That night, Mehtab, Stanley and I went dumpster diving.
Not in the traditional sense of course, but we did see a house with a couch and a mattress topper outside on their sidewalk on Elizabeth’s street.
Stanley grabbed the mattress topper first. It was torn, with unidentified stains and leaves all over it. We stared at him, and he shrugged.
“I’d rather be warm than clean.”
Mehtab and I looked at each other, grinned guiltily and ran up to the couch. We grabbed the seat cushions and came back to the backyard with our spoils.
“Y’all are gross,” Kelly remarked.
But it made all the difference. I found a way to curl up onto the cushion to avoid most of my body touching the ground, and with my jacket and blanket, I was able to evade the most biting part of the cold.
That morning we slung our trash bags over our shoulders and filed out of the backyard. The place where we were headed was over ten miles away, so Kathy and Jun indulged in Ubers for our tired legs.
Our destination used to be a place called Fun Town. Sixty years ago, it was an all-white amusement park, but when segregation was outlawed and Six Flags was built, Fun Town went out of business.
Today, Fun Town is better known as Stewart Camp. It’s a community of 10 cinderblock huts, courtesy of an organization known as Mad-Housers. These tiny huts house people who otherwise would be out on the streets. Fun Town is a private property, but no one’s really sure who owns it, and the police have decided to allow the people squatting on the land to stay there for now.
We were going down there to see Joe, Elizabeth’s old friend. He lives in a Mad-Houser hut in the middle of the camp, and had been there for about 20 years.
Joe is special. He’s got a semi-toothless smile, and he’s always laughing at something. He even punctuates sad stories with a chuckle, as though laughing will somehow ease the pain for himself and his listeners. And he’s figured out the whole living outside thing, with an ingenious heating system for the winter and a tarp to catch the rainwater. It was this tarp that was falling apart, and we were there to help him attach a new one to the trees.
As Taseen precariously perched on the rickety ladder to cut the rope from the trees, I spotted Joe’s friend who had come there to meet us. Joe had introduced him as an “international man,” who spoke German, French and English. His name is Etienne, and in him I found a kindred spirit.
I sidled up to him shyly and said, “I heard you speak French?”
“Bien sur, mademoiselle.” Indeed, ma’am.
“I speak a little bit. I learned in high school.” A smile spread across his previously serious face as we began to talk. He was born on the Ivory Coast in Africa, and traveled to Germany to study nursing. He had only three months left before graduation when he came to America, for reasons I didn’t entirely understand. Here he opened a restaurant and was doing very well until he got robbed. Not once or twice, but four times, by the same group of teenagers.
“I don’t blame them though. It’s okay. Kids will be kids.”
Kids being kids cost him everything.
“My little brother is my life. I would do anything for him. If I needed to cut off an arm for him, I wouldn’t even think about it. But my family is still in Africa. I don’t feel like talking to them because they expected me to be the successful one. I don’t want to call them and tell them I’m not doing well.”
He loved the fact that I was from California.
“That’s my dream place! One day I want to bring my whole family there and live by the beach. The weather, the sunlight, Oh la, la.”
I laughed. “I hope one day I’ll see you there, Etienne.”
“Mademoiselle, if you truly mean that, you will one day.”
I did. I do.
When we bid him goodbye, he clasped my hand and looked at me with his sad eyes.
“Merci beaucoup pour votre gentillesse. A bientot dans Californie.” Thank you for your kindness. See you in California soon.
We were definitely in “the hood” as we walked to Gateway, another homeless shelter in Atlanta. The whole neighborhood was peppered with obscene graffiti, boarded up houses, and barbed wire, and I clung to my trash bag just a little tighter as a man leered at me from the sidewalk.
Gateway also provides transitional housing and services to move people out of the state of homelessness. At night it serves as a men’s shelter, but during the day they serve meals, provide medical services and showers. The woman who runs it is Bec, and her pink hair perfectly matches her spectacularly fiery personality, but the woman she introduced us to had a story I’ll never forget.
