Charles dropped by the Shelter recently. He had traveled from Tennessee to see his ailing mother who was in a hospital just over the border from Calais. Good adult son, right? Yes, he is. And there’s more to the story…
I first met “Charlie” around 1996 when he was a guest of the Shelter. Here’s my attempt at using words in an effort to share a picture with you: Charlie was a fast moving, fast talking (with a pronounced Southern accent) sort of diminutive guy (5’5”?) with certain delusions of grandeur and a cowlick like Alfafa’s (for those old enough to remember the Little Rascals). If the Shelter had instead been an old fashioned rooming house holding, say, 5 or 6 men, I am certain he would have soon become a well-liked and entertaining resident. Problem is, we weren’t a Forrest Gump rooming house and there were many more than 5-6 men, and some of them were not nice.
During that same era we had a woman working overnights who was just a little shorter than Charles. “Ann” was no nonsense talking and old school, and she displayed her big heart when it came to 4 legged creatures. She once almost singlehandedly and without tools opened a hole in the Shelter’s foundation when she realized that the mewing of a mom cat and some kittens was coming from somewhere inside the wall. She drove a Harley. She resigned and was rehired more than any other employee in 9 different social service agencies. She was not afraid of angry men.
So, on the morning one of Ann’s last days of employment here, I arrived at work around 7:30 a.m. to witness the following scene: Ann had Charles 2 feet off the floor by dint of one hand under his chin while her other hand was attached to a stiff arm by which she was holding off a big, angry Native American guy I had wrongfully admitted the night before. (I had done my version of “sidewalk assessment” with him late afternoon the day before, and over the course of a couple of cigarettes each he displayed all his tattoos and told me his tales from San Quentin or Leavenworth. I stupidly concluded that he had felt a need to “man up” in front of the older, male authority figure, but that it was all show. I was wrong, and Charles had managed to really piss him off). And so Ann was in no uncertain terms telling the big guy to get the hell out of the Shelter while telling Charles to quit challenging him. She appeared not to be concerned about Charles’s references to his “23rd degree black belt in karate” or the time when he’d had to drop 3 special forces soldiers in a parking lot in Savannah.
Charles had made several trips through town back then, each time having something to do with “Momma’s house” in Calais and its belongings. Then I didn’t see him again, and soon forgot about him—until a few weeks ago.
Charles came through the door in a clean, rumpled suit, wearing a nice hat (I immediately wondered about that cowlick). He was polite to the two female staff who were working the front desk. When he saw me approaching, he lit up in a big smile and said, “God bless—it is so good to see you again, Dennis! My, my—I didn’t think you would still be here after all those years! It is a true joy to see you!” And he thanked us for what we do, explained that “Momma” was very ill but that he had siblings who lived closer to her and were helping take care of her, and then apologized for having to leave as he had a plane to catch.
And so as I reflect about all the data being relentlessly collected by all the homeless shelters, and about the apparent trends thus derived from patterns detected in a large number of individual decisions and actions, Charles is one of those wonderful reminders that we are working with real human beings. And those human beings are broader and deeper than patterns or labels.