A letter from the street.

I was kicked out of Cambridge’s CASPAR shelter yesterday afternoon ostensibly because I was not registered to vote in Cambridge, and because I am not a drunk. But all kinds of people live at CASPAR, and not all of them are drunken Cambridge voters.

Actually, I think I was kicked out because I was reading the Bible (aloud but softly) to myself in the sleeping room during the day and the one or two people around probably complained.

I’ve been reading the gospels out loud to myself, over and over, daily, during the time I’ve been homeless. They’re my protection against a real enemy, which is a mindset of fear, resentment, anger, despair, and apathy. It’s contagious, and threatens everyone on the street and in the shelters. If one gives in to it, one will be unable to receive a better lot in life, which may suddenly become available.

I spent four hours today, like all days, washing my mind in the word, that is reading the gospels aloud.

Their light prevails.

The staff at CASPAR could’ve asked me to stop, but they kicked me out around 3pm using the voting business, which is a pretext.

Several kindly women guests told me to go up to city hall and register to vote. One gave me the address of her Cambridge relatives, where she said I could claim to reside. She said if the registrar called, her relatives would back up my claim.

But I didn’t register to vote, not that I didn’t enjoy CASPAR. I did. I got meals and lodging and I got to stay in all day. What a luxury. It’s the only shelter I know where we can spend the day indoors, something that had become all-important since I junked my car. My hips and feet have been bothering me. Inside on a cot is good.

But, as I said, I didn’t register. Instead I walked up to an area of benches on Mass Ave, near Central Square. I thought about Boston. The busses and the T all have stairs which I can’t manage. So Cambridge it had to be.

I sat on the bench, then went to Burger King. Then, an hour or so later, back to the benches. Policemen had been kind; the cop on the beat had helped me to get transportation to CASPAR on other nights, so, as night fell, I assumed that a sympathetic policeman would once more find me some transportation this night to a different shelter. I was so certain of that that I remained comfortable and unafraid until around 11 or 11:30.

One thing I knew for once was that I would be warm. Someone had donated a goose down parka with a hood to Betty Snead House where it was given to me, and a young woman, Leona, from Kaneohe, Hawaii, whom I had met at CASPAR, had impulsively put a pair of heavy socks on my feet at the Burger King that afternoon.

Around 8:30 I made my last trip to Burger King, got a drink and left. I went back to the benches and picked the middle one. I took up residence. I’d been out all night before, of course, but in my old car that had seemed relatively safe, as I mostly just drove around all night.

At 10 o’clock a fellow I’d seen at CASPAR sat down next to me and struck up a conversation. He talked about his ex-wife and explained why the marriage had ended. He seemed to read his wife’s point of view so well, and explained so simply why he could not meet her expectations, that I liked him right away. I felt he made more sense on the subject of marriage, though drunk, than most men do when sober. I asked him if it was dangerous to be out all night, and what he did about it.

“Here’s the plan,” he said. “First, we sit very close to each other for warmth.”

Charmer that he was, I agreed to this part and we pressed close together on the bench. “Then,” he said, “we just sit here perfectly content.”

He explained there would be plenty of happy people around us on the street until the restaurants closed at 1am. Some would come up and talk to us.

“After that,” he said, “the pizza place stays open until 2am.” I volunteered that I had five dollars, so we agreed to go there at 1 o’clock. “It is very important not to fall asleep there. Be warned, as they would toss us out.” After that, he went on, he planned to sleep on the floor of the ATM cubicle. Someone with a card would let him in, and if anyone else used the machine between 2 and 6 a.m, they wouldn’t care if he was there sleeping. “It’s safe,” he insisted. “Care to join me?”

“I can’t,” I replied, and I explained why. I’m afraid to lie down on the ground anywhere, because I can’t sit up again without help. Pictures went through my mind of what could happen. I wasn’t so much afraid of this man as I was that others might break in.

My bench mate thought I should change my mind because thieves regularly circulate through the streets at night beating up drunks and robbing them. “Other than that it’s a fine thing to sleep on the streets,” he said.

