A Professor Goes Out On the Street The Common Reader is pleased to reprint Wayne Fields’s 1987 essay on spending time on the street with the St. Louis homeless and his reflection on what he wrote.

Illustration by Maddy Mueller

Editor’s Note: This article was first published June 21, 1987, in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Sunday Magazine. It is introduced by author Wayne Fields, Washington University in St. Louis’s Distinguished Professor in English in Arts & Sciences, followed by the article in full.

 

•  •  •

 

I first published this essay more than 30 years ago, and until recently had not reread it in all that time. Re-encountering a piece you wrote so far in the past is like bumping into old classmates at a 50th reunion; you vaguely recall them but no longer remember how exactly you felt about them. Still, the recognition is significant, reminding you that you were once both yourself and someone you no longer much resemble. That seems an appropriate realization since this essay, and the experience on which it is based, is as much about how we see ourselves as about our perception of others, how a change in circumstances, dress, or locale—even when both voluntary and temporary—can be more dislocating than we had anticipated.

My brief time on the streets of St. Louis did not come about from any muck-raking zeal, a conviction that I could do something with a pen that would ease the plight of the growing numbers of homeless in my community. My reasons were purely personal. Though I was living an academic’s secure suburban life, I could recall a time in the late 1940s when my young father, an army veteran unable to find work, left my mother with two small children, a bag of pinto beans and another of cornmeal while he wandered the Midwest in search of employment. What little money we had, he left with my mother then took to the road with a small group of other men in similar circumstances, all living hand to mouth. When he returned home three months later, I was troubled by how thin he had become and how distant he could seem even as he held tightly to the family from whom poverty had so recently separated him. Perhaps I went on the street because, whenever I see men on corners with scrawled signs declaring “will work for food,” I am reminded of my father and that hard time, and maybe all those years later, in my comfortable life, I wanted to know something of what he had experienced.

More likely I took to the street because I was trying to find some small niche for myself as a writer, a subject matter modest enough for my talent, one that did not require great skills of invention or critical thought, in fact, one where all I had to do was watch others perform. I had already published an essay in which I followed a heart surgeon through his routine of opening people’s chests and now imagined a series called “Other People’s Places,” each piece following the same formula with different people and different places. Since I lived in St. Louis and conveniently had the first week of March free from teaching, that city’s streets provided an easy option for my next project.

When, preparing for this re-publication, I looked through my files for an early draft, I discovered my original title (before an editor changed it) had been “Seeking Shelter.” I do not think I was so much describing the activity of the homeless I had been observing as I was suggesting my own situation. I had no idea that first night where I should go to get out of the cold, no idea really what I was doing out there. By contrast, the people I met, those whose options had been played out and who lived in circumstances most of us regard as desperate, seemed much more competent and often more generous. And, so, I depended on them, gratefully and, sometimes, admiringly.

And then I went home.

 

•  •  •

 

 

This is not about how it feels to be homeless. Since I had a home and an office at Washington University, and a credit card number that would have allowed me to call there any time I chose. I know no more about homelessness now than before I went onto the street. Nor is this an informed statement about who the homeless are or even about what they do with their days.

It is merely about someone who, knowing little of such matters and without money in his pockets, went onto the streets of St. Louis and found shelter and food, and it is about what and whom he saw in the process.

Downtown St. Louis is a place I normally enter only on brief, darting forays, a beeline to a particular destination and then straight home with no tangential movement. My first few hours on the street consisted of learning the terrain, walking one street then the next, my boundaries provided by the bus stations to the north and the stadium to the south, streets that after 18 years of living in the city were as unfamiliar to me as those of Cleveland or Detroit.

I practiced [the homeless men’s] slow, deliberate walk, head pushed forward, eyes to the front and slightly downcast. And I watched for some indication of where they were going, for some indication of where I might spend the night.

And as I made my newly appointed rounds, I began to watch for others who carried their belongings with them, watched and tried to learn from their examples. I practiced their slow, deliberate walk, head pushed forward, eyes to the front and slightly downcast. And I watched for some indication of where they were going, for some indication of where I might spend the night.

Up Chestnut, pas the plaza, a black woman with a tight grip on her green garbage bag moved slowly westward. Ahead of her a gray-bearded man, the cuffs of three different pairs of pants showing at his ankles, slouched along, bent forward as though watching his small, deliberate steps with all the attentiveness of a nervous tightrope walker. At a construction site to the north, a man in his 50s, jaunty in a felt hat and leather coat, a curved pipe wedged in the corner of his mouth, combed, the dumpsters, placing his withdrawals in a loaded shopping cart that he pushed from garbage bin to garbage bin.

