When I was an undergrad, I was encouraged to join a service organization. My college hosted a volunteer fair for several area organizations, each with a student representative to talk about their program and how we could put our energy to use in the service of others.
There was a handsome boy named Charlie, with thick, dark, shaggy hair, and the rugged good looks of a Disney prince who was talking about a homelessness project. I was suddenly interested in homelessness, so I joined that team.
Charlie faded into the background, holding the hand of his hippie girlfriend, and I was signed up for weekly “social visits” with homeless people at MainSpring House in Brockton, the economically depressed city the next town over.
I had a powerful independent streak, which my parents generally supported. But this – mixing it up with homeless people every week – this was a bridge too far for my dad. He was a police officer, who had worked for some years as a corrections officer in two different state prisons. He did not want me going; did not want me risking my safety. Intending to show me his concern for what my heart might be risking be becoming involved with “those people,“ one day he sat me down to tell me a story.
He told me he had seen similar programs in prisons. Church groups that would send volunteers to visit with the inmates. The volunteers, he said, were always safe from physical harm, but he’d never forget this one young volunteer who came to visit one inmate, week after week. He said that every time they met, the inmate was polite and kind, and eventually the young lady came to think she knew him, despite the reasons he was locked up. The inmate would talk about how lonely life was in the prison, and how little things mattered to connect him to the outside world. After several weeks of visits together, the inmate asked her if she could bring him a transistor radio, so that he would be able to hear sports, news, stories, and music. They talked about their favorite songs, and current events.
The next week, she brought him a small, but nice radio.
“The inmate never came back for another visit,” my dad said, “and the girl was crushed.” The man had used her and broken her spirit because he knew he could.
My dad did not want to see that happen to me.
I knew he told that story out of his hopes to protect my heart. But I also could see the flaws in his logic. This story was about someone impressionable, believing that she could change someone. This story was about someone imprisoned, presumably for committing a crime; I was going to be visiting with people who were in their predicaments for bad luck and trouble, but (probably) not crime. I wanted to learn about people, not change them.
Despite my father’s most urgent pleas, I began my visits that September.
The bravado I had wobbled a bit as I was escorted through the big, rambling building towards the room where my eager classmates and I were introduced to weathered men with tired expressions and worn out clothes. They had set up some board games and card games on a table, and asked if we knew how to play Spades. Those in my crew who knew the game sat down to play.
I didn’t know how to play Spades, and neither did a middle-aged guy named Steve, who had an Eastern European accent and wore a neon yellow promotional t-shirt, frayed at the sleeves. He asked if I knew how to play chess. I told him only a little, but if he wanted to teach me, I’d be willing to learn. So I sat with him and re-learned the basics, with him sometimes playing my parts, so I could see what I was doing wrong, and what I could be doing right.
Every week when I came to the shelter, I would sit with Steve, and we would play chess. He would tell me stories about his life before. He told me that I reminded him of his daughter, in a way that made me know he had lost her, somehow, either through some tragedy or some mistake he had made. Our visiting hour took place the same time every week, when “Married With Children” was on the television in the other room. The song would be coming to an end — love and marriage, love and marriage….. and Steve would hum it for the rest of the time we were together, with occasional little trills, colored by his Czech accent. I don’t really remember talking about much besides chess and, occasionally, his daughter. I didn’t tell him anything about me, beyond that I was in college. I remember it feeling one degree from natural – both free and easy, like friends, and also feeling the sense that these visits were probably rare times in his daily life that he could feel free and easy, like friends. I felt the sorrow in that, and the bittersweet honor it was to be the vessel for that feeling.
As the semester moved along, on a mid-November visit, I pulled my chair up to the table to meet a Steve with a big grin on his face, glowing brighter than his neon shirt. He told me that he had gotten a job, and a line on an apartment. He was a machinist, he said, and had just needed a little time to recover from things that had gone bad, and he got a GOOD job, and might be moving out at the end of that week. I beamed back at him, and told him how glad I was for him. I told him that I was glad to have a chance to hear it from him, because it was my birthday, and that was such a great birthday gift to hear wonderful news from a friend. He seemed touched to learn that it was my birthday, but in that way people do, sometimes, he scolded me for not telling him sooner, so he could get me a gift. I told him that his good news was enough and that he should save his money for his new apartment.
We played our final chess matches (I really did not improve much over the two months) and hummed along to Frank Sinatra singing the most insincere ode to love and marriage one last time.
He gave me a big hug as I was leaving, and I wished him lots of luck.
The next week I entered the game room wondering if Steve would be there. No sign of the thick head of messy salt and pepper hair, ruddy complexion and tattered neon shirt. The other guys told me that Steve had moved out a few days before.
He had made it. He had moved out, moved on. I grinned when the first lines of the familiar song came wafting through the other room, and I realized that something truly good had happened, and I got to be there for it.
I sat down with the others to play Spades. I was mostly there to watch and make them laugh while I clumsily tried to make sense of the game.
Just as we were wrapping up our hour, Steve came barreling into the room with a Rite Aid bag in his hand. Confused, I asked him what happened thinking that he was back in shelter. In a rush, he said that everything was good. His job was good. His apartment was good. He was just worried that he was too late to see me, because he had a birthday gift for me. He dropped the Rite Aid bag on the table in front of me, gave me one last grin as I tried to protest, and then quickly left.
Stunned and amused, I wondered what trinket or perfume, or whatever a middle aged man thinks a sheltered college Sophomore would like for her birthday, would be inside the bag.
It was was a store-brand Walkman radio and headset.
Submitted by Bridget Lehane
Corona Chronicles, May 9, 2020