By Peter Rodman
This morning I got up early, and went down the road to treat myself to a Sunday NY Times. On the way home, I saw a MAPCO gas station that said "$149.9."
"Hmmm," I thought, "...good enough for me!" So I pulled in to top the tank.
As I tried to pay the guy (in advance, of course) he seemed distracted. Finally he said, "Just a minute," and next thing I heard was his Indian accent, scolding someone. "You got to leave now...I told you before!"
Apparently a lady had fallen asleep on the floor, off behind where you fill out your Lotto tickets. "She's been here for over an hour," he complained. I only got a glimpse of the matted hair and a tattered overcoat, from behind. "Okay, I'll move," she said. "...I'm sorry."
As I pulled out, I realized the short walk to my car was absolutely freezing...and even though she'd moved to another section of the store, the guy would probably kick her out
soon. I had no cell phone with me, and quite frankly decided it would be easier to just get her some hot food now, than to try to 'save the day' by putting her in my own car.
To go where, anyway?
So I drove to a McDonald's down the street and ordered an Egg Mcmuffin, and a hot chocolate with whipped cream. Mine was the only car there, but apparently both ladies there are in training...and it took nearly 10 minutes just to get the two basic items ordered, and another 5 minutes for some reason, to get my twelve cents change back!
I raced back toward the MAPCO store--and as fate would have it, there was a Nashville Fire Department SUV just in front of me at a red light, so I actually jumped out of my car and knocked on his driver's side door, explaining to the fire
guy that this lady there obviously had no shelter, and was about to get kicked out on the street. He seemed non-plussed, but because it was only a block away he agreed to follow me there.
When we got to the MAPCO, she'd already been kicked out...but they figured she'd gone across Nolensville Pike--a six lane thoroughfare here, to yet another convenience store. The fireman reluctantly followed me there, and sure enough, the guy in there behind the counter said, "She's in the bathroom."
I asked him to go get her.
One wonders how many of these situations happen all over Nashville, each and every night.
Meanwhile, the fireman pulled up in the SUV, impatient now--in all fairness, he was probably on his way to work when I sidetracked him.
He leaned out the window. "...is she drunk?"
"I don't know, I didn't even get a look at her...but..." I spread my hands out and motioned in the pre-dawn air, and looked up and around us, to emphasize the cold; it was 29 degrees. The time was 5:55 a.m.
"Even if it were 8 o'clock," I said, "it'd be too cold for anyone to be outside here, for very long..."
She finally emerged from the store, looking for all the world like someone who had donned Bette Davis's outfit in A Pocketful of Miracles.
Yep, it was 'Apple Annie'--but without an apple, and without a home, and without much hope at all.
|Bette Davis as 'Apple Annie' in |
A Pocketful of Miracles (1961)
Only thing is, the grime here was real; jokes about 'Central Casting' won't keep anybody warm.
The fire department guy leaned out his window.
"Where are you trying to go?" I could see him looking at me as a possible driver, so I handed her the food, and jumped in my car.
"I'm trying to get to a woman's shelter," she replied.
Good answer!, I thought--now he'll have to get her there!
I took that as my cue to split.
"Thank you," I said to the fireman, and pulled away.
He did not look happy about this situation being dropped in his lap. And after all, he personally didn't "deserve it"...but wouldn't police-and-fire be charged with scraping up the body, if the lady expired outdoors, in the bitter cold?
Which is better, taking preventive measures and slightly delaying your appointed Sunday morning rounds, or possibly dealing with a dead person, later on?
And by the way...
Just how many convenience stores here in Nashville double as shelters for the homeless on a cold night, completely unbeknownst to the vast majority of citizens who patronize them? (It all seemed fairly routine, to those guys behind the counters.)
I'm not telling this story to try to come off as any kind of angel, either. Believe me, I can be pretty hard-assed about these things myself--and occasionally I run out of compassion, just like anybody else. (For example, I've grown
sick and tired of being accosted at every intersection by people walking between lanes or obstructing my view while driving as they wave a newspaper at me, even if 'The Contributor' serves a function. Basically, let's be real: It's just legalized begging. And yes, I give 'em money sometimes, if it's handy--and safe to do so--which it all too often ISN'T!)
But here's the thing:
When I was growing up in the '60s, every single town in America had some sort of public mental health clinic. I know this because my Mom worked at one, for nearly 20 years. There, you could walk in off the street, and get top notch psychiatric help--either free or very cheaply, depending on your income--and resources were in place to get you whatever help you needed, if your problems were immediate and severe enough.
Today, no such system even exists.
|Photograph © 2015 by Peter Rodman. All Rights Reserved.|
(Next up are public schools, already being drained to death by funds now being siphoned away to so-called 'charter schools.')
The issue of homelessness is directly related to the fact that we no longer have a system to deal with mental health issues. In many cases, it's either prison or the streets.
And THIS is 21st Century America?
Our generation has failed miserably, to build upon the marvelous stuff our parents (the 'Greatest Generation') put in place.
Now we're content to leave the homeless out on street corners, waving newspapers around that nobody reads and hardly anybody even takes...even if they sometimes buy 'em.
And on very cold nights, until or unless they get arrested, we figure it's good enough to let 'em sleep in convenience store bathrooms.
Hey, at least they've got Twizzlers and Slurpees there.
This opinion column is Copyright 2016 by Peter Rodman. All Rights Reserved.