Trailing a block behind, I followed two men who cut over to Olive, then continued south, angling across a parking lot and entering an alley. I remained on Olive, unsure in the twilight of just where they had gone, and came to a two-story building identified as the Sunshine Rescue Mission. Next to the building on the west side was an area separated from the street by a low brick wall topped with wire fencing.

Peering through, I could see an ambulance and 12 to 15 men, some seated on a long bench and staring down at the ground, others standing and talking in whispers as, from the corners of their eyes, they watched the unmoving body. A paramedic knelt over the felled man and, to the side, a leather-jacketed policeman looked on skeptically. A tall, young black man looked toward me, then whispered to a white companion, also young. They both stared in my direction. The cop moved toward the wall, and I hurried on up the street.

At the corner I headed north. A figure appeared suddenly from the shadows across the street, angled in front, cutting me off on the sidewalk. I stepped off the curb, but he reversed his route and edged back ahead of me, against blocking my path. I returned to the sidewalk and stopped. He stood 5 feet ahead and said, “I know you.”

It seemed peculiar. Two hours earlier I had stood on a street corner beside two colleagues, neither of whom recognized me as we waited for the light to change, but now a stranger was insisting he knew who I was. He waited but I remained silent.

“We arrested you in the Third District last week. When’d you get out of City Jail?”

“Not me,” I said.

“How the hell did you get out so quick?” he continued, almost good naturedly, his eyes never leaving my face.

“I’ve never been in jail here,” I said. My answers came, instinctively, short, low, and in a monotone.

“You sure got a twin brother over in the Third,” he said. “I’ll be around and I’ll be keeping an eye on you.”

Later that night, in the park west of the Old Courthouse, I watched a woman, parka laced tight beneath her chin, a scarf tied around that and a bulging plastic bag elbowed to her side, trying to sleep sitting upright on a bench. She could manage about 15 minutes, then would slowly lose her balance and totter to the left. Catching herself, she would pull back to a sitting position, straighten her parka, resecure the bag, then drift off into another 15-minute nap. She continued like this for two hours before I wandered away in search of a more comfortable place to doze.

It seemed peculiar. Two hours earlier I had stood on a street corner beside two colleagues, neither of whom recognized me as we waited for the light to change, but now a stranger was insisting he knew who I was. He waited but I remained silent.

I tried other benches, sat for a while behind a hedge next to the wall of Christ Church Cathedral, imitating a sleeping figure I glimpsed from the sidewalk. But I soon became chilled and walked to the Trailways depot in search of warmth. When I arrived, there were, in addition to a handful of ticket holders who were clearly on their way to someplace else, already 15 others, all men, seated around the room slumped over in sleep.

Shortly before 2, I was awakened by a voice over the public address system solemnly ordering out all but those with tickets. Everyone rose slowly, as reluctantly as for the Last Judgement, struggling against stiffness and sleep, everyone, that is, except a short man in a plaid mackinaw who waved his little scrap of paper over his head while looking around wide-eyed for the authority that went with the voice.

At 2:20, in the park west of the Arch, I found a spot hidden from view by bushed and backed by a wire fence. I wrapped my coat tightly around me and hid myself under the shrubbery. Looking up through this thicket, I could see the Arch, its curved surface catching all the available light, gleaming ever at that hour with shimmering light. A group of young men walking from Laclede’s Landing sang, “Tomorrow” like so many sentimental, aggressive, and gender-bewildering Orphan Annies stumbling along the path. As their voices drifted away, something scurried through the dead leaves above my head. I turned and caught a glimpse of a rat as it hurried away.

When the clock on the Old Cathedral struck 4, I climbed out of my burrow like some character from a children’s book and, teeth clattering, walked on complaining legs to the Old Courthouse where I slumped onto the steps of a side entrance. Thirty minutes later a Park Service employee politely but firmly ordered me out. “We can’t let you loiter here,” she declared. Sheepishly I moved out of my shelter and back into the chill.

The Sunshine Rescue Mission serves three meals a day. Its early arriving clients wait in the alley or in the side yard where I had seen the ambulance, braced against dumpsters or nearby buildings. A few of the older men sit on the long benches beside the mission, some talking softly to companions, one or two shouting loudly to no one in particular, but most keeping to themselves, heads down, elbows on knees.

