We settle in for the next wait. Get comfortable, fit our butts on the floor, on chairs, against the wall. We assemble our belongings, unpack a few things, read, chat, mumble. The first forty women are assured a bed. Everyone waiting on the inside ramp can count on a place to stay if everything else goes okay. If nothing goes wrong. If no one picks a fight and involves innocent others. If the shelter isn’t commandeered to house inmates from nearby overcrowded holding cells. Or commandeered to house their victims. If a fire doesn’t break out. If the water pipes don’t burst. If a bomb threat isn’t broadcast and in the melee of evacuation all our places in line are lost. If all the waiting, the patience, the tolerating, doesn’t come to nothing after all—as our efforts so often do—then we can count on a place to stay for one night.
I take my yellow pouch of Top tobacco from my shirt pocket and roll myself a cigarette. Carefully sprinkling the stringy, unruly threads along paper—thin tissue bent to the shape of my index finger. I diddle with it as long as I can, just for something to do. My companions all watch me, just for something to do.
A young man idles up, tries to bum a smoke. “Hey Baby,” he smirks. “Got a smoke for me, Baby?”
“No. I haven’t got anything to give away.”
“Ah c’mon.” He invites himself to sit down with me. “I know you got tobacco, let me roll one. Roll one for me!” His greasy hair is slicked back away from his pimply face, his button-up shirt is dirty at the edge of the collar, a cheap gold chain hangs over his chest. At the end of the chain is a pewter charm of a bighorn sheep. He must want me to think he’s an Aries. A Ram. He’s a third-class punk, one of the small time hustlers on the make for someone to latch onto and leech off. Probably a vampire, the descriptive word for the bums who loiter outside the blood bank waiting for a mark to walk out with eight dollars from their biweekly sale of plasma. “Not today,” I say. “Let’s go buy a forty-ouncer,” he proposes. “I’ve got about a dollar. How much you got?”
“Nothing. Leave me alone.”
“Ah c’mon, you got money. Let’s go party.”
I look him in the eye. “Not today,” I tell him again.
“Hey, no problem. I’m just trying to give you a hard time!” he smiles, turning on the charm. His lips are cracked and peeling, little pieces of dead skin have accumulated in the corners of his mouth.
“Listen,” I tell him. “I’m sitting in a shelter waiting for a food line, smoking roll-your-owns. I’m broke and I’m homeless. I’m already having a hard time.” I lean forward, look straight at him. “Why do I need another hard time from you?” I pick up my pack, pat my pockets and go outside for some fresh air.
San Francisco’s Tenderloin is all about nudie shows, food lines and shabby hotels. A few square blocks in size, it’s bordered on the east by the Civic Center, where cement walls allow the forlorn and depressed to while away the time amid the gathered trash blown and kicked into the concrete corners. Whiling away time is the main activity of the people who live here. Every food line has particular hours; loitering outside the doors of the shelters is discouraged. The two or three fast food places on nearby Market Street enforce a strict time limit on the street people who have saved enough coins to spend on a cup of coffee: two refills with a timed receipt, forty-five minutes to spend inside a warm bustling place and feel like part of the lively scene.
It’s not often money well-spent: when it’s not raining, sitting outside watching life unfold is a far better pastime. During allowable hours, we sit inside the shelter, warming up, drying off, killing time until the next line forms. The Civic Center, with lots of suits passing by and its familiar piles of fast food trash, offers outside comfort and security. Most people who frequent Saint Anthony’s food line hang out here at the Civic Center. They pass around green bottles of Thunderbird, or bum each other’s smokes, or they sleep. Sometimes people get sick, they puke, one time someone died. Everybody watches the passing show.
Dorothy and her teenage daughter are almost always here. They say they’ve been sleeping here, climbing onto the high sculptured blocks near the fountain after dark, dragging behind them a couple of old sleeping bags and several shopping bags filled with their belongings. When I ask why they’re not still sleeping at Saint Anthony’s, they tell me it’s because Amy, the daughter, hasn’t signed up for school yet. The shelter won’t let children stay unless they are registered to attend school.
“That sounds reasonable,” I say. “Maybe she should go ahead and go to school.” Amy is chewing the ends of her hair and scratching her scalp. She’s dressed in wrinkled cotton pants and a brown T-shirt that sports the slogan “Celebrate Ghirardelli’s” above a picture of a big smiling chocolate drop.
To while away the time, I’ve twisted and ribboned my hair into two thin braids to frame my face. When Amy sees that I have some ribbon left over, she asks me to braid her hair. Her mother is a skinny unkempt woman with a dingy complexion who blames all her ills on an absent husband recently fled. I’m tired of listening to Dorothy’s complaints, but she’s taken a shine to me and makes a point of sitting and standing next to me at the Civic Center, in the food line, at the shelter. Dorothy lights a tailor-made and kicks aside the trash.
