A boy, early twenties, came in with a baby this morning. At first I thought the baby was no more than three months old because of a faint head wobble visible under the fleece. But I think the baby was a couple of months older than that, just sleeping. He sat for a few minutes at a table, his back to me and the counter. I watched him sit with his head resting on the baby's head in that universal gesture, his fingers absently stroking the fine hair.
I imagine he just inhabited that moment, as I have so many times, every part of my being centred in the feel of my hand and face on this precious head, all soft and vulnerable. More likely, though, given where he was, he didn't have the luxury of just enjoying his child for a moment in between obligations and feedings and cries, more likely his head was full of all the circumstances that brought him here, in need of how much I have no idea. I'm guessing diapers and formula to start. I hope he has a home and I hope the baby has some relationship with the mother; I hope they're just having a stroke of temporary bad luck, a dry patch between paycheques.
I can't help but think, though, that that poor child, of whom I saw only a wisp of hair and a Michelin man outline of fleece, hasn't got a chance of seeing anything more than the insides of drop-in centres. I left the centre a bit early, my heart like lead in my belly and my eyes like sprinklers seconds before the spray.
* * *
A lit bit earlier, a woman I'd never seen before came up to the counter, after the first rush of lunch but close enough for me to offer her a meal. Her hair was bleached blonde and in a ponytail, and she had a thin line of black eyeliner on her lower eyelids. I noticed because not many women wear make-up here and because in high school I'd always wanted to get that thin line of eyeliner but never mastered it.
No, just a coffee, she said, I ate yesterday. I laugh, thinking it's just a figure of speech. But no. After a pause she says, wait a minute. Maybe I didn't eat yesterday. I was too stoned. She laughs and elbows someone standing next to her. I was too high to know if I ate yesterday. She drinks her coffee at a table and leaves without eating.
* * *
Earlier still, another woman I'd never seen before came to the counter. Her gray hair was shorn in a buzz cut, and she had a few very long rogue hairs on her chin. When I asked if she had a card and she started fingering through her change (we aren't supposed to give free coffee), her tongue kept unfurling from her mouth, mostly unconsciously I think. She spoke as if her tongue was too big for her mouth or like she had a hearing impairment, maybe both. I felt awkward serving her, I'm ashamed to admit, unsure what kind of behaviour to expect of her or how much she understood of me. I felt a little better when another volunteer called her by name, L, because they don't usually do that with the more unpredictable folks.
Some time later, L. was loitering by the counter, clearly wanting to be part of the conversation. A third volunteer, V, a woman who pretty much runs the place on weekends, starts talking to her. I hang about too, curious. Suddenly L. grabs V's hands and presses them gently to her cheek, her eyes closed for a moment in the bliss of physical affection. I love you, L. says. I love you too, says V. This is my sister, V tells me. After a few minutes, L tells me that she doesn't need to pay for coffee, and V. confirms. Sister Christine takes care of all her needs, coffee, hot chocolate, a meal, whatever. She doesn't need to pay. I took a moment to digest this crumb, then remembered that I had asked her for money and she'd paid. I told V. that I took a quarter from her and we gave it back. I didn't want to give her a hard time, L explains to V. She gave the newbie a break.
* * *
The tall bearded man who always has a joke told me a good joke today. His hands are red and swollen and look slightly frostbitten. I think it's because he washes his hands a lot but he never dries them, just lets them drip. His jokes aren't always funny, but they're usually off-colour and often sexist, not that I really mind. Today he asked me, What's the difference between an in-law and an outlaw?
An outlaw is wanted.
* * *
I'm becoming known, slowly. One man called me peaches and another introduced me as his sugar girl. I'm pleased to be included in the silliness.
* * *
Yesterday I did as Den asked and went out with my camera around 8 in the morning. And I'm glad I did. It was cold and snowing when I left so I had to put my camera inside my coat. Thanks, Den... these are for you:
I felt haunted by the person who wrote, "I lost my virginity here." I imagined some cocky and apathetic girl like I once was, feeling the need to mark her territory and commemorate the spot (isn't that really just blogging without the technology?). But there is only the merest scrap of comfort being out of the icy wind in this place that is all right angles and hard concrete. I started to think about the kids who come into the drop-in centre, and I started to question the nature of consent; if maybe in some cases it can look like consent and feel like consent, but perhaps it's not really? (This morning's baby and the drug addict seem to illustrate this question perfectly.) It is only when I got home that I realized maybe it wasn't even a girl who wrote it, maybe it was a guy and there was no girl around. Or, maybe, there wasn't even a virgin, maybe it was all a facade.
Something about the new snow collected in the corners of these steps just made me so sad, with everyone's need to record calling out from the concrete, I was here once, to mark out some permanence, even if it's just in a urine-soaked tunnel outside the bus station and under the tracks.