photo above is from St Martin's FB page
“Don’t shake his hand don’t shake his muthafuckin hand cracka!” Leonard is in a tweed 3 piece and holds a thin black cane with a brass knob. He stabs every word home with it. Dude is crazy out of place working at St. Martin des Porres, an elderly mens shelter on the waterfront of Seattle. How am I supposed to know Mike was a regional boxing champ back in the 60s? Apparently he’d break the hand of anyone who shook if he got the chance. He always seems a little light headed, but I always assumed it was the booze not the head bashes. “Ok ok ok Jesus”.
I had taken to what-the-kids-call microdosing to keep awake for these graveyard shifts, which sometimes turned up the funny or crazy I perceived. I took everyone with a grain of salt as a result, and perhaps appeared carefree. I sat at the back of a decommissioned ship repair hangar, a lone lightbulb in the middle of 225 cots.
55 years qualifies as elderly here but everyone looks well over 70. There is a ’strict’ no alcohol or drugs policy that is only enforced when the shuttle bus picks these folks up; there are no walk-ins. Check in at 7, 1 cup of coffee or juice on the house, then each cup thereafter is 10 cents.
Everyone is wounded. This is not a metaphorical statement or anything flowery. Everyone has had the shit kicked out of them recently, and all are weary. Lights out at 9. Most hit the cot, a few pace around throughout the night. I sit at a desk with one of those ubiquitous metal articulated desk lamps. I’m either reading, selling coffee (10 cents), or chatting with a ‘client’. Stories. In my 21 year old brain, I assume everyone is doing their best but is impaired by sickness of some sort.
Imagine the sound of 200 sleeping old men reverberating in a room 4 times the size of your high school gym.
At the time, we compared it to the Gyoto Monks chanting. 1/4 hits exacerbated this perception in a very pleasurable way. With a single bulb in the darkness, your eyes tuned into the light around you and everything else was black. When someone popped up for coffee or chat, their face was bright and came out of nowhere, like trout breaking the surface of a lake. It always poked the adrenaline pump a tad at 330 am.
Besides fleecing clients 10 cents for shit coffee, the back desk person had to do wake ups. See: most of these folks were actually working somewhere and needed to get going early. The worst commute I heard about was Seattle to Duvall; had to be at the job site by 7am, had to take 4 buses, first one lifted off at 430 AM.
I had a notebook with a list of names next to 1/2 hour intervals: 3AM: Rob (176), Sam (73), Ben (221), 330AM: John (43), Don (12), Ed (143). I'd kneel by each one, knock on the ground next to their head, gently whisper it was time to get up. Most of the time that’s all it would take. My next step at first was always to shake their shoulder, but I learned real quick this usually meant they weren’t going to wake up.
These dudes all read as mentally unfit, but after 3 nights with dead wake ups I was the crazy one. How do we fix this? How can I leave this at work and go home and not be up all night? Zzzzzz zzzz zzz zzzaaaa the concoction of baby doses and graveyards at the elderly mens shelter eventually yielded a 4 night insomnia marathon and I had to quit, lest I keep turning the same thought same thought obsessively over and over to death fretting over problems I was clueless to fix but wanted to feel better about. It’s a pattern that we now call ‘monkey-minding’ at home, insomnia’s signature. It’s the longest I’ve been awake except for when I worked myself into a small nervous breakdown trying to make it work at the toxic though well-meaning Gates Foundation, details of which I’ve eliminating for brevity.