15 February 2010

The Night Shift

I have had the pleasure and privilege of doing a few shifts in the overnight women's shelter in our building during the last few weeks. I had never been even remotely interested in working in the middle of the night before, but if I have to do it, I'm glad it's here.

I have not been a fan of sleepovers ever since abstaining from them didn't result in losing all of your friends, so I had forgotten what the atmosphere is like, and didn't consider the fact that I would find it in a shelter for women in a state of homelessness. But as soon as I obediently interrupted the silent darkness with "Good morning, beautiful women. It's Anna. It's 6:00. Now shield your eyes", I was greeted with a whining mixture of "Why did you wake us up so early!?" and "Why did you wake us up so late?!" along with the beginning of the morning-after-slumber-party routine. A little more complaining, and a lot of hairstyling (and those who had taken their hair off the night before began to re-attach it before my widened eyes ("Awe, Anna! Didn't you know us black women borrow our hair??)) The group in the bathroom covered about a 40-year age span, but they could all do perfect imitations of the voice of Elmo (and those who couldn't shot them perfect looks of disgust). The pillows and blankets were put away while some traded socks and some exchanged pictures of their sons or boyfriends or themselves on their cell phone camera. There was the hurling of hairbrushes and undergarments and jokes--everything that makes waking-up-women feel like they're in a place they're supposed to be.

And then, one by one, everyone left the homey, predictable, well-lit domain of estrogen to descend the stairs into the real world, where no one really knows what the day will hold (but they know it will be invaded by men). At this point, I noticed something: Every person who left the floor told me they were leaving, and said goodbye. I don't know if this is a rule, or a tradition, or if it's just because it's nice to tell someone you're leaving, and have them tell you they hope your day goes okay. Notifying someone that you won't be there anymore makes it feel like it's a place in which you belong, at least for now; a place where someone knows and cares that you are there, and no longer will be.

I was the visitor that night, that morning: Warmly welcomed.

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