09/03/2013 05:51 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Down and out in Downtown Bethesda: A Morning's Vignettes

At work, my desk is adjacent to the main room of Bethesda Cares' Drop-In Center, a place where we offer people experiencing homelessness multiple services, snacks and a respite from life on the streets. From where I sit, I can hear much of the conversations among our clients.

Today's patter caught my ear because of the steadiness of the drumbeat underlying our clients' comments: dignity, frustration and an indisputable humanity.

I've changed their names, but the dialogue is close to verbatim. Alert readers may remember "Jasper" from my first post, "Punked." See if you can spot the themes that I heard:

9:20 a.m.

I am at my computer, drafting proposals for funding. Jasper walks in to the Center, toting the carton that contains all of his worldly possessions. "I'm running for office," he announces to the room of a half-dozen tired-looking men, most of whom visibly perk up at his unexpected declaration. "I promise more holidays, and lower taxes!" he proclaims, helping himself to a bagel. The room erupts in general shouts of support. "Cable TV in every room!" he crows. More cheers.

An African-American man in a green t-shirt starts to question him. "You running for office? Okay, then. What're you gonna do about affordable housing?"

A silence descends on the room. My fingers freeze over my keyboard.

Jasper hesitates, scoffs. "No one in politics cares about that," he states.

The quiet grows, all heads nodding in agreement. The silence stretches on until Jasper can't stand it: "But I promise free beer and tuna steaks every weekend!" Supportive cheers resume. "You got my vote!" one man shouts.

"Can I 'walk' for office, or do I have to 'run'?" Jasper wonders.

No one answers.

10:02 a.m.

"Paul" starts in: "Unhappy is unhappy, it ain't the money that's gonna change it." A man I don't know immediately disagrees: "Dude, it'll help."

"If I have a dollar, it isn't going to decide if I'm happy that day," Paul retorts. "I got me a job right now. It ain't enough. But I have something coming in. I've had lotsa years where I didn't. But I got something coming in. As long as I know I got a check comin' in, I can make it to the next one."

The stranger nods, but seems unconvinced. The conversation continues but I can't make out the words.

10:39 a.m.

Elizabeth, an unflappable long-term volunteer, taps on my door-jamb. "Ummm...." she begins; Linda, our office manager and my office-mate, and I look up. "Jasper wants to trim his beard."

I wonder fleetingly if he is primping for his upcoming political campaign.

A hasty discussion ensues. We don't give clients sharp scissors. Office policy. We recognize, though, that his desire for grooming is good and we want to encourage this. But we have a shower program, and he does not partake; he really has not bathed, probably in years. And we will not hand him a blade....

10:45 a.m

I am steeling myself to step up -- Jasper's beard is a squirrel's nest, but the interest in a coiffure is huge and positive, I am torn -- when Linda stands up and invites Jasper to the client bathroom. She trims his beard for him.

11:10 a.m.

An enormously large man I have never seen before has settled in to a chair, and fallen asleep. He is snoring, and snoring in a way that reverberates like a Looney Tunes cartoon soundtrack. His snores are both that loud, and that extraordinary, in terms of its range of noises.

Linda and I glance at each other, try to keep working. Not a single client reacts to the man's tormented sleep. I am betting they sympathize.

Elizabeth again comes to our door, gently and genteelly inquiring as to whether we might somehow alleviate the man's snoring, which by this point is rattling my teeth. "Any ideas on what we can do?" she asks. Our outreach specialist happens by at that moment: "He's sleep-deprived. What can we do? Help him get a *%&_(* apartment," he says, not breaking stride.

11:23 a.m.

I find a note by the printer, in Jasper's unmistakable penmanship:


I nod, do a quick Google search to remind myself of a George Orwell quotation from "Down and Out in Paris and London":

"Still, I can point to one or two things I have definitely learned by being hard up. I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny, nor be surprised if men out of work lack energy, nor subscribe to the Salvation Army, nor pawn my clothes, nor refuse a handbill, nor enjoy a meal at a smart restaurant. That is a beginning."

... and find it difficult to go back to drafting funding proposals.