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"Touched"

I walked into the shelter, my arms loaded with blankets. The atmosphere
was dank with the smell of blended body odor. Bearded men sat with yellow
teeth, greasy stocking caps and old army jackets. Some were catatonic as
the day was young. Some coughed, others mumbled. I walked toward the
giving window. Hovered below sat a child, drowsy, yawning, her little dress
too short. Her hair was dirty blonde and tangled. Her little coat too thin. I laid
the blankets on the counter. Kneeling, I said, “Hi baby girl.”
“I aint no baby,” she said shyly, “I’m five.”
“Of course you’re not,” I smiled, “What is your name?” Glancing at me and
then back at the floor, she said, “Holly.”
“Well have a Happy Thanksgiving Holly,” I smiled. “What a completely
stupid thing for me to say,” I thought. I took her little hand in mine and she
jerked it away. I rose to leave, then turned back to her, “God Bless you
sweetie.”
“I don’t like God, he took my mom away,” Holly said solemnly. Stunned, I
returned to my knelt position. “Oh?” I inquired.
“Yep she died of the aids.” A man approached, tall, young, dirty Levis. “Step
away from my kid lady,” he said. His voice soft, his resolve firm. I gulped
and arose meeting determined green eyes, square jaw fixed. “Is there
something, anything that I can do to help you?” My question was benign, as
I knew that I was too busy to make time. He scooped the little girl up and
put her inside his coat. “Nope.”
I paced the floor that night, overwhelmed with my own responsibilities,
feeling guilty, torn, and worrying about Holly. I questioned myself, my
priorities, and my cozy house. “Who am I, that I should be so blessed?” I
said aloud. My husband, in front of the television, looked up from the
football game. “Huh?”
“Oh nothing,” I said. That night I confided in him and then I ask his opinion.
He was adamant, “You can’t save the world Honey. Listen, I know that you
have a soft heart, but…” That was where I turned over in bed and tuned him
out.
The next day I set out to find Holly. Returning to the shelter at precisely the
same time that I was there before, I ask the director if she knew anything
about the lanky young man and little girl that had kept me awake most of the
night. She said regrettably that she wouldn’t help me if she could. “If I reveal
where these people live or sleep, I will lose their trust and I want them to be
able to feel safe when they come in here. Sorry lady,” she sniffed, putting
her hands on bony hips. Looking into tired determined eyes, I opened my
mouth to say more but thanked her instead and left.
Once out on the sidewalk, I noticed it had began to rain. The wind was
coming up off the river with a wintry chill that made my eyes sting from the
cold. I looked as men and women started backing into the doorways of
businesses along the street. I had heard the news reports of the business
owners going to city hall and begging the mayor and commissioners to make
skid row a priority. They complained that the “bums” left needles, vomited in
their doorways and urinated on the sides of their buildings. One business
owner shouted at the mayor, a liberal woman stuck in the sixties, “Why
should I let them take over and drive me out? Do something, damn it!”
“Do I dare inquire of these folks where Holly might be?” I asked myself. I
gingerly approached a man, back turned, standing in the doorway of a small
grocery. I noticed that it was well barricaded with bars on the windows and
a gated door. “Excuse me Sir,” I said, frightened. He turned and I met
bloodshot eyes and a deeply wrinkled dirty face. His beard was yellow gray
and his teeth were rotten. “Got a couple bucks,” he wheezed. Repulsed, I
turned and ran back to my car. Several men that looked very close to the one
that I had just spoken to, were leaning against it. I hit the alarm button on my
key chain and they moseyed away, snickering. I jumped behind the wheel
and sped away, trembling in tears, and feeling like a fool. I angrily chastised
myself, “How could I have been so incredibly ignorant!”
Back home I went into the kitchen and made a cup of hot tea. I looked
around at the pretty room in blue and white and wondered again, why some
are so blessed while others are so destitute. That night I slept hard and if I
dreamt there was no memory of it.