At 1 o’clock, restaurants and bars emptied out. Miraculously, the walk to the pizza shop was easy and painless. Some MIT late-nighters were eating there. Naturally, I fell asleep, and got some sharp looks from the management, but was not asked to leave.

Some time after we finished the pizza, my companion went out the door and didn’t return. He had sincerely tried to help me, and when he found he was not able, he could not face me to say “goodbye.”

At 2 a.m. I left the shop and stood outside. Well, here was the test. I made a last attempt to flag down a cop. A cruiser passed, I waved, and the policeman inside grinned and waved back. If I had any pretensions of looking too middle-class and dignified to belong on the street, I lost them at that moment. At 2 a.m. to that policeman I looked like any other aging whore or drunk.

The only person to register shock at my being on the street was the owner of the pizza shop. A Greek, or perhaps from a Middle Eastern country. He looked at me intently, concern spreading over his face. Perhaps my bulky form and bent-over body reminded him of his mother, or of other, older women relatives. In other cultures of the world, women’s bodies commonly age the way mine has.

Then, he turned on his heel, went back in the shop, and locked the door. Being new to this country, he did not know that a few phone calls could have solved my problem.

I placed myself in the protection of God. I walked to the bench nearest the fire station, where a bright light burned upstairs. I suspected it would be burning all night. Opening my Bible, I began to read the gospels out loud in a moderate voice.

Less than half an hour later two people materialized in my circle of lamp light. One of them was a tall, strong-looking fellow, and behind him a shorter, fatter form, possibly a woman. They looked me over carefully.

“Hello,” I said.

“Hello,” they replied.

Silence.

I resumed my reading. They went away. I thought they were waiting for me to move away from the bench, sitting just beyond the lamp light, because I began to hear chirps, whistles, and animal noises coming from the direction they had taken. Maybe they thought I’d be curious and would have to find out what made the noises, and to stray from my seat. Or, even more likely, they thought I’d be alarmed and set off into the dark side streets looking for a hiding place.

I knew I’d be out there for three hours. My goal was to keep focused throughout that time on the gospel. What I didn’t want to do was to become fearful, be unable to sit still, and decide I had to go off into the darkness where I’d get mugged by the pair that had just passed by. In my own strength, sitting still would be impossible. With the gospel I could do it.

“For thou, o Lord, art a shield around me,” I said loudly, “my glory and the lifter of my head.”

I read aloud steadily for two hours. An odd noise, getting louder as it approached me, turned out to be the flip flops of a homosexual cruising towards MIT, returning half an hour later with partner in tow.

I interested him not one bit, for which I was grateful. The antics of a young man and woman cleaning the restaurant across the street, behind huge plate glass windows, amused me for a while. A taxi came, waited silently outside for one of them, honked impatiently, and then drove off. I realized their night’s work must have ended with an unexpected but pleasurable turn of events that canceled out their routine time for going home. But, mostly, my eyes stayed on my book.

At 4:30 a.m. the menacing couple appeared again. I kept reading. This time they made a detour around me, their eyes never leaving me, keeping their distance. Half an hour later, the sky began to lighten, and its welcome blue appeared. A Boston Herald truck rolled up to the opposite corner and dropped of a bale of papers. A mail truck stopped across the street. With great relief I greeted these signs of daytime norms.

I waited until the traffic was considerable before I rose from the bench and started for the Salvation Army headquarters 2 blocks away. An early staff person let me in and gave me tea and rolls.

The anxiety I had refused to feel all night now rolled over me. Maybe my staccato Bible reading had startled that pair into inaction. But by the next night they’d jump me right there on that bench, and I know it is not the job of firemen to respond to a scream from the street. I began excitedly to ask for help. A social worker, noticing my arthritis, referred me back to Betty Snead house, the temporary hospice for street women, and handed me a taxi voucher for $20.

“By the word of thy lips I have kept me from the path of the destroyer.”

 

An editorial note about the authenticity of this article.

This isn’t a work of creative writing or true-to-life fiction. This article was obtained by me in manuscript form, so to speak; hand-scrawled on 12 pages of loose paper. I’m well acquainted with the authoress of this story, and can vouch that she writes from lived experience.   -Ted