About as many are black as are white, and a small cluster of Hispanics keep to themselves and to the side. The younger men, some more boys than men, stay in the alleys, the youngest in loud and aggressive clusters, the rest hanging back on the fringes, silent and self-absorbed, their eyes either cast downward or holding a line just over the heads of the others.

Inside the mission we were told to remove our hats and then were directed towards the rows of folding chair pews. Twenty-five of us sat facing forward, some attentive, some already nodding off. In the front of the long room, behind a railing, was a pulpit and behind that two men. To the side and back, a woman sat behind a piano. Farther back still was an organ. Across the front of the chapel, painted in big block letters, was the message, “HOW LONG HAS IT BEEN SINCE YOU WROTE HOME?”

The older of the two men, squat and balding, opened with prayer, then introduced the main speaker, a tall, thin young man with lots of hair. The bald man prepared the audience with a no-nonsense description of the power of God. “God,” he declared, “doesn’t guarantee our next breath, can snuff us out at the snap of His fingers.” He snapped his fingers. Then he led us in singing “Glory to His Name,” trying along with the pianist to hurry us into a joyful tempo. He prayed again.

In contrast to his colleague’s open collar and windbreaker, the younger minister wore a dark suit and a tie. He accompanied his sermon with grand, sweeping gestures, dramatic movements that always lagged slightly behind the words they were supposed to emphasize, a strange reversal of physics in which the sound always arrived before the sight. He spoke with vigor and earnestness on a wide range of subjects, including the orders of angels and a purifying coal placed on the prophet’s tongue, but centered, I gathered, on the awesomeness of God and the danger of our treating Him too casually.

 

•  •  •

 

It seemed, after the build-up, a puny sort of sin to worry about, but the young man got considerably worked up about this weakness, perhaps because, as he confessed to us, he had that very day, detected evidence of it in his own perfunctory morning prayer. Most of his audience, including the man who had introduced him, were either balancing on the brink of sleep or gazing straight ahead, eyes glazed, jaws slack. The one exception was a man in the second row who received it all with great enthusiasm, especially the information about angels, nodding encouragement at every emphatic moment.

After the service we climbed, single file, to the second floor where the meal had been laid out on a narrow shelf that ran completely around the room, interrupted only by the doorways and the stairs. We sat facing the walls with our backs to one another, and ate. The main dish was a bowl of thick chicken soup supplemented by a slice of bread, a sweet roll and a cup of heavily sugared tea.

Not all street people carry their possessions in a plastic bag. A few have suitcases, occasionally quite good ones that they can have locked in a shed at the Rescue Mission during the day and then retrieve before they find their night’s lodging. Those with suitcases are usually the most neatly dressed and groomed, evidence that they keep toiletries in their luggage. The worst of the alcoholics and dopers rarely carry anything; instead they wear all of their possessions all of the time.

The young man next to me on the right slumped, head low over his food, with his arms arranged on the table like a fence protecting it all. He was pale, and his eyes, barely open, were glazed. While the rest of us took our food quickly, our only sounds the slurping of the soup or the scraping of the chair, he moved slowly, when he moved at all, taking only an occasional, deliberate spoonful, and apparently transfixed by the dense liquid before him. When, after five minutes, my bowl empty, my break and roll consumed, I rose to leave, only he and the two others, similarly disposed, remained in the room.

Not all street people carry their possessions in a plastic bag. A few have suitcases, occasionally quite good ones that they can have locked in a shed at the Rescue Mission during the day and then retrieve before they find their night’s lodging. Those with suitcases are usually the most neatly dressed and groomed, evidence that they keep toiletries in their luggage.

The worst of the alcoholics and dopers rarely carry anything; instead they wear all of their possessions all of the time. Otherwise, in the addiction they leave behind whatever they had in hand, forget of so slight a burden in the presence of a greater one. They are the most disheveled and dirtiest.

 

•  •  •

 

Often the younger men carry that compromise between a suitcase and a garbage bag, a vinyl carryall, the kind of thing other people carry to aerobics class or the fitness center. But in time, garbage bags prevail. Durable, easy to find, easy to match, they offer ample packing space with little added weight.

When I asked an old man digging through a dumpster where I could find a place to stay without paying, he directed me to the Rev. Larry Rice’s New Life Evangelistic Center. To stay at the center you have to be in the building by 9 p.m., except on Saturday when the time is 6 because of the religious service televised and broadcast by the Rev. Rice’s television channel.

