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Pantheon -- Tiffany St. John -- Senior

May 12, 2011
By John Mohn of Whitmer High School

Gold Key Award Winning Personal Essay/Memoir
Tiffany St. John -- Senior

   I threw a glance at the man with his head in his arms sitting next to me, and tried to guess what he looked like. I imagined him Mexican, unable to see his skin tone beneath the heavy layers of clothing. I wondered why he would sit at a table full of people just to sleep.

   "That's Chaz," Roy broke into my thoughts from across the table. Roy was a large black man with sweet, tired-looking eyes. "He's probably hung over." I smiled slightly and nodded, glancing at the sleeping man again out of the corner of my eye.

The conversation at our table was centered around Roy. He would lean back in his chair, tossing tidbits and questions at Mitchel and me. Mitchel was another black man, sullen and bothered-looking, who was sitting across the table from me. It was ironic the amount of sympathy and care Roy put into his questions, trying to draw me into the conversation and help me feel comfortable. He pitied me. I could tell. And, honestly, it was a little humorous.

   I was on a four-and-a-half day long experience called, fittingly, "4.5." The point of the experience was to even the playing field, to show our group of naive, sheltered, middle-class kids that we're not so different from the underbelly of Toledo, the alternative culture of homeless men and women. And this was the final step. A full day spent in the company of the deprived, relating to them, being with them. February 14th, 2010. Valentine's Day.

I looked around at these people, bundled up and crowded into this room. The goal was staying out of the cold. Lunch wasn't for three hours, yet everyone was there talking, laughing, sleeping, drug-dealing to pass the time. It was Valentine's Day, and odder than the fact that I was spending it in a soup kitchen with a group of strange men was the fact that these strange men honestly had no where better to spend it. You can understand the irony then that Roy pitied me.

   "So Tiffany, right?" Roy inquired.

   I nodded.

   "What do you like to do? Do you...play sports or write or what?"

   I nodded again. "Yeah. I, uh, I like to write."

   "So like, poetry, or what?"

   "Yeah. Poetry. It's not very good though."

   I looked shyly down at my hands, knotted loosely on the table.

   "Well yeah," Roy commented. "You'll get better as you grow older. You're not wise enough yet. As you gain life experience your writing will get better."

   I nodded and smiled and looked around as Roy became involved in another conversation. These people were really the ones who understood life experiences. Forget the rich critics and politicians who rule our world, these people are the ones who have a right to critique life. They've seen every side of it.

   I passed the time watching the television at the front of the room and listening to other people's conversations, feeling as though I had very little to offer.

   My mom and I saw a homeless man in our area one time about two years ago. He was walking down the side of the road, backpack slung over his shoulders.

   "Can we bring him home or something mom?" I asked. "Give him something to eat? Somewhere to sleep?"

   "I don't know. Why don't you talk to your dad about it," she answered.

   I wondered why saving another human being even had to be thought over, and I confronted my dad as soon as we got home. "Don't you ever want to open up our house to someone like him?"

   "My responsibility is to take care of my family," dad replied. "I don't know what his past is, if his mind is right. I have to focus on making sure you guys are OK, and I can't chance letting someone threatening into our home. You never know what could happen."

   Lunch time finally arrived and a Cherry Street worker grabbed everyone's attention.

   "It's time for lunch," he announced. "In honor of Valentine's Day we're gonna let the ladies go first. So after we pray, ladies, come up here and we'll give you a ticket for your food and then you all can get in line. But first, let's say grace."

   The room was dead silent as everybody bowed their heads and closed there eyes. The reverence was tangible.

   After the prayer was over, there was a fresh ruckus as women made their way to the front of the room. I stayed seated. I was a visitor there. It felt wrong to act like I belonged, in any respect.

   "Aren't you gonna go?" Roy asked me.

   "No," I replied. "I'll wait and go with you guys."

   Roy shrugged. "Suit yourself."

   I sat and waited until finally our table was called.

   Roy leaned over to wake up Chaz and the rest of us stood, grabbed our tickets, and got into line. The man in front of me turned around.

