Friday, April 16, 2010

Workin' in the Wash House

Not an actual
homeless person.
On Tuesday, Wednesday and today I worked for Mark in the Men's Wash House at the Loaves & Fishes Compound.

I've used the Wash House a lot in my nearly two years of homelessness. I like taking a shower there shortly after it opens (before the place gets steamy and my glasses fog up); getting a razor to rake the stubble off my face; and, sometimes, trading in a wrinkled shirt that reeks of Tom, for a fresh unwrinkled one.

If you enter the small building on 'the shower side,' you walk past a busy service window where guys seek toiletries and trade dirty clothing items for clean ones. There can be quite a lot of friendly banter and, what can seem like, serious bartering going on.

Getting on the other side, the worker side, of the window gave me insight to the challenges that the Wash House staff has that I couldn't have appreciated otherwise.

It also helped me to understand why, as a user of that service that Loaves & Fishes provides, I am so appreciative of the upbeat culture of the Wash House and its smooth operation, generally.

On the other side of the service window

My job Tuesday morning was one of trying to do some of the things that Mark, Doug, Dave, Neil and Monty have learned to do easily and expertly. Quickly, after I had a sense of where things were, I was put to the task of trying to satisfy guys seeking toiletries and swaps for their dirty clothing items.

Mark, and the guys I was working most directly with, Doug and Dave, explained the task thus: I was to give each guy who came up to the window the best we had in direct exchange for dirty clothes that were dropped in a plastic barrel. No one was favored; no clothes were "out back," somewhere, saved for special people. We were to do the very best we could for each guy who stepped up seeking service.

But there were situations to be avoided. Transactions needed to happen quickly. "Shopping" was to be avoided: We couldn't take the time for stretched-out negotiations and long considerations of what would make a guy look sweet out in Homeless World. Give the guy the shirt (or whatever) that fits and seemed to best suit his tastes and move on. A guy could certainly balk, and explain why he needed some different article of clothing more appropriate for his aims that day, and get a different swap -- but long, strung-out deep-thought cogitations and extensive item try-ons were to be nixed.

Psychology and the case of John

Also, in the clothing swaps and in other matters dealing with my homeless brethren, some psychology was often employed.

An interesting case came up on Tuesday when Tim in Friendship Park had been approached by a homeless guy known to be particularly eccentric — whom I'll call John — who voiced an interest in taking a shower.

Unbeknownst to John, his interest in a shower set in operation a careful battle plan to get John cleaned up and his many layers of stinking clothes replaced.

In was in the early afternoon, at a perfect time, while the Wash House was closed for a short spell. With care, Mark shooed away or pulled inside guys who were hanging around the Wash House so as not to spook John as he came around, hopefully to take his shower.

The plan was to steal John's clothes while he was in the water and replace them without John becoming keenly aware of what all had happened.

Many minutes passed before John came up to the outside service window to talk to Mark. I and the other working guys inside pretended to be nonchallant as John and Mark conversed. It turned out that John was no longer intent on taking a shower, but accepting some underwear was a possiblity. A white pair of boxers and another article of underwear was shown to him.

John accepted the underclothing and explained that he would take them, but he would first have to handwash them before he would ever think about putting them on. His skin was delicate, it seemed.

The greater war wasn't won: John remained a reeking mess. But a lesser goal was achieved. John would be modestly cleaner and might be less timid in the future about using Wash House services. One day, we all of course hoped, we'd get him inside the building to be scrubbed and outfitted in clean clothes.

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