On Saturday, I arrived at 5 but kept my distance, waiting on the steps of the library across the street and to the east. In the sunken park north of the library, a few men waited on benches. Sprawled a few yards away from me on another set of steps, a filthy old man with a savage cough slept fitfully.

At 5:30 a group of well-dressed white people arrived in station wagons and set up a card table on the center’s parking lot. They unloaded food from their cars, arranging it neatly on the table. They seemed to represent three generations of the same family, 10 in all, children, youngish adults and grandparents. After they had everything in place, they formed a circle and prayed, then fanned out, three to the park, one to the library steps, offering food and calling us “brother.”

Standing beside the table, balancing a bowl of soup and a bologna sandwich, I was singled out by one of the parents, a man in his 30s with an unrelenting smile and a 4-year-old son at his side. He told me of his own struggle and encouraged me toward a conversion of my own.

When the man addressing me had complete his testimony, he offered a short prayer and moved on toward a new arrival. His son, smiling shyly, a little frightened but determined, marched over to me and offered his hand.

We lined up, single file, on the steps of the center, a dozen of us at first, then more joining until the line stretched down the sidewalk. A thin black man opened the door for us, one at a time, detaining us between glass doors while we were frisked for weapons and bottles.

His red-bearded companion asked for my ID, and I told him I had none, had lost it and was waiting for a copy. He left me inside the door, took the name I gave him and went to a desk. After checking a list and then speaking briefly on the phone, he told me I could stay but only until Monday. On Monday, I had to have identification.

After admission, we were directed to seats in the large lobby, folding chairs facing a television set tuned to Rice’s channel. On the screen, a young man with slicked-back hair and a tuxedo was trying to look like Wayne Newton while he crooned a song about Jesus. Flopped down to the right of the TV, the old man from the library steps was asleep and coughing.

When they lined us up to file into the auditorium for services, the old man did not awaken. One of the staff members shook him and told him it was time for church, but he only muttered an obscenity and rolled over.

A choir sang for a long time. Then the Rev. Rice introduced the visiting minister, and the choir sang again. The visitor spoke long and fervently on the power of prayer, accompanied by the “amens” and “praise the Lords” and “yes, Jesuses” that popped up among the congregation. The choir sang some more, and then the Rev. Rice spoke about the pain we cause Jesus.

When they lined us up to file into the auditorium for services, the old man did not awaken. One of the staff members shook him and told him it was time for church, but he only muttered an obscenity and rolled over.

The guest preacher had a mellow, heavily cadenced style with long, lilting glides and sudden swoops, but Rice’s preaching was angular and less polished, interrupted by small hesitations and slight, almost adolescent, breaks in his voice that disrupted the rhythm but contributed a hint of sincerity to his words. There was an innocence about him, and he seemed like an aspiring Western singer doing the American Legion hall, a nice country kid with overly long sideburns and a used car salesman’s suit.

The choir sang again and Mrs. Rice, petite and girlish, gave a little talk on how to deal with frustration. There was an invitation for those wanting to make declarations of faith to come forward. An older man, toothless and sickly, began to call out during the prayers, at first just repeating a litany of “yes, Jesus,” but then extending into long, rambling commentaries that threatened to drown out the official and electronically amplified prayers being offered by the ministers.

When Rice said “amen,” the old man continued without hesitation, only louder and more aggressive, calling down God’s judgment on those who were sources of torment in this world. He seemed primarily to have politicians in mind and especially members of the present administration. Rice called for people to testify to blessings they had received. Several responded, including three women—a part of the congregation already assembled when those of us from the shelter filed in—who expressed their gratitude for homes that the center had helped obtain. Through it all the toothless old man continued to cry down destruction on his enemies, urging Jesus to take militant action.

Afterward Rice mingled with us in the big common room where we had begun the evening. We had been handed bologna sandwiches before the service and how were offered the leftovers, plus donated bags of pork rinds. A neatly dressed young man whom I had seen in the park along Market Street earlier in the day sat down beside me. He had eaten soup and sandwiches with the family on the parking lot, as well as the food distributed by the center’s staff before services. Now he carried several more sandwiches plus half a dozen bags of pork rinds. Thin, one mar partially paralyzed, he ate as long as food was available, telling me wistfully about the time he hit the McDonald’s dumpster just after they had thrown out the leftover French fries.