At breakfast, an old fashioned tradition that I insisted on, I told my husband
everything. He was silent for a while and then he laid down his fork. “Beth,
here me out okay?” I picked up my teacup and gave him my eyes. “I work
near skid row and I walk through the area often.”
“I know where, you work,” I retorted.
“Don’t interrupt me Beth!” I took a sip of my tea and he continued. “The
majority of those people are either alcoholics or mentally ill. After the office
relocated down there, I was giving them money because I felt sorry for them
at first, then it was to get them off my back. A representative for the city
came in and spoke to our board regarding the best way to help. It wasn’t
money. That was feeding the problem and enabling them to continue to beg.
We were told that we could buy them food by purchasing vouchers from
some of the area markets. That this would be the best way to help. So I
went down and spent fifty bucks on these vouchers. Then it just made me
mad to think that I can’t even get to my place of business without being
forced to spend my hard working money on these bums. So I quit buying
them. Now I walk past them and keep alert. If one approaches me or
persists, I yell at him to back off. It is a huge problem and I don’t have the
answers. Beth you can’t save the world. The more handouts there are, the
more bums there will be. I don’t want you going back down there and I
mean it. Give some money to the women’s shelter if you want, but do not go
where the men are. Especially alone.” His argument was logical and I had to
concede that much of it was true. I silently finished my meal and went to the
den, furious with my husband. Or was I furious with myself, the system, or
the logic?
A few weeks later, with Thanksgiving over, I decided to go to the women’s
shelter to inquire about their needs. It was in an old brick building several
blocks from the place where I had been before. The doors were heavy,
glassed and behind them was a cage. I buzzed at the entrance and was asked
to please wait. It didn’t take long for a woman to appear. She unlocked the
cage and then turned back and pushed some numbers into a keypad locking
herself in. She spoke to me through a speaker. “Do you have an
appointment?”
“Yes, I called earlier.” I gave her my name and she told me to press my
drivers license against the glass. She ran a pencil down a list on a clipboard.
When she came to my name she made a little check. Buzzing me in, I was
asked to stay in the lobby. I watched her go, her long curly hair and
broomstick lace skirt flying behind her. Another woman came through a
door and down a few steps into the lobby. She shook my hand. “Hello my
name is Anne.” I returned the greeting, feeling good about her warm strong
handshake. “I see that you have good security here.”
“We have no choice I am afraid. Let’s go to my office.” She led me through
the huge rotund room and then to an office on the left. “Was this a hotel?” I
commented noticing the high ornate ceilings, marble floors and tall pillars.
“Yes it was, and an expensive one at the turn of the century. It was donated
to the city by a local billionaire.
We had been leasing it and we were very close to closing the doors when the
transaction came through. We still have to operate on donations and
volunteers. The city provides the sewer, water and upkeep of the building.
Because we are a non-profit charity organization there are no property taxes.
Everything else is up to us. The heating bill, the food, the beds, medical
supplies, etcetera. Have a seat,” she gestured to a chair opposite her messy
desk. “You told me on the phone that you are interested in a volunteer
position?” She picked up a piece of paper and studied it for a moment before
she sat down. “Yes, but I have to say that I have led a fairly sheltered life
and I am ridiculously ignorant about what you do here.”
“I was touched by a little girl at the men’s shelter. I was there delivering
quilts from the lady’s club at my church. I couldn’t get the poor little thing
out of mind.” I told her the story as she rocked back and forth in her chair
smiling. My cell phone rang and I reached into my Gucci bag, took it out,
and looked at the caller I.D. I noticed her looking at my diamond earrings,
my two-carat wedding set, and my perfectly manicured nails. I apologized
for the interruption and then turned the phone off. Her hands looked dry and
her nails were short. She was dressed modestly in a tweed sweater and
jeans. Her black hair was pulled up into a thick pony-tail. She had a pretty
sculptured face, olive skin and compassionate brown eyes. I noticed some
lines had set in around them so I guessed her to be in her thirties. “Beth, if
you are serious about volunteering here, you will have to go through training
and then orientation. It is extensive,” she said seriously. “The women that
come here are victims of domestic or street violence. They arrive scared,
desperate and many of them severely beaten. Their children are terrified and
some are removed from their mothers and taken to child protective services.
