The sky was a uniform shade of overcast gray but the rain had let up when we walked out of the bus station. The temperature hovered around 50, comfortable enough for me in my soft fleece hoodie, especially after the warmth inside the lobby. We waved and shouted goodbyes to our favorite security guard, Eddie, and turned and walked toward the corner of Main and Webster. We had leftover hamburgers to give away but we couldn’t do it right in front of the station. It’s Eddie’s job to keep the homeless from gathering there and panhandling and bothering the customers, but he looks the other way if we take our leftovers around the corner.
The first person we encountered was Charles, a homeless man who is perhaps the most well known and widely recognized by all the bus ministry volunteers. He helps direct parallel parking on Webster Street, carries luggage, and cleans windshields for tips when people will let him. But few people really want a ragged homeless man to offer these services. So he exists, like the others, as an unclean stranger lingering on the sidewalk, that most people try to give wide berth.
As we approached, he offered his hand and I took it, putting my other arm across his shoulder. But in my warm, dry comfort I was taken aback by how icy cold his hand felt. “Charles, your hands are freezing, I said.” “Yes mam, Ms. Kathie,” he replied, it’s been cold out here.”
Why did I not expect those hands to be icy? It has been raining off and on for a day and a half. Low 40’s last night, hardly above 50 all day today and soggy. Sure, if you have shelter and you stay dry, walking out into a day like this in your nice warm hoodie doesn’t feel that cold. But if you were in it all day and all night… if your clothes and shoes and socks were soaked and you had no way to get them dry….of course your hands would be icy cold. You would be icy cold all over.
I pulled out a hamburger and some chips for him to eat and Susan pulled out a soda. I wish we had a warm coffee to offer instead but at least we had one Dr. Pepper left. He really likes Dr. Pepper. He thanked us and walked on.
Once we opened the bag for Charles, others came forward and we fed them also. There was a man I had never seen before who had personal belongings strewn all around him, most everything soggy.
“Do you have any dry socks?” he said. “My feet are soaked and really cold and I can’t get them dry.” I told him I would bring him some from my car. He said, “I’ll be here. I have to sort my stuff and get rid of some of it because the metro driver says I can’t take it all on the bus and the cops say I can’t take up more than 3 feet by 3 feet on the sidewalk.”
We finished distributing what we had in our bags and came to Susan’s car where we parted. I walked on because my car was around the next corner. Before I got there, I stopped and talked to a lady wearing one shoe but only a soggy sock on the other foot. Her pants were three inches too long and they were soaked where she was walking on the legs. “What happened to your other shoe?” I asked. “Can I get you another pair?” “Gotta hurt foot. Can’t wear a shoe on it’” she said, and limped on. I went to my car, grabbed a bag of socks, and walked back toward the new guy. On the way back I caught up with the one-shoe lady and gave her some dry socks. Another guy was talking to her at this point and I gave him some also.
When I got back to the new guy with too much stuff, I gave him some dry socks and he thanked me. Another man walked up and asked for some also.
New guy handed me his wet boots and asked if I could untie them. “I have neuropathy in my fingers,” he said. “I can’t get them untied. “ The laces were wet and had tight double knots in them, but with a little effort I was able to untie them for him so he could put them back on. I asked his name and he told me and I told him mine. We chatted for a few minutes, then I walked back to my car.
We went downtown today to meet three women who were just released from prison. We fed them lunch in the Greyhound station and gave them toiletries and coats and snacks for the bus. They made calls home on our cell phones and delighted in the chapstick they found in their bags, saying it felt like Christmas. We prayed with them and then walked outside to head home. But sometimes, the walk to the car is just as important as the time we spend inside.