   "Aren't you supposed to be up front?" he asked.

   "Eh. It's OK," I said.

   "No, come on," he encouraged.

   He had gotten other men's attention and they all politely insisted that every lady get in line ahead of them. Finally the man toward the front of the line, behind the last woman said, "Come on up here!" and, embarassed, I moved to take my place of honor.

Chivalry is not dead, I thought.

   I returned to the table with a tray of food that looked like a school lunch and waited for everyone else to get back. Mitchel was the first to return and he sat across from me.

"Did you know my uncle's published in the, uh, the library down there?" he asked.

   I did. He had told me when I met him two days before. "Oh really?" I replied.

   "Yeah. Yup! Yeah," he answered, and seemed to get lost in his thoughts, shoveling tuna casserole into his mouth.

   When Roy sat down he began a story.

   "They used to serve a lot better food here," he started. "A guy who used to come here, he worked in the kitchen and he says they have a whole ton of food just sitting back there in storage! When he worked here, he would bring us out all this nice stuff to eat. But they found out so they fired him."

   "What do they do with all the food now?" I asked.

   "It just sits back there and rots I guess."

   When Chaz got back from line he smiled at me as he took his seat beside me. He looked nothing like I had imagined. He was frail and unshaven, but had the kind eyes of a grandfather. Shadowing his eyes were a pair of round owl-like glasses with psychedelic rims. He smelled faintly of booze.

   "What's your name honey?" he asked me.


   "Hi Tiffany," he said, and went back to his food. He seemed slightly shy. I was actually relieved to know I wasn't the only one.

   "Hey Chaz, fall into any garbage cans lately?" Roy asked, a smile on his face.

   "What?" I inquired, laughing.

   Roy explained with a teasing grin.

   "A few days ago Chaz here was just walking by, a little high, and didn't see where he was goin'. Tripped and fell into a garbage can!"

   Everyone chuckled at Chaz's expense.

   "That's why you gotta get off that stuff," Roy warned Chaz. "That cocaine and alcohol."

   "I've been working on it," Chaz said with a body language that said the opposite. "It's a process." He smiled and winked at me playfully behind those psychedelic rims, and at that moment I began to suspect that Chaz had been something of a hippie back in his day. But then, even hippies grow old, and a cultural statement can easily become a harmful addiction.

   After lunch the table kind of cleared out. Very few people were actually leaving the comfort of the building to brave the weather, but everyone seemed to know everyone else so there was a lot of chatting and moving around.

   Chaz stayed behind.

   The unique thing about Chaz was that he didn't want to give me advice or tell me his life story, he just wanted to hang out.

   "Do you want to play cards or something?" he asked.

   "Do you have cards?"

   "I'm sure someone does," he replied.

   After acquiring a deck he began the patient process of teaching me how to play Rummy.

   "Oh man!" he exclaimed. "I don't have anything to keep score on!"

   "It's OK," I reassured him, but he couldn't let it go. Every other point that was made, it seemed, Chaz would apologize for the lack of a pen and a piece of paper.

About halfway through the second game a man sat across from me, where Mitchel had been, with a plate piled high with rice and slices of meat that looked like barbequed chicken.

   "Hey Jake," Chaz said, "where'd you get that?"

   "Over there," Jake answered, waving his hand in no particular direction.

   "Hey Jake, let me have some of that," Chaz said, pointing his finger at the chicken.

   Jake exploded. "Get your finger away from my food! Why you gotta be all 'Hey Jake, let me have some of that'? You want some of my ing food, you ask! This is my food! You want it, you ask! You don't touch it! You know what?" Jake grabbed the piece of chicken Chaz had been pointing at and flung it into the garbage can. "Now nobody gets it! How do you like that?"

   Chaz was shuffling the cards, eyes downcast, and at first I thought he was embarrassed or distraught, but he looked up at me and smiled and winked, a sparkle in his eye, like it was all a big joke.

   After a couple of seconds of sullen silence, Jake looked up.