It is a dose of reality Beth, and it takes someone who has the strength to
hack it. I want you to think long and hard before you consider walking into
this world. Here are some pamphlets on what we do and a booklet on what
we expect of our volunteers. There are several positions available but,” she
leaned forward and looked me in the eyes, “You have to have a lot of guts.
You can’t cry over a broken nail or red hands from the constant scrubbing
we do around here. We change diapers, wash clothes, do dishes, clean
wounds, and we wash our hands a hundred times a day. We use a lot of
bleach in the bathrooms. These women could have an “std”, aids,
tuberculosis. Most smoke or have a drug and alcohol addiction. Some are
prostitutes hiding from a pimp. We treat for head lice, scabies and you name
it. Read that material and call me if you are interested.” Anne rose from her
chair and I took the papers from her hand. “How many days a week does the
average volunteer come?” I asked.
“It depends on their time,” she answered smiling. “We will get as much out
them as we can but it is a well organized schedule. It is too important. We
just can’t tolerate the lackadaisical, or a flake that shows up at their
convenience.”
“I understand.”
“ You look astonished, this isn’t for everyone. I truly believe it takes a certain
gift to do this kind of work. Oh and Beth, we ran your name and drivers
license during this interview. The police work hand in hand with us. You
could be the sister of a husband or boyfriend, we just don’t know and we
can’t be too careful. A woman’s life may depend on it.”
“How would you know?” I asked solemnly.
“That is a very good question, we have the women write down every name
that could compromise their stay here. It is very rare that we have problems
with the perpetrator, but it does happen and that is why we have very tight
security. In our history, we have had just one woman murdered on the
premises. In other cities the statistics are much higher. She held out her hand
and I took it, my head spinning. I thanked her, and then she walked me out,
put in the code in the keypad on the cage, and then hit the buzzer so that I
could open the door.
When I arrived home, I quickly shed my coat and handbag, then went into
my den to study the papers that Anne had given me. After reading it all
thoroughly, I felt too overwhelmed to think so I decided to put it on the back
burner for now.
The next morning after Daniel had left for work I sat down to read the paper.
After looking at the world news I turned to the community section. The
headline read, “Gala To Be Held For The Shriner’s Children’s Hospital” at the
Grand Ballroom on Broadway. I sat straight up in my chair. It was as if a
light had flashed through my brain. “Of course,” I nearly ran to call my
mother. “Mother, I am glad I caught you,” I said as soon as she answered.
“Are you in a hurry?” She said she had a minute or two. “Can I meet you for
lunch this afternoon? I really need to talk to you.”
“ Is everything okay?”
“Yes, Mother. I’ll let you go and see you this afternoon, say Nick’s Café by
12:30? She agreed and I grabbed a notebook to jot down my ideas and the
names of those that I knew my mother had influence with.
Nick’s was a favorite spot for me to go if I wanted a quiet atmosphere
together with the best minestrone in town. My mother walked in looking as
lovely and regal in a black business suit and white blouse. Her fifty-five years
had made her more sophisticated than ever and she retained that telling smile
that would either melt you or freeze you in your tracks. Her back was
perfectly straight and she carried herself with an air of confidence and grace.
Her thick salt and pepper hair was pulled up into a French roll. I stood and
kissed her cheek. She gave my hand a squeeze before removing her gloves
and taking her chair. “I have ordered for us Mother.” She arched an
eyebrow, then said, “Thank you.”
“How is Daniel, Dear?”
“Very well, thank you.”
“We have said our niceties, So what is so urgent? I can’t stay long as I have
an appointment with a client at 1:30.” Nick brought out a cart with two
bowls of hot soup, wafting scents of tomato, basil and garlic, warm bread
and a beautiful salad with his famous house dressing on the side. After
ordering tea, mother looked at me expectantly. It took me a good twenty
minutes to relay everything that had happened. She sat listening, eating her
soup and sipping her tea. She was a skilled listener and very skilled at
expressing her feelings with an eyebrow or if needed an icy smile. I was met
with a look of concern. When she finally spoke, it was my turn to be silent.