Her parents died when she was a kid, so she was bounced around family homes until her aunt and uncle abused her, emotionally, verbally and sexually.
At 12, she gave birth to a child of rape.
At 15 she had committed 36 misdemeanors and 17 felonies.
At 17 she was married and had a child on the way.
It was this child that encouraged her to turn her life around. She got a degree and a stable job, and things were good for a while.
Then she began hearing voices, and no one believed her nor cared when she complained.
So she self-medicated, first with Xanax, then powder cocaine, and then crack. And the drugs caused her to spiral down towards rock bottom, when ultimately someone tried to kill her. When she was high, they told her she had snakes coming out of her arms. She slit her wrists in order to get them out, and someone told her daughter that her mother was dead.
And that was when she got her life together for good. She became a woman of faith, telling her story at meetings, conferences and homeless facilities. Strength seemed to radiate from her very being, and I couldn’t begin to understand everything she’d been through.
Before she sent us on our way, Bec told us to ask each person we encountered whether or not they had any words of wisdom for us. Sealed, Mehtab, and I were assigned to work at the nail clinic, where we massaged people’s hands and painted their nails. The women loved getting bright colors on their fingers, and even the guys indulged in a clear coat to protect their nails from the grime.
My favorite client was a man by the name of Robert Rice. I disclose his name because he told me he’s writing a book about his experience. Look out for it, I’m sure it’ll be wonderful.
We talked for about an hour. He’s an Atlanta native. An addict who lost everything. A man trying to get his life back on track.
When I finished his manicure, he got up, only to come back a few minutes later with a water bottle in his hand.
“I have nothing, but I wanted to thank you for the kindness you showed me. You made me feel like a human again, and for that I’m forever grateful.”
“Oh Robert, this is too much. You take it.”
“No no, please, I insist. You have a long journey ahead of you.” He tipped his hat to me. “Stay beautiful, queen.”
With the rest of my clients, I did as Bec had asked.
“So do you have any words of wisdom for me?”
“Don’t do drugs. Not even weed. And especially not heroin. Just don’t. Don’t do it.”
“Tell your parents you love them every day. They kept you off these streets.”
“Don’t burn bridges; you never know when you’re going to need someone.”
“If you can’t find toothpaste, just rub some salt on your teeth.”
“Just because you’re drunk doesn’t mean you can sleep with your best friend’s boyfriend.”
“Don’t be walking around like a duck with your pants on the ground!!!”
Gateway was one of my favorite experiences. Something about massaging a person’s hand really gets them talking and all I had to ask was, “so are you from the ATL originally?” for the flood gates to open.
I kept the bottle Robert gave me. It’s cliche, but it really is the ones with the least that give the most.
From Gateway, we headed to Safe House, another homeless shelter. We were all incredibly excited to be sleeping inside that night, with a soft bed and a temperature controlled room. But before we could indulge in this incredible privilege, we had to work for it. We served dinner to the Safe House guests, and the proceeded to grab a plate and dine with them.
The first person I spotted was the man with dreadlocks from the OAC. He smiled at me in recognition, but he was done with his meal before I even had a chance to talk to him.
The woman I had dinner with had a gorgeous smile and the same hairstyle as Suzanne in Orange is the New Black. Her name is Chrissy, and she’s a cosmetologist and aesthetician.
“Oh, aren’t you just gorgeous?” She gushed. “You’ve got such an intoxicating look, you know? Like I could get all the pleasure of a margarita on the rocks just by looking at you!”
She had a college degree, and used to have a business before her office was raided and her equipment stolen.
“I wouldn’t be in this position if I had saved some of my money, but you know how young people are! They just spend spend spend on Mercedes Benzes, lots of alcohol and pretty clothes.”
When I told her about our project, she began to cry. I ran my hand over her back helplessly as she sobbed for a few moments before pulling herself together.
“I’m sorry it’s just I don’t want you to ever be in this situation. No one should ever be. It’s horrible, and since I’ve become homeless, I’ve never cried about it, until now.”
“It’s okay. It’s okay. You can cry. It’ll be okay.”
I wish I could believe that myself.