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The Truth About the Fact: An International Journal of Literary Nonfiction

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Location: Los Angeles, California, United States

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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Relieving Burdens



The woman’s breath stank of alcohol. She hadn’t bathed since God-only-knows-when. There was a distracting growth on her head, peeping out between the thin and oily strands of her hair. She told me in her still slurred speech that she was “a bottler,” a person who rummages through trash cans to salvage thrown-away beverage bottles, which can then be traded in for cash. Ironically, with all the yuppie Hybrid SUV’s zipping down Sunset Blvd, the most active environmental community in Hollywood might actually be the homeless, the ones who are doing it with the least pretense for caring about global warming.

“It’s pretty good money!” she tells me.

She also explains that at night she sleeps up against the wall of a police station. There are enough homeless in Los Angeles that none of the officers bother to do anything about her blatant vagrancy; if they told her to move along, there would probably just be another one after her, then another and another. She sees her sleeping location as strategic, figuring that the police would protect her if anyone ever tried anything on her. To myself, I wonder whether they would actually notice her at all, whether they would even bat an eye.

The woman’s name is Ruth, and I met her at a day shelter for the homeless that I volunteer at on Saturday mornings. The center is located behind the beautiful cathedral called Church of the Blessed Sacrament, located directly on Sunset Blvd in the heart of Hollywood—the city of broken dreams. Of the more than one million homeless people living in Los Angeles, we get about one hundred of them every week at the Blessed Sacrament shelter. There are always some regulars there, always some new faces, and there is always a drama of some kind, either brewing or boiling over.

Earlier in the day, a man came up to us requesting to cut in line for the showers. We started to explain to him that this wouldn’t be fair to the others who had been waiting for over an hour now, but he simply lifted up his shirt sleeve to reveal long skinny black worms writhing out of the flesh in his upper arm. Another man, with a white beard and a bright red bicycle helmet, almost started three different racially motivated fights. Someone else, we’re not sure who, defecated in the trashcan. One person was lighting his scratch-built incense sticks, which actually smelled really nice, and started a debate with someone else about Iraqi-war conspiracy theories. Another man appeared to have narcolepsy, and kept falling asleep into his plate of mashed potatoes. Someone else was lecturing my friend Keyon about what its like to live with AIDS.

But out of all the people there on this particular day, it was Ruth who still stands out in my mind the most. It would probably be more accurate to say that she still haunts me the most. I first came across her because she was being loud and belligerent, demanding that someone get clothing for her because she had a hurt leg and couldn’t walk upstairs to the women’s clothing closet on her own. So I went up and got some for her. But when I returned, she just broke down and started crying—wailing, actually.

I sat down on a bench with her and asked her to tell me what was wrong. In a scattered and slurred narrative, she told me that ten years ago she witnessed her three children being burned alive in her own house. She could hear them screaming. Her husband rushed into the house to save them, but he died too when the burning roof collapsed on him. Ruth told me that she had been paralyzed with fear throughout it all. In the reliving of that memory, she only wishes that it had been her who had been brave enough to go into the flames.

“In one night,” she told me, “I watched my entire world get wasted! Wasted!”

She broke down into wailing sobs again, and I didn’t know how else to react as a fellow human being, except to reach over and embrace her in a full hug. She explained that in the following morning, she was so emotionally destroyed by what had happened that she just left, hitchhiking her way across the country until she got to LA and couldn’t go any farther. The thing that still tears her up the most, however, is that she never got a chance to bury her own children. It was clear that after ten years, she had still never forgiven herself for that.

All of a sudden, Ruth asked me to pray with her. She grabbed both of my hands, closed her eyes and bowed her head. I was a bit taken aback. Not only was I still stunned by her story, but I’ve never really known how to pray at all, let alone for someone who had lost so much. I waited for her to start, but after a few seconds, she impatiently looked up at me and shook my arms, as if telling me to hurry it up. I decided to bite the bullet on my issues with God, and just winged it. I felt like an idiot, but all I could think of saying was about being thankful for the small blessings in life, in spite of the pain and suffering in our lives.

Ruth didn’t say anything when I finished up with an “Amen.” We both kind of sat there in silence, just thinking to ourselves. I wouldn’t know where to begin in describing the thoughts that went through my head during that moment of intermission between us. I thought about the privileges I had been born with, the absence of such authentic tragedies from my life. I thought about how easily that could all be turned around in an instant, as it had for Ruth-my whole world could simply be wasted in a single night, in a single act of God. Who is to say that myself, or maybe one of my friends, won’t also one day end up wandering the streets of Hollywood, collecting bottles from trash cans without a single soul in the world who cares about you. I thought about how little I could really do to make a difference for these people at the shelter, many of whom probably had worse stories than Ruth’s, but simply had no one to tell them to.

“You know," said Ruth, finally breaking the silence. “You’re all right. You're all right.”

Something in Ruth’s mood had changed and she now seemed to have a bit of a glimmer in her eye. I gave her another hug and told her that I had to go back to helping out around the shelter, but as I left, her words stayed with me. I’ve heard it said before that while no one can do everything, each of us can do something. Sometimes, I think, that this "something" can be as simple of a gesture as being an ear for someone in need to pour out their pain to, and share a bit of the burdening secrets that lie in the depths of their soul.

--Paul Beckwith

1 Comments:

Anonymous Alex said...

I want to retract my statement on Thursday. This is my favorite blog. You have a way with words and I think your personal experiences are the most powerful. I felt as though you placed me in the moment with you.
You are pretty amazing Paul.

-Alex

April 16, 2010 at 11:19 PM  

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