“ I see you feel guilty that you can’t be there in the thick of things, shirt
sleeves rolled up, holding a baby, or the nursing the cuts and bruises of a
badly beaten woman. We are put in this world with many diverse gifts. Some
are here as helpers, laborers, administrators, teachers, healers, and nurturers.
If this weren’t so then nothing would get done. So that being said, what do
you want of me Darling?”
“You are right Mother, I have felt weak and stupid. I defied Daniel thinking
that he didn’t have a heart. I think that he just knew that this wasn’t for me.
I have suffered for a couple days from a sort of culture shock I guess, until
this morning. I have an idea. I want to be a fund raiser for the women’s
shelter. I am not talking about a rummage or cake sale, I am talking about
$100.00 or maybe $200.00 a plate dinner and a formal ball, with the best
dance band and champagne in town. I need you to call all the right people
and I want you and Daddy to contribute by securing the ballroom, and by
providing the catering. Daddy’s law firm has some of the richest clients in
the state. Your friend Gretchen is a multi-millionaire herself? Mother, you
know everyone and get the mayor involved. Please think about it and get
back to me. A New Years Ball would be perfect!”
“Elizabeth, You are a little too enthusiastic Dear. The New Year is not even
an option; here it is nearly Christmas. You know full well that the Grand
Ballroom is booked, as is every other decent facility in town. I really have to
go. I will call you in a few days after I have had time to think about it and
after I speak to your father. In the mean time, I’ll write a healthy check to
the women’s shelter. I need to do some year-end giving anyway and I will
put it on my list. I am familiar with their work down there.”
Mother arose and I stood up then kissed her cheek. As she left, her beauty
and elegance was evident enough to turn the heads of the men in the café,
both young and old. I sat back down to finish my lunch, with confidence in
the fact that she would do all she could to help. I knew despite her queenly
countenance, that my story had tugged on her heart. She wasn’t in the habit
of making promises and I knew that she would be business like in her
approach. Every tee would be crossed and all possible scenarios considered
before any fund raiser would be held.
Mother didn’t need to work, she preferred to. She was a broker in real estate
and had earned a fortune on her own. She knew people in high places and
most of her lady friends were high society.
After the holidays were over Mother called me to tell me what she had been
able to accomplish for the women’s shelter. “First of all, we have a spot on
the local television morning show. Your Anne will be there and we will have
an opportunity to talk to the public about the needs. Next, we have the
ballroom but it is not anywhere near a holiday, I have secured it at the same
time that Bob Johnson is in town campaigning for his run for governor. If he
wants our support, he won’t turn us down. This will be like a political gift
for him if he gets behind this with us. Next, we will cater it but your father
wants nothing to do with it other than writing a check and showing up to eat
and you know how he loves to dance. I have talked him into giving quite a
large sum annually and that is something. I will get back to you on the dates
and Darling, you can close your mouth now.”
Mother this is just wonderful, I love you!” I cried.
I told Daniel about everything and he too agreed to give annually. I told him
that I had gone to the women’s shelter in person because if I was going to
err, that it was going to be on the side of mercy.
I realize now that we all have different gifts and mother in her infinite
wisdom,was the first to point it out. I told him, “I may not be able to handle
watching a baby scream as they are being separated from a mother or see
wounds on a pregnant woman, but I can hostess, I can make calls and I do
know people who know others of influence. So I feel we all can do
something.” Daniel took me in his arms and squeezed me very tight. Then he
winked and said, “I don’t want to have to do anything but show up and eat.”
“That sounds familiar,” I laughed.







------
"If you have the chance to sit it out or dance, I just say Dance." writen by Mark Sanders recorded by LeeAnn Womack


http://www.artspoetry.com
http://booksbybeverlyjraffaele.com


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by BevRaffaele





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