The San Diego Rescue Mission opens its doors to just a few homeless women each evening. Although the facility is large and houses many men, only 50 women are allowed inside a very small area. It becomes a race, but one in which the competitors encourage one another. I spot one of the regulars sitting by the side of the road two blocks away from the doors of the mission. Ellen (not her real name) needs a wheelchair but stubbornly insists on using a cane.
I wave and discreetly massage my shoulders. She does not need to know how badly I am hurting.
I call out, “Hey, Ellen, how are you?”
“Hanging in there, Sue. You?” Her eyes are glazed.
“Doing fine so far.” I sit beside her and wipe the sweat from my brow. “When are you going to get a wheelchair?”
“Don’t need one. Got my eye on a walker, though.” She sighs. “Next month, when my SSI comes in, I’m gonna get it.”
“Have you taken anything today?” All I can offer is ibuprofen. It is buried deeply in my bag.
“Yeah, one of the other girls gave me something. She came back from the ER this afternoon with a whole bunch of stuff. I took a pain pill about an hour ago, and a muscle relaxant after that. Can’t feel any difference.”
Ellen laughs, a rusty croak that comes from one who has lived a hard life.
We’d met at this shelter one week ago. She was an old pro at the homeless game. I was a newbie.
“Where are you from?” Ellen had asked. Her voice was strong and jovial, not what I expected to hear in a place full of people at the bottom of the social ladder.
“Originally from Texas,” I replied.
I closed the distance between us and offered my hand. She took it and launched into an explanation of how the place worked.
“They let us in at 5:30 p.m., if there’s room. You’ll have a mattress and linens. You even get a meal and a shower, and clothes if you don’t have them. By 9:30 the lights go out and we try to sleep, if the mommies can keep their little ones quiet enough.”
“I have my own tent and sleeping bag,” I said. “I don’t want to be a burden. I’m just looking for a place out of the weather until I get my situation straightened out.”
Ellen looked at me with kindness, but her question was blunt. “What is your situation, if you don’t mind my asking?”
∗ ∗ ∗
I was raised in Grandfalls, Texas. 1980 Population: 661.
As a high school senior in 1985, I maintained a 4.0 GPA, earned the John Philip Sousa Award for music, and won several writing competitions. In my spare time I raised chickens and ducks, toting 50-pound feed bags and repairing pens as needed. I never asked for help. The chickens were as much mine as my grades or my music were. I’d been taught that you take care of your own business, but when you see someone a little worse off than you are, you reach out to help. That was West Texas in the 1980s.
My parents grew up in the Great Depression and believed that individuals are responsible for themselves. They had already seen the birth of three grandchildren by the time they brought me into the world on April 1, 1967. Daddy was nearing the age when he would have to retire, and money was always tight.
I grew up poor but never realized I was impoverished. We bought food in bulk and froze it. Daddy worked an average of 100 hours every week to save money for the 17-cubic-foot freezer. It took up half the garage, but that was not a problem. We only had one vehicle, and Daddy drove it to work seven days a week. Mother and I walked, whether we were going to the Laundromat or the grocery store. She pulled the handle of the little red wagon Daddy bought me for my fourth birthday. I brought up the rear, guarding the precious cargo of freshly washed laundry or two bags of groceries. On my watch we did not lose a single sock or potato. We didn’t have money for a second vehicle, and the idea of applying for a loan was out of the question.
“Don’t buy on credit,” Daddy would growl. “If you don’t have the money for it, you don’t need it.”
I didn’t get a pair of store-bought jeans until I was ten. Mother sewed all of my clothes. “Old-fashioned!” cried my schoolmates.
Mother shrugged when I cried about the teasing. She did not look at me while she stirred a pot of red beans on the stove.
“They can like it or they can lump it,” she said.
Daddy would just shake his head and order me to ignore it.
My parents had had relationship problems in the past, but they’d always worked it out. By the fall of my senior year the arguing stopped. There was no truce, no settling of differences. Daddy simply left. Mother and I were on our own and struggling to survive. It had been two decades since Mother had worked. Job opportunities for teenagers in Grandfalls included two months of swimming-pool duty for two lifeguards and one concession-stand manager, two part-time trash collectors for City Hall, and babysitting. The graduating class of 1985 was huge, with 19 seniors creating fierce competition for jobs.
Mother went to the school principal for assistance and was offered a job as a substitute teacher for $70 a week. It helped. We could pay the rent on a government-subsidized apartment and only dipped into my college savings account for food and utilities. The damage was done, however. Even with scholarships I would not be able to afford college. I was hurt, desperate, and more determined than before to escape. Then the Marine Corps recruiter marched into Grandfalls-Royalty High School, impressive in his dress blues. I fell for the pitch.