“Amy’s going to get into school pretty soon,” Dorothy says. “I’ll sign her up as soon as the welfare is okayed.”
I twine ribbon into Amy’s hair. It’ s fine and chestnut brown; her freckled face nods when she hears her mom talk about school. “Yeah,” she says, “I’ll be a sophomore if I get in before the end of October. Otherwise I’ll have to be a freshman again.” It’s the middle of September. She still has time.
Odd translucent dots speckle the strands of Amy’s hair. “This is funny dandruff you have,” I tell her. “Have you washed your hair since you’ve been sleeping outside?”
At Saint Anthony’s we are required to shower and wash our hair every night. We have to check in by seven, shower by eight, and wait for bedtime. Local sandwich places often send over their unsold goods; we’re regaled with croissants almost every night. We’re not allowed to make our beds until eleven, and lights out isn’t until midnight. We wake to the blast of a blaring radio and the smell of brewing coffee at six. We’re always tired.
“We haven’t had a shower since Saint Anthony’s kicked us out,” Amy says.
“Well, you better do something about this dandruff, it looks really funny.” I examine one of the dots on my fingernail.
Joe, a kid of twenty or so, walks up and sits by Dorothy. His thigh rubs against Dorothy’s leg. She blushes. Her hormones drift off her like a plum tree shedding pollen. She simpers and bats her eyes at the boy. His shirt is unbuttoned almost down to his waist, showing off a sunken, hairless chest. He’s wearing new blue jeans and a pimply red hat.
He takes a cigarette from Dorothy, inhales, leans back.
“That’s not dandruff,” Joe says. “She’s got lice.”
I rip my hands away. “Lice! Oh, great, I touched her hair. I touched my hair. Is that why they kicked you out of Saint Anthony’s? You have lice? I can’t believe you let me touch your hair!” I wipe my hands on my jeans, grab my pack, take off down the street.
“Where you going?” Joe hollers.
“To the clinic to get medicine. I can’t afford to get head lice.”
I walk fast across the Civic Center, past the courthouse, double-time to the other side of the municipal buildings. In a little alley I find the free clinic and sign my name on the waiting list. Joe and Dorothy and Amy follow me in and write their names on the register.
Amy sits beside me, still my friend. “Thanks for braiding my hair,” she says. “I really like it.” She smoothes her braids, bats her eyes at Joe.
“Are we sleeping at the fountain tonight?” Joe asks Dorothy, smirking.
“We have to,” Dorothy frowns. “They won’t let us back into Saint Tony’s for two more weeks.”
“I can’t believe you didn’t tell me. I braided her hair,” I scold.
They look at me blankly. Dorothy goes outside for a smoke. Joe moves over to Amy, rubs his leg on hers, glances out the window, whispers something in her ear.
An attendant calls my name. I follow her into the examination room and tell her my story. The doctor doesn’t want to give me medicine until I actually have symptoms but I talk him into it. I get the medicine and walk out.
I go to one of the sleazy hotels in the Tenderloin and spend most of my last few dollars on a cold room with a thin dirty mattress and one bare bulb. I wash all my clothes and my pack in the dim basement laundry room. I hack my hair into an uneven crew cut. I take three hot showers and when the hot water runs out I take one last cold shower. In the morning, scrubbed and liceless, I think about showing up at Saint Anthony’s for breakfast, but I decide to treat myself to breakfast at Glide’s.
My mother’s earlier life had made her swear she’d never go back to Alaska and my sons were California boys, but I stuffed my pack with a change of clothes and a couple of books and I hitchhiked to the coast where I retrieved my old Chevy wagon and my dog. The years had disappeared. My home had fallen apart; my children were gone. My possessions had all been lost or abandoned. The only thing I seemed to have left was that happy little mutt I had rescued from the dog pound years before. I planned to live in San Francisco in the Tenderloin, working at day jobs, standing in food lines and sleeping in shelters, until I had a bankroll big enough to get me to the next town. In this manner I was determined to make it all the way up the coast and home, living in my car for most of the way.
In September, I pulled into Eureka after driving all night, my dog snoozing at my side. It looked like a good place to spend the winter. I found a food line that served every day. My dog was most often the first to be given a plate, piled high with our first glimpse of that day’s meal. She made more friends than I did. She had more fun. Every day, she waited patiently outside the door while I cleaned my plate. Her new friends brought her scraps; kitchen workers filled her plate. After every meal, she and I sat in a nearby field covered with wildflowers and dewdrops and waited for evening.
