I returned to Pathways after a three week absence because a friend of mine died from cancer. I needed a break. I’m way behind on this blog.
Grace cleaned the table we always use with a rag and I wiped it dry with napkins. It took a few minutes for the smell of bleach to dissipate.
“I’ve been in the hospital for the past few weeks again,” Grace told me.
“I’ve been away too. COPD again?”
I spread the contents of my bags onto the table for my weekly arts and crafts workshop.
I noticed Pathways served hot dogs again. When I worked at Pathways ten years ago, Friday was hot dog day. We served it with sauerkraut, beans and sometimes coleslaw. Now everyone gets two hot dogs and beans. I used to love hot dog day. It was easy to prepare and everyone loved it. I don’t see that sort of excitement over hot dogs these days. I don’t know why. No one asks for my meal and in the past I’m sure they would have.
Two other women sat down at the table. Each searched through magazines and pictures I’d cut out from art magazines. I also brought animal pictures from National Geographic’s website. I had seen these women around, but usually they didn’t participate.
“What’s your name?” I asked a chubby, dark haired woman.
“Pretty name. I take it you know what you want to do.”
“Yeah,” she answered as she looked through the poster board in order to make a collage. Although I offer contents of adult coloring books, I always hope my art workshop participants will make collages because it reflects what they think and feel.
I gave Grace a 2B drawing pencil I once bought for a drawing class. “I can’t stay clean living here,” she told me when I gave her the pencil. She said, “I’d love a drawing pad, but it’d probably get wet.” In a matter of minutes a drawing of a butterfly flowed out of her. She held up her drawing to show everyone.
“Beautiful,” a short, dark-skinned man commented as he came up to the table. He grabbed a National Geographic magazine and sat down to read.
The man who sleeps on three dining room chairs was there again. “He must be exhausted to be able to sleep with all this noise,” I thought. As soon as I had the thought, the man got up, gathered his white hospital blanket and backpack and left.
Luella made two collages on both sides of a neon orange poster board. “I want to hang it by string,” she told me. On one side it had a picture of a woman from some kind of make-up ad and the other side had pictures of a red fox, a white-tailed deer and a brown bear. I didn’t get a chance to take a picture.
Grace finished her drawing.
“Can I have it?” Luella asked.
“Sure. It’ll just get wet if I keep it.”
Someone dumped bags of donations onto the pool table. A group of about a dozen people gathered around the table. They shouted at each other and shoved one another as they grabbed whatever they could whether it would fit or not. After all the donations were gone I saw several people hold up their bounty to see if it would fit. “Does anyone wear an 8?” A woman asked while holding up a pair of shorts I donated. All of this happened in about five minutes.
The scene of desperation over the donations disturbed me. I decided to leave and call Nelson, Pathways’ Founder, and tell him what happened.
“Who dumped the donations and who was shoving?” Nelson demanded.
“I don’t know. There were so many people around the table I couldn’t see.”
“Are you trying to protect someone? I’m not going to tell anyone it was you who told me. Just tell me what the ones shoving looked like,” Nelson said. Most people at Pathways, including me, have an understanding that you don’t rat on a client. Otherwise you might receive retaliation. I need them to trust me.
“No, I’m not. I really couldn’t see. I don’t know how your staff could prevent it from happening anyway. I mean, I guess you could ban the ones who were shoving.” I guess when you have nothing, you have nothing to lose, but they do have something to lose. Aggression at Pathways sometimes results in a permanent ban.
The next week, when donations were handed out, clients quietly picked through the donations. Pathways’ manager stood next to the table. Nelson must’ve told the manager to remind Pathways’ clients that shoving could result in a loss of services. Problem solved.
The folks who regularly participate in my art workshop share with one another. They ask each other to watch their things while they go outside for a smoke or go get their laundry. They trust one another. They ask me if I brought reading glasses or clothing every time I go to Pathways, but they don’t demand these things. I bring donations every week because they have very few possessions. They are focused on their immediate needs because there is a lack of services in the community to provide for their basic needs. That’s why the aggression I witnessed bothered me. It shows that they are really hurting. No one from my workshop participated in the melee over donations.
According to the book, “The Meritocracy Myth,” there is a popular theory that “poor people are ‘present-oriented’ and are unable to ‘defer gratification’… However, the present orientation of the poor can be an “effect” of poverty rather than a “cause.” That is, if you are desperately poor, you may be forced to be present oriented. If you do not know where your next meal is coming from, you essentially have no choice but to be focused on immediate needs first and foremost. By contrast, the rich and middle class can ‘afford’ to be more future oriented since their immediate needs are secure. Similarly, the poor may report more modest ambitions than the affluent, not because they are unmotivated, but because of a realistic assessment of limited life chances. In this sense, observed differences in outlooks between the poor and the more affluent are more likely a reflection of fundamentally different life circumstances than fundamentally different attitudes or values.” (2009, p.32)
That sums it up. It’s not their fault.