Rice moved around the room, speaking to those he knew, inquiring after others. Eventually he called everyone to their seats and asked for volunteers for the center’s work training program, but no one else accepted his offer. He looked at us, disappointment in his face, his eyes lingering on me before picking out another healthy-looking newcomer.

The message, delivered with varying degrees of skill and enthusiasm, varied little: God loves you and can snuff out your life at any moment, and, if you have not made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ, he will let you burn for eternity in Hell. It proved an irresistible temptation to point out to us that people in our situation were especially vulnerable.

He called for volunteers to go to Jefferson City to demonstrate on behalf of the homeless, explaining that the bus would leave on Monday and return at midweek. Several men raised their hands. Then he announced a picnic to be held in front of City Hall, promising fried chicken. He seemed himself genuinely excited at the prospect. Finally, he prayed, and we lined up for blankets and room assignments.

The rooms at the Evangelistic Center vary in size and in the number of beds. I drew a two-bed room, unlit and with a door that closed automatically. My roommate stumbled in behind me and, his blanked still tucked under his arm, falling onto the other bed. It was the coughing wino from the library steps. When I awoke the next morning, he was seated, head in hands on the edge of his bed, blood and vomit puddled in the middle of the mattress.

I heard, in the course of the next several days, lots of sermons—two more at the Center and one before every meal at the Mission. The message, delivered with varying degrees of skill and enthusiasm, varied little: God loves you and can snuff out your life at any moment, and, if you have not made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ, he will let you burn for eternity in Hell.

It proved an irresistible temptation to point out to us that people in our situation were especially vulnerable. The most straightforward expression of this message came from a very nervous speaker at the New Life Center, who, frightened by the motley congregation that had gathered on Sunday night and would very shortly be climbing the stairs to bed down with strangers, said to us, “Look around you. You have no idea who you will be sleeping with tonight. There are people in this room who would kill you for 20 cents.”

A middle-aged man next to me turned and asked. “You got 20 cents?”

“No,” I answered.

“Neither have I,” he said with a shrug. “Guess we’re safe.”

More important than the sermons was the music, occasionally special numbers by soloists or choirs, but more often group singing from plastic cards that looked like menus from cheap restaurants, nearly all the entrees the most sentimental and musically uninteresting of hymns. On most numbers—such standard fare as “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” and “The Old Rugged Cross”—the singing was lethargic, half-hearted at best, and on Sunday morning at the center, the response was no more enthusiastic for a whiny country singer who accompanied himself on a guitar.

But later in the same service when a young black woman sang, a capella and in a rich, soaring voice, “Because He Lives,” we listened with none of the usual coughing and shuffling, then at song’s end broke into applause.

And one night at the Mission, when a staff member announced the evening’s final hymn, “The Old Rugged Cross,” someone in the congregation called instead for “Amazing Grace.” Murmurs of support followed. The men sang loudly, earnestly, held the tempo; a room full of addicts, drunks, kids kicked out by their families, psychiatric outpatients, men without homes or jobs but little else in common, singing the only son on their plastic cards that could any longer evoke conviction or hope.

Between meals and the required religious services, the primary business of my new colleagues was killing time. A few of the men seemed to have matters that needed tending, and they disappeared during the day, but most, like me, had little to do but wait. In warm weather the park benches along Market Street were popular, and not just with those of us who frequented the Center and the Mission.

Here a larger cast of characters drifted in, usually maintaining a discreet distance from one another, their paths crossing only for the twist of the head that was an inquiry after cigarettes or for short, muttered conversations on the benches, conversations in which the participants never looked directly at one another but faced straight ahead.

Besides the parks, there was the library. On Sunday afternoon, 11 of us were assembled in the periodical room engrossed in newspapers and journals, our plastic gas under the tables. And for those less given to reading, on cold days the Mission allowed us, between meals, in to the main room to watch a TV secured behind plywood and plexiglass. Always we were offered wholesome shows, shows like “Mayberry, RFD,” and sometimes, if the subject were appropriate, a movie. On Sunday afternoon the offering was “The Birdman of Alcatraz.” We clustered around the set watching Burt Lancaster defy authority—the courts, the prison guards and the parole board. Finally, when his mother was forcing him to choose between her and a middle-aged girlfriend who looked like my fifth grade PE teacher, I had had enough and went back out in the cold.

Monday morning, I met a man named Richard in the park. He asked for a cigarette—a little hitch of the head to one side and a sort of whole face wink with the eyes cast toward his collarbone and a clucking “hey, hey” the only verbal exchange—and, when I shrugged, tilted his head the other way as though to indicate he really had not expected differently.