   "I'm sorry man," he said to Chaz. "I'm sorry. You know I got your back. But if you want my food all you gotta do is ask, you know? You don't gotta be all manipulative. Here you go man." He pushed his entire plate, still stacked with food, toward Chaz. "You can have it." He looked back at me. "Me and Chaz, we're best friends," he said. "We're like brothers. We got each other's back. But I can't take that manipulative . If I had two gloves, ya know, I would give Chaz both of them. But there are too many people around here who'll steal from you and manipulate you. I can't take that ." He looked at his hands for a second or two then got up from the table.

   Chaz ate in silence.

   "Sorry about that," he said finally. "He was drunk. Jake's a great guy. Alcohol will do funny things to you."

   We got into another game of Rummy before my group leader, Steve, called us together from various places around the room. He told us that we were going to go look at the men's boarding house and then come back for the church service and to serve dinner. I went back to the table to help Chaz gather the cards.

   "We have to go," I said. "But we'll be back for dinner."

   "All right. I'll be there honey," he said. "Maybe I'll bring something we can keep score on."

   I smiled and laughed. "OK."

   Driving home from school with my mom last summer, I saw a man standing on a street corner outside of a Payless. He had a cardboard sign asking for money or food. I drove past, focused on getting home, then, feeling guilty, turned into a gas station parking lot to turn around. I pulled into a lot outside of a car wash and told my mom to wait a second, reaching into my backpack for my wallet. I ran to the man and handed him a wad of cash, about $30.

   He was tall and skinny with dark hair that was speckled with silver throughout. He reached for the money with long, spindly fingers, and I wondered if he would use my money for food or drugs. I looked into his eyes and smiled at him. They were the light blue of a warm summer sky, set into a face shadowed with a short, dirty beard.

   He looked back at me and I saw a deep sorrow in his eyes, like I was looking deep into his soul. "I'm sorry," he said.

   I drove back home with his voice in my head, haunting.

   To get to the boarding house from the soup kitchen, we had to cross a couple of parking lots and a few grassy areas. In the grassy places, the trail was a beaten path, the weeds and snow worn down by men who walked it twice a day. There were empty bottles on both sides of the path.

   Halfway to the boarding house was a mini-mart called The Lucky Dollar.

   "This is where they get you," Steve said. His voice was filled with anger. "Desperate men walk this path every day. They get a dollar here, a dolar there. Work when they can. But for many of them, there's not a lot of hope in sight. Or joy. And that's what this place promises." He gestured to The Lucky Dollar. "It's bottled joy. Or escape. And they pull people in. It's not a mistake they're positioned here." He paused. "They know this is where the desperate people are. And they leave more hopeless and desperate and addicted than when they came." He shook his head. "We're trying to get it shut down."

When we returned to the soup kitchen from the boarding house, the sermon had already begun. The preacher was an effervescent black man who, apparently, had just recently escaped homelessness himself.

   The worship service was a Capella but heartfelt. In fact, if I had to find one word to describe the whole ordeal it would be "passionate." The preacher taught on God's grace and love, even in the hard times, an idea that everyone in the room seemed to need to cling to. To my dismay I didn't see Chaz, but I kept my eye on the door in case he walked in.

   Halfway through the closing prayer, a man who resembled a sailor staggered in. He had a long gray beard and long gray hair, each ratted and messy and run together so that they framed his face. He stumbled to the corner of the room opposite the door and immediately picked a fight with a man there.

   It was almost humorous how the pastor prayed for peace while the two men pulled the sailor away to another corner of the room and sat him down in a chair, the man shouting the whole way, "'Appy Valentime's Day! God blesha!"

   Our group served the trays for dinner. I didn't see Chaz anywhere so I took a seat near Roy.

   "Did you hear about Roger?" he was asking another man. "His tent got set on fire.."

   "Wait, what happened?" I interjected.

   "Roger, this guy who lives down by the river, his tent got set on fire. With him in it!"  

   "Is he OK?"

   "He's in the hospital right now. Not sure how he's doin'."

   "Wow!" I was amazed. "That's terrible!"

