The Suffering Around Us

This morning I woke up on my own at 7:30am. Instinctually I reached for my phone (nasty habit) and saw a bunch of new work emails. I groaned, turned off my phone, and closed my eyes again. My husband was still sleeping. I could hear the dog crying in the crate next to our bed where she sleeps; she likes the crate, but by the morning she's lonely. When my alarm went off ten minutes later, my husband put his arms around me. "I love you," he murmured sleepily, "And the dog loves you. She knows you're awake now, and she wants to see you."

We lay entangled in each other for a few more minutes. "Mondays are evil," he groaned. I agreed.

Eventually we both tore ourselves from the bed and got ready-- he, for work, and me, for the Downtown Women's Shelter where I volunteer on Mondays. I complained about not wanting to go; I've been volunteering there for about 6 months and enjoy it, but actually leaving the house is hard. I think if we could have it our way, neither my husband or I would ever leave the house. We like the slow simplicity that we've cultivated-- playing with the dog, cooking, watching tv, studying for school. Things at home make sense; there's a ritual, a common understanding of what life should be like. Outside in the world things are harder.

After a slow start I finally I got all my things together, putting my schoolbooks and laptop in my backpack, along with my lunch, and headed out the door. At the bus stop I checked facebook. Everyone was posting about something "tragic," so I checked the news: another mass shooting, bigger and worse then ever before. But I couldn't register the tragedy of it. What is sixty people dead, 300 wounded? Before I had time to reflect, I was at my destination.

The bus let me off at 6th and Broadway. I headed East down 6th, towards San Pedro street, immediately regretting not taking the bus one stop farther. For whatever reason, approaching the Women's Center from the North isn't so bad. But 6th street is some of the worst of Los Angeles; I'm afraid every time I walk down it.

I wonder if there is a time I will not be scared walking through Skid Row. Sometimes I brag that I'm not afraid of people; I've traveled alone in India, I say. I'm not afraid of poverty. And it's true, I have traveled alone in India, but this is different. In the slums of India there is extreme poverty but there are families, mothers and children. There are no families on Skid Row. There are very few women, even. It's mostly men, and mostly African American men. Like a good white liberal I like to think I am not afraid of black men. And I'm not. So I wonder why my heart clenches every time I'm there.

As I walked down the street I could smell urine and feel my heartbeat quicken. On either side of the streets were tents and people sleeping on the ground. Across the street, a man and a woman were in a screaming argument that looked like it was going to turn violent. I wondered if they were lovers, or if he was her pimp. I sped up my pace, wondering if it was stupid of me to pack my laptop in my backpack. Finally I turned the corner onto San Pedro street. An odd thing about Skid Row is that the further you walk into it, the less it seems like laws and city institutions apply. No one obeys street lights. There are very few cars. There are no businesses other than shelters. It's like a war zone, or the scenes in a movie after the apocalypse.

At the Women's Center I could relax. There are no men allowed there except for employees, but most of the employees are women. The homeless women sit in the day center-- a large room with tables and chairs, and do drawing activities, learn to type, get health checkups or eat lunch. Today they had me sorting donated clothes into pile of shirts, pants, tank tops, shoes, and sweaters. Someone had donated a whole bag of unused bathing suits. There was a surprising amount of bodycon dresses, leotards, and lingerie. For the rest of the day I sat next to the clothes and checked to see that women only took five items. One woman took only scarves. One women seemed keen on the lingerie. Another woman stuffed far more than 5 items into a purse.

At one point an employee from the front desk walked by. "Can you cover me for a second?" she asked another employee. "There's a situation in the bathroom and I need to call 9-11." Five minutes later I saw paramedics and a firefighter walk by. The other employees continued on, business as usual.

We cleaned up early for lunch. A well-dressed white woman in her fifties made an announcement to the women in the day center about the shooting in Los Vegas. We had a moment of silence. Another well dressed middle-aged woman reminded the clients that there were mental health professionals available. After her announcement, the well-dressed white woman looked teary-eyed.

I wondered who the moment of silence was really for.

At lunch I talked to a social worker intern. We'd both had experiences with some of the women getting violently angry at us out of nowhere. "It's hard when you're trying to be calm and professional to know when to set boundaries," she said. "I don't want to take things personally, but I also want to set clear boundaries about appropriate behavior." I didn't have anything valuable to add. The women are tired and hungry; most have addiction or mental problems. Anger and violence seem like inevitabilities in this kind of environment. And I want to be safe. I don't want them to swear at me or attack me.

Walking back to my bus stop, I remembered to take 4th street instead of 6th. I don't feel scared on this street-- it's lined with Latino-owned shops selling party supplies. There are homeless people but it's not as pervasive. After a few minutes of walking I was back to the part of downtown LA with coffee shops, Whole Foods, and thrift stores.

The week before, walking back to my bus after volunteering, I saw one of my old clients from the rehab I used to work at standing on the street with two other men. I didn't say hello. I didn't ask if he was still at his job in Los Feliz. I didn't ask what he was doing two blocks from Skid Row at 1pm on a weekday. When you're on the losing side of the war on drugs, the casualties kind of keep coming and coming. I just kept walking.

I wonder how much I've had harden my heart over the years, deaden the nerve endings or whatever part of my physiology is responsible for feeling. The world always has and will always have more suffering than I can comprehend. So I close down my heart strategically. I open it up at selected times, so that I can still feel compassion and grief. Then I close it again.

What is 60 people dead, 300 wounded? What is 1200 dead in India from flooding?

I rode the bus to Hoover and Pico and got off. I was happy to be near home again, to see my dog and lie in my bed. I felt a pang of guilt at how happy I was to be away from Skid Row, back to my clean apartment and sweet-smelling dog. I wondered if I had time to wash the sheets before my husband got home.

I'm grateful for these small moments of comfort. The apocalypse we fear is coming, but it has already been here for centuries. We already live in it. We walk through it all the time. There has always been and will always be more suffering than we can comprehend. And there are quiet mornings, washing sheets, riding the bus home.

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