The weather had turned cold during the night, the morning wind cutting through my clothes in sharp, stabling blasts. Richard motioned at my coat and sweatshirt. “Not enough,” he said, and got up. A few blocks west we stopped at a clothing distribution center run by Christian Ministries. We entered and Richard range a bell. A middle-aged white man came out, calling him by name and joking.

We were admitted into an area where the clothing was kept—organized on racks and tables—dresses, slacks, shirts, coats. Richard led me to the shirts, motioned me ahead, directing me to look for another layer to protect against the cold. I moved quickly through the merchandise, found nothing I could wear, and sat down to read 5-year-old magazines. Richard examined everything, returning 45 minutes later with a pair of paints. When he saw me still empty-handed, his eyes widened in amazement. “Nothing?” he asked.

We walked up to the New Life Center and arrived just as a load of boxed-up clothing was being delivered there. We helped carry in the packages, then joined the line circling the tables. I found a heavy work shirt bearing the name of an electrical supply company above the pocket.

Several of the men, those who still cared, inspected their mats closely, picking off hairs and brushing at flecks of dirt, all with surprising energy, even revulsion. A few sprayed the rubber with a disinfectant, then covered it with sheets of newspapers to absorb the sanitizing damp.

Sunday night, I was reminded, was to be my last night at the center unless I could produce identification. That night I shared a room with three others—at least there were three at the start. I reached the room last. Two of them lay in the beds by the windows talking in Spanish, the older man chain-smoking. The third bed was occupied by a young black man who, downstairs, had been loud and belligerent, verbally intimidating.

In a darkened room he began to yell at me. I ignored him and pulled my cap down over my eyes. He continued to rant, working himself into a rage, and suddenly was above me, shaking my bed, screaming about some imagined slight. I pulled the cap back up and looked at him, his face only inches above mine. His eyes did not burn with the intensity of either madness or wrath, were rather the eyes of a child, frightened, contradicting his every word. I said nothing, just continued to look into those eyes. In a while he quieted, gathered up his blanket, and in a calm voice said, “I’m not staying where no one talks English,” and he left.

My last night I spent at the Rescue Mission, joining the others on foam rubber pads that lined the meeting room. Several of the men, those who still cared, inspected their mats closely, picking off hairs and brushing at flecks of dirt, all with surprising energy, even revulsion. A few sprayed the rubber with a disinfectant, then covered it with sheets of newspapers to absorb the sanitizing damp.

Here, unlike at the Center, there was a shower, and one after another we filed into the bathroom. After five days, the warm water and the soap seemed, despite the scum forming on the floor and the dirty water pooling up outside the stall, an incredible luxury.

The other lodgers included an old man with an enormous hernia that filled his pants like some obscenely placed balloon; a white kid who, with the help of his black buddy, kept repeating the same story about beating up a homosexual; two black men in their mid-40s who were engaged in a detailed and informed evaluation of post-World War II presidents, ranking Reagan low but, surprising to me, putting Nixon fairly high on their list; two other men who spoke of a transient who had died in a fire a few weeks earlier. All of us lay inches apart, a narrow path down the middle of the room.

I was awakened at midnight when a light flashed on. A man was convulsing, his arms and legs stretched upward. The night attendant rushed to him and jammed a tongue depressor between his teeth, then ran to the phone to dial 911.

After five days, the warm water and the soap seemed, despite the scum forming on the floor and the dirty water pooling up outside the stall, an incredible luxury.

The cops arrived first, aggressive and yet vaguely uncertain, calling down to the thrashing man, “How you doing, partner?” When the ambulance came, the paramedics took over, smoothly, competently, and the cops, relieved, stood aside, leather-jacketed, feet wide apart. One kept slapping his heavy flashlight against his palm.

After the convulsing figure had been loaded on a stretcher and taken from the room, the lights were switched off once more. There was no talk, just the rustle of papers from the disinfected pads, the snoring of sleepers, some of whom had not awakened during the commotion of unhealthy men.

I could not sleep, just stared across the room, above the sleepers, at a yellow brick wall stained red by exit signs. Between the signs, illuminated by their garish light, bold letters declared, “BELIEVE ON THE LORD JESUS CHRIST AND THOU SHALT BE SAVED.” Beneath this unblinking message, the old man with the hernia had propped himself up, shifting every few minutes in an effort to find relief.

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