Lacy launched a new project for the homeless this week. They were out, the weather was warm, before these last few days of snow. They have resumed their stations. Their clothes stink of mildew, urine. Their bodies smell like leftover turkey. Lacy, if you remember, comes from privilege. She assumes there was once civilization in the homeless. For some, yes, for some, no. Or they had it and forgot it. It will need to be relearned. But she does not know this. She prints fliers. They say in bold letters, four to a sheet, “IF you are HOMELESS…!!!! FREE showers available. NO CHARGE!!! Saturdays 4 to 6 p.m.” It has her address at the bottom. By 4 o’clock last Saturday there were 22 people waiting outside her apartment, not too far from campus, waiting for showers. A quiet queue, although the Lebanese landlord grappled with one in a dispute over a broom. Two homeless women spooned out laundry detergent to the line of other hopefuls, putting it in soda cans with the top ripped off, plastic mugs, cupped hands. The idea was that they would also wash their clothes in the shower. The clothes would dry on their bodies. Very efficient. “Looks good, looking good.” Lacy marched down the line with a stack of white hospital linens under each arm. Yes, these people certainly need showers. Many showers to be had. Yes. Carlos was the first. He was mangy and balding, showing the glistening scar on his skull where bone and tumor were removed in 1974. Lacy gave him a new bar of soap, a washcloth and a towel. “The soap is yours. Please leave everything else in the bathroom.” She repeated it in school-book Spanish. Carlos tried to bring his roped-together milk crates, four blankets, two winter coats and his one-eyed kitten up the stairs with him. Lacy’s apartment is on the third floor. Lacy looked distracted. “Umm, you can’t bring that up there. There’s no place for it. No vengan las cosas, Señor.” Carlos stood there for a second, then carefully returned the soap and towel and washcloth and shoved off down the street, dragging one blanket, his crates riding on top. The Iglesia del Dios Pentecostal was having an open house followed by supper and sermon in an hour. “Wait! Wait! What?” Carlos explained clearly in excellent English, in the same way he spoke to police and other city officials. “I cannot leave these things down here. They will be taken. If I am not with them, then they are not mine, and others will take them. So, I cannot leave them.” “Oh, right, yes. Um, I’ll watch them.” This meant the apartment was open to the shower-takers. She would not be able to monitor. Not that they were automatically thieves, but… She should have called one of her girlfriends for help. She held the kitten as it clawed her expensive sweater. Carlos went up to the open apartment. “It’s on the right. Right by the door. Don’t, um, touch anything else?” She said this more as a hopeful question than an order. Carlos came down forty-five minutes later. I believe I have seen this in a movie before, or perhaps read it elsewhere, but it is a fact: Carlos smelled like the first floor of Macy’s. He had tried every perfume in the cabinet. CK One, Opium, Chanel No. 5 (an expensive gift from Lacy’s ex-boyfriend). Carlos had also tried every bottle of conditioner, shampoo and styling gel, all the sprays and cremes, on his hair. Its sparseness was glued to his head. It would be rock hard when it dried. I’m also pretty sure he used her deodorant, but I didn’t think it would be helpful right then to mention it. He carried one of his coats. His Winter Coat, he called it. Wool, wooden buttons, an extra zip-in layer, only a few moth holes. Very warm. And now, very wet, and heavy, its body trailing behind him as he walked. The arms were looped around his waist, fastened with safety pins, like a scarecrow clothesline. “The water did not want to behave, but I have won.” “Oh, Christ. Um, no problem. Okay, I’ll be back in a minute.” Carlos held out his hands for everyone else to smell. Lacy took the steps two at a time. The bathroom was flooded. Towels, every towel in her linen closet, were tamped into a tight dam at the door, four inches of water behind. The shower was still running. The drain was plugged with hair and a sock. He had taken the kind of bath a child takes once they learn to enjoy it. There must have been geysers. The steam dripped off of everything, and Carlos seemed to have put as much grime on the white walls as he had in the water and down the drain. “Christ. Will they all be like this?” I heard later she sent the rest of them away. She’s now trying to get the youth hostel over on Amsterdam to accept vouchers for showers from the homeless, but I don’t know what’s become of that.
Posted April 12, 2000