Today I offer you a couple of little stories from the Ethel archives. I enjoy writing down almost every thing that pops into my head. This is a useful trait as sometimes I can incorporate these delightful anecdotes into a longer piece for the blog. Then there are these thoughts below, tiny little moments of scribbling which I wrote by hand for my Ideas file, which have never found a proper home in the longer theme of things. The first story is about my encounter with a homeless person here in Asheville. It’s a sweet little tale snipped from the multitude of experiences I have had, both good and bad, while riding the city bus. The second story is the underwear caper. Those who have known me awhile know that these types of sagas tend to follow me around. I am a magnet for underwear stories. This is a good one. So, pour a cup of your favorite beverage and take a peek at some random stuff I thought worthy of being committed to paper.
On a drizzly Tuesday afternoon, I dragged myself away from the snug interior of the gift shop and ambled toward the bus stop on Patton Avenue. In the distance, a diminutive structure invited me to sit in comfort under its sheltering roof, its three plexiglass walls promising protection from the biting wind while I awaited the arrival of the bus. The rain, increasing in its dosage, spurred me into a trot like a weary pony, returning from a day out, perks up when it sees its stable and knows it will soon find comfort and rest. Before I reached this solace, I could see through the glass there was another traveler taking shelter there.
I slowed my approach and entered the shelter. I had been taking public transportation long enough to recognize the status of my fellow passenger-in-waiting. Nose being more sensitive than eyes, I detected from my short distance away, the musk of missed bathing. He was studying a piece of paper in his hands but I could not see what it was. His dark, limp hair had been swept back, out of his face. He wore a corduroy button-down shirt over a white t-shirt and jeans which looked as if they belonged to a larger person. As I stood in my Gore-Tex hiking boots, water dripping from my rain coat, I noticed my companion sported a pair of old Nikes, as water-logged as sponges after a kitchen scrub down. Perhaps he’d stepped into a deep puddle.
Sitting quietly, with his worldly goods stowed in a well-worn backpack, he turned toward me and lifted a hand in greeting. I felt relief at this level of awareness and responded in kind. He was about my son’s age, twenty-something. I wondered how people would treat my son if he was adrift in a harsh and suspicious world. I asked if I may share the bench with him. He smiled and said, “Please do.” I imagined people didn’t generally ask him for permission or simply ignored him as unworthy of attention.
He shifted and I settled on the bench, grateful for the shelter from the gloomy weather. I often feel intimidated by these travelers. Drifters, nomads, drug addicts, homeless. I sympathize with their troubles, but don’t entirely trust them. They usually ask for money. I never carry any, but stash a few extra bus tickets for those instances when someone is refused bus service for lack of cash. I felt in this instance we were sizing each other up. I battened down against the damp cold and the inevitable request for spare change.
Instead, he showed me the piece of paper in his hand. It looked like some sort of application for shelter or assistance. I hesitated to ask if he needed help filling it out. I was confused as to why he was showing it to me. I thought perhaps he wanted me to know that he was trying. He was not the first homeless person to inform me of their efforts to dig themselves out of the hole. I simply asked how it was going and he replied that things were moving along in his favor. I inwardly hoped he was taking the bus to a better accommodation than this bus stop lean-to.
Neither of us spoke for a while. I mentioned I was beginning to think I had missed the bus as it was well past the time of its scheduled arrival. He’d been there twenty minutes with no bus stopping. Just late, we assumed in unison. With that small chink cleft into our strangers’ armor, he began to speak of his situation. There followed a confession of drug use and parental disapproval. He understood their position, but not back at the time that he left home. He had been on the road for about six months, since spring. There were communities of homeless people, but he was leery of them. He was looking for a way to support himself. With each revelation it appeared as if he was gauging me for a level of sympathy.
As is my custom when people are telling me their difficulties, I neither condone nor condemn out loud, simply listen. Frankly, I am generally freaked out by the stories of misery I have heard from some of my fellow humans over the years. Often, my first instincts are of disbelief or blame. “You’re so full of shit,” I think in my head. I see no point in saying this.
Sometimes I meet people on the bus or at the station, when I have the choice to sit and listen, to make acquaintance. To counter my disbelief of a dubious story, to decrease my distrust, to ease my harsh judgement, I try to reach further inside for some empathy. This kid called me ma’am, which reminded me of the young men, ex-convicts I used to share a bus stop with when they lived in a half-way house in my neighborhood. They were always polite. On this rainy afternoon, I was grateful my fellow traveler was not raving or unconscious and that we could have this brief moment of companionship on a dreary day. When the bus pulled up, I got on it. He did not.
I’m going to guess that the words Tobacco-Laden Underwear, in this order, have never been spoken aloud to you. This rarity of alignment has special significance. It’s become a kind of code, with deeper meaning, originally uttered to me by my friend Tee during a rather retrospective moment as we were out on the streets of Asheville taking a leisurely stroll. Some of you may recognize Tee from my La Avenida adventures and know that we have put in some long miles together. One might say we’ve had an ongoing conversation which has lasted over the years of trekking the numerous streets of this city where we first recognized each other as kindred spirits.
Tee volunteers for a charity which feeds and clothes Asheville’s homeless/struggling population. The organization receives many contributions of both food and clothing. There are occasions when these donations are either inedible (a whole butternut squash) or inappropriate (a clog dancer’s petticoat!). Then there are the gifts which require further action before usability. The blue jeans with holes in the seat or the button-down shirt with no buttons. Tee is considered the expert in rehabilitating lackluster clothing donations. She has the heart and valor (and stomach) of a warrior necessary for rendering funky unwanteds into desired wearables.
When someone donated a slew of men’s underwear in good condition except for the stench of cigarette smoke, Tee transformed them into designer briefs with her de-funkification process. Tobacco-laden underwear is now our code for that gift which requires an extra bit of effort before it reveals its value. When your cousin sends you a candle-making kit for Christmas, you can call me and wail about having received tobacco-laden underwear and your cousin will be none-the-wiser. Just remember that after its transformation, someone truly appreciated that underwear and the loving work that went into transforming it into an article of clothing he could wear with dignity. So, set up the candle-making kit and create a gift for someone else. Your extra bit of work might bring a little light where it’s most needed.