   "Yeah. You gotta watch your back out there when you're homeless," Roy said. "A couple months ago, this guy that used to come down here, Jeff, he got beat up by a group of teenagers."

   "Why?" I asked.

   Roy shrugged. "Because they wanted to."

   I ate in silence.

   On our way to the grocery store, my mom and I saw a disheveled and dirty man standing by the side of the road, his thumb jutting out. She slowed down and pulled over and he ran to the car and climbed in. "Thank you!" he said.

   "No problem," my mom replied. "So where are you going?"

   "Well, I'll go as close to Bowling Green as you can take me," he answered. "I'm trying to get a job there. Really, I'm heading to West Virginia."

   "Oh! Do you have family down south?" she asked.

   "Yeah. A job and a family and a home. My mom was sick up in New York and I went to visit her. I was only going to stay for a few days, but I ended up staying for a week and a half and ran out of money. So right now I'm homeless with no food or money. I just want to get home. I was hitchhiking for a while, but I don't want to hitchhike all the way down there. It's really dangerous. I'm trying to get a job so I can earn money for the return trip."

   "How long has it been since you visited your mother?" my mom questioned.

   "About six months ago," he replied. "I'm trying to get a temporary job or something. I just need to get back home."

   It wasn't till after dinner that I finally saw Chaz again, chatting with the sailor look-alike in a corner.

   "Hi Chaz!" I exclaimed, a giant smile on my face.

   "Hi!" He gave me a big hug. "This is my friend Dave." He gestured to the sailor.

   I shook the man's hand. It was calloused and strong. He pulled me into a hug and the smell of beer made me feel as though I could get drunk off his breath alone.

   "'Appy Valentime's Day!" he slurred. "God blesha!"

   I laughed, said, "Thank you," and pulled away.

   "Did you notice?" Chaz inquired. I looked at him. He was running his hand over his chin and I realized that he had shaved while I was gone.

   "Didn't wanna look like a bum," he said with a grin. I smiled widely. "You remind me of my daughter," he said, thoughtful. "I'm gonna get out of here. I'm gonna get a job."

   I smiled and nodded. "I know it."

   It was then that Steve called us all together.

   "We've got to get going," he said.

   I gave Chaz one last hug goodbye.

   "There's this thing called "Food For Thought" on Saturday mornings down at the library," I informed him. "They hand out food and everyone just hangs out. You should go!"

   "I will," he said. He called to me again as I headed out the door. "Maybe I'll bring something to keep score on! We can play Rummy!"

   I nodded and grinned.

   I went to "Food For Thought" the next couple of weeks, but Chaz was never there.

   A few months later, my youth pastor confronted me.

   "You were with the 4.5 group that got really close to Chaz right?"


   "I saw him the other day."

   "Oh really? How's he doing?" I inquired.

   He shook his head. "Not good," he answered. "At least I don't think so. He's almost always hungover or drunk.

   I signed up to be a leader at the next 4.5. I needed to see Chaz again, to have proof that my pastor was wrong.

   When I walked in to the soup kitchen, Chaz was there, standing by a table. "Chaz!" I shouted.

   It was summer then, and he looked so different without all his layers of coats. Even more frail. His eyes were watery behind his glasses. So much time had passed, and I had dyed my hair since I'd last seen him. I wasn't sure he would recognize me.

   He stared at me blankly for a second. "Tiffany, right?" he asked. I nodded and gave him a hug. We sat at a table and talked for a bit, but it wasn't long before he lay his head down. "I'm sorry Tiffany. I'm just so tired."

   "It's OK," I said. But it wasn't. Not because I felt it was rude, but because I could see how weak he'd gotten. And that he was hungover. And I thought about The Lucky Dollar, and how it was probably them who'd drawn him in. And how hopeless and helpless he seemed, lying there, his head on the table, smelling of stale booze.

He sat up suddenly.

   "I'm sorry. I've gotta go," he said. "Don't worry about me though. I'll get out of here probably." He corrected himself. "No I will," he said. "I will."

   And with that, Chaz stood and walked out.


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