his name.

Not that it's all sweetness and light of course. First thing this morning a women comes to the counter asking for a little bag that one of the workers put away for her. None of us know of any such thing. She has acid green eye shadow up to her eyebrows and bright red lips, and a slightly mad look in her eye. She's not happy to be told she needs to wait until someone else comes in. Later, I'm near the phone when she asks to use it. Right away. When she asks the more experienced volunteer she tells her to wait a moment while someone takes the enormous pot of boiling potatoes across the kitchen to drain and mash. I see she has very long dreadlocks, almost down to her bum, and a faint whiff of urine hangs around her. Must be the dreads I think. Some of her teeth are brown, which I notice when she grumps at me for having to wait for the phone. I mean, it's an emergency! After she finishes on the phone, I hear Sister Christine talking about schizophrenia and people starving to death if she didn't feed them, and how that would look very bad on the drop-in centre.

I notice how the more experienced volunteers deal with particular individuals, reminding them to only take one piece of cake because there's no other dessert for lunch, or only enough creamer for the cup of coffee they've just been served. I find it fascinating that they can be so direct and effective yet so respectful. We can't leave even a few quarters out in the open, and my coat gets locked up. Good fences make good neighbours and all that I guess.

I'm still awkward because I'm learning the ropes. I don't know the routines or where things are. But that just makes me want to come more, to overcome that awkwardness. So I tell the staff person who comes just before I leave that I would like to come every Sunday morning, give or take. My two hours a month commitment has grown to two hours a week, just like that.

* * *

Today's the last day to vote for me at the CBAs... if you've already voted, thanks! Now I'll just cross my fingers and hope for the best... and now I'll stop badgering you. Thanks for your tolerance.

14 comments:

Mad Hatter said...

Even when you don't have your camera, Sin, you have your eye.

This post was wonderful. I loved learning about these people that you're meeting. Thank you, too, for always foregrounding the issues re voyeurism and integrity.

niobe said...

I've voted for you on every laptop I own and a few that I don't. Just in case you were, y'know, wondering.

Don Mills Diva said...

This was a really fascinating post. I mean, people in general are fascinating aren't they? And sometimes you have to get up close and personal with them - like you are doing - to be reminded of that.

mamatulip said...

Wow. I felt like I was there.

cinnamon gurl said...

Niobe, you are such a sweetie... thanks!

Beck said...

This was a terrific post. I felt like I was right there with you... I'm interested to read about how you find your balance between capturing these images and respecting privacy - it's a hard line, I think.

jen said...

it is addicting, isn't it. it's why i spend time at work even when i am done working - it seeps inside you, these multiple displays of humanity.

Suz said...

You can describe with words just as well as you can with your camera. Not everyone can do either of those things and, in my experience, only a few can do both. I found this post fascinating.

Jennifer said...

Isn't it something that all of these people -- individual people, all with their own story -- can be grouped together as "the homeless" and not really seen by society? Because once you start to see people, you wonder how you missed all of it before. (Using, of course, a univeral you there -- not you.) Thank you for sharing these stories and for helping us to all see a bit more clearly.

flutter said...

This was a really wonderful post, Sin

Serendipity, baby! said...

You're really making me miss my days volunteering at a shelter in Windsor. I was officially there to give anyone legal advice, but worked in the kitchen, played cribbage and heard the life stories of people most ordinary folk don't have the privilege to meet. Plus, getting home felt all the sweeter with the fresh realization that it wasn't a box or a front step. I really wish the shetlters around here weren't filled with my clients all the time. Loved it, thanks for the flood of memories.

slouching mom said...

I actually think you're honoring them by telling their stories with such sensitivity and acuity.

nomotherearth said...

I don't know why I didn't volunteer when I was younger - I had a lot more time. Too self-absorbed.

AuthorMomWithDogs said...

Would that everyone got to have that birds-eye view. Humbling.