In October we joined a fishing crew and went long-lining for three weeks on an albacore boat. I saved enough money to make it to Seattle. But I wanted a chance to spend time with my youngest son, who lived nearby with his father. It was difficult to work around all the restrictions and rules: I was not allowed to go to his home and I had to depend on my son to make his way downtown for an occasional visit. I had only the smallest hope of seeing him, but I decided to wait in Eureka until after the holidays.
When I woke up in my car that Christmas Day, the foghorn was the only sound that I could hear. No traffic. No music. No voices. The unwelcome damp kept me in the car until it was time to show up for the midday meal. I walked to the hall with my dog and tied her up at the door. I went inside and lingered over my Christmas turkey-on-a-tray.
I recognized some people standing in line for second helpings—not usually served. It made me happy to think we would have a special Christmas treat—a second serving. But when I went again to the front of the line, the server recognized me by the wrap I always wore. “No seconds until everyone else has firsts,” she said.
I turned away empty-handed. Others in the hall unwrapped small presents and called holiday plans to one another. Their happy smiles sparkled under the bright lights. Laughter mixed with holiday tunes coming from the kitchen’s radio. “Merry Christmas,” someone called to me.
“Thank you,” I said. “Merry Christmas to you.”
I retrieved my happy dog and we walked to a gazebo in the middle of downtown. We sat on a cold cement bench under the octagonal ceiling. The fog crept close. The streets were empty. Everyone but me had someplace to go that Christmas Day.
My dog sat at my feet. She watched my face for signs of play. She wiggled her eyebrows, she rolled her eyes. She licked my hand, she nuzzled my knee. She shivered.
I had never seen fog so deliberate. I had never seen streets so empty. I drew my wrap around me and gave my dog a kiss on her warm and caring face. I scratched her cheek. I missed my family. A warm place to go. The smell of cooking. Lights, a ready bathroom, a door to close behind me. My mother. My sons. After a while, we walked to the car to wait for evening. On New Year’s Day, we left for Seattle. Eventually we made it all the way back home.
I boarded an Alaska state ferry in Seattle early in May and arrived in Ketchikan on Mother’s Day. I called my mother in California with the glad news: I’m in Alaska. She took the news in the same style she’d always received news from her only daughter—nothing could surprise her, nothing could impress. Nothing would dismay. Nothing would delight.
The Salvation Army provided the only food line in Ketchikan, serving on weekdays only. On weekends I lingered at the Seaman’s Center, where snacks were sometimes offered and fresh-picked berries sometimes shared. On the way back to camp, a companion and I fished off the docks of one of the harbors, catching white-fleshed rockfish that we grilled at a makeshift camp stove in the trees on untended property just south of town. My youngest son, now a teenager, had flown up from Eureka to spend the summer in Alaska. We ate fresh fish with handout day-old bread and foraged greens, leaning back after our meal to count the eagles above the waters of Tongass Narrows. We stood in the Salvation Army food line and fished off the pier and picked huckleberries. It was the last food line I’d be in for a long time, perhaps for the rest of my life.
At summer’s end, the quickening dark snapped me back to my senses and I got a job, an apartment, and my own kitchen, where I cooked my own meals and planned my own menus, hardly calling to mind my days of standing in food lines up and down the West Coast. But if I ever had to, I could stand again in some food line. I would anxiously wait for a glimpse of the day’s meal, looking forward to the possibility of an extra serving. At the end of the meal I’d walk back to my car and keep myself warm with my memories.
Behind the southeast wind a woman’s voice is wailing. I lie alone in the night hoping to hear. Steadfast, charming sorrows soothe me softly into slumber, until a distant sound startles and I am wide awake listening. Did I hear, a moment ago, a woman crying? But the sound becomes the whistling of the wind, or an animal’s moan, or silence. In the middle of the darkness, in the middle of the night, I comfortably renew another regret.
I paint in my mind a cabin in a forest: a garden, a wood stove, a creek. I sip home-gathered teas while I join the seasons’ evolutions: peacefully shadowed winter mornings, recklessly long summer evenings, the ocean, a garden, the mountains. I paint us companions, as needles from the cedar are companions to the forest.
The music of the Taku Wind spirals down the mountains to skip on the ice-cold channel like a flat-sided stone of air, then smoothly respirals up the next mountain to the other end of the Gordian knot, all the while shrieking and moaning, a compelling wind song all the while in its wake. I hear a song older than this life’s distant childhood. Inside that sound are other notes, notes that are always new. The cry of eagles is one of these sounds; the noise of gulls is another. A familiar chorