I just finished watching The Motorcycle Diaries. Something about the time when Che was at the leper colony where the Amazon segregated the ill from the healthy, something about the nuns there, made me think about the drop-in centre. It seems I'm only capable of blogging about three things days: photography, woe is me, and the drop-in centre, and I suspect I've been losing readers. My apologies.
My brother was really into revolution theology; he even considered converting to Catholicism, but didn't for some reason. He went to Chiapas, Mexico, probably 10 years ago now, and did research for a series of paintings of people who had been murdered in the struggle for freedom. He called it Portraits of the Disappeared. One of the most beautiful pieces was of Bishop Romero, who was murdered while he gave mass. After my brother came back to Canada and painted the actual paintings, he returned to Mexico to give some of them to the families of the deceased. My sister lived in Havana, Cuba for three years, and Santiago, Chile for a year or two. Her PhD and subsequent career is mostly focused on Latin America. And yet I know very little about Che Guevara, apart from his face of course, which I know from all the t-shirts.
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I've never known a real-life nun before, and the thing that most surprises me about Sister Christine is her humanity. I expected a nun to have some otherworldly grace and serenity about her, to have a peaceful face that indicated a rich inner life. But Sister Christine isn't like that. She is down to earth. She bosses us around and she is stern when she needs to be. People are constantly wanting a word with her, and she gives everyone the time they need, including me. I don't know much about Christ or Catholicism, but it seems to me that Sister Christine really is doing Christ's work, the way he intended when he said things like love your neighbour and, even, love your enemy.
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A couple of weeks ago, one of the long-time volunteers mentioned that she just didn't like one of the clients, a woman. She said she likes people, but she just doesn't like that woman. At first I was shocked, but then I was ashamed to realize that there was more respect in her dislike than there was in my naive sympathy.
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I chatted with a young girl in college about why we're volunteering. She has to do community service as part of her program, and I told her about how I liked it so much I immediately upped my commitment from two hours a month to two hours a week. She responded with something about every little bit helps, but it fell flat with me. We're serving coffee; we're not saving the world. This isn't like recycling or using fluorescent bulbs or not driving as much where every little bit really does help. The people who keep coming back to volunteer at the drop-in centre do it because they like it, they like meeting the people the meet, they like the structure or how it feels, it keeps them sober or healthy in some other way. Whatever. It's not because every little bit helps, and anyone who thinks they're being altruistic is fooling themselves.
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My eyes are certainly opening. Last weekend, one of the clients looked so rough, all bleary and blood-shot eyes under his brimmed hat; I remember feeling that way sometimes when I was in school. A kid I hadn't seen before kept his hood up the whole time and sucked back at least six cups of coffee within at most two hours. It didn't seem to help him, but one of the volunteers reckoned the coffee consumption was related to addictions of one kind or another. Another couple of kids never have any money, and I remember how much I didn't like spending money on food. I always wanted to save it for booze. One volunteer was doing a sales pitch on the gravy last weekend, which was mushroom based, with imported mushrooms no less. The kid said something to me about mushrooms from Mexico being really good. Really? I said, thinking I'll have to keep my eye open for them at the grocery store. They laughed a lot and I finally caught on that he wasn't talking about the gravy.
I wonder if I would have gone to the drop-in centre if I had known about it when I was drinking heavily at school? I probably would have. I'm not judging these folks, because addicts and alcoholics need to eat, and if they're so addicted they can't pay for it, I'm really glad they have somewhere to go for food and friendliness.
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I really enjoyed the Motorcycle Diaries, although it took me several nights to get through it. It's a slow, important kind of movie. (It didn't hurt that the actor who plays Che is very, very hot.)
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A month or more ago, I had to switch my Sunday morning shift to Saturday afternoon. And I saw the guy I shot last May, the one I'd been slightly concerned about since I hadn't seen him panhandling since. I struck up a conversation with him, reminding him that I'd taken his picture, and he said yes he thought he remembered that. I said I could give him some prints if he wanted, the following weekend, and he said that would be great. I asked his name, and he told me, and I introduced myself. So I had the prints made (I guiltily only included the shots that he knew I took, not the ones that I took before I asked his permission), and put them in my coat pocket and nervously went the next Sunday. But he wasn't there. And not the next Sunday or the one after that or the one after THAT. I asked a long-time volunteer about him, and how he'd said that Sister Christine pays for anything he wants, and how yes, sometimes she does that for certain people (like her sister). Anyways, it also came out that he doesn't often come on Sundays, but he's alwasy there on Saturdays.
So last Saturday I stopped in after the Farmer's Market and sure enough, he was there, at his usual table. I gave him the pictures and as he looked at them, his face crinkled into an even bigger smile than when he smiled for my camera, and he chuckled a few times. As he passed them around the table, I asked, nervous that he wouldn't like my processing or the way he looked, "Do you like them?" And he said yes. Thank you.
Sometimes at the drop-in centre, I've noticed that thank you can be uttered with a special, slow signifcance, often with a moment of penetrating eye contact that causes everything to slow down. They are moments that make me think the thank you is about something entirely different from the thing they're thanking me for. It happened for the second time last Saturday, just for a second, then things sped up again and I walked out, saying see you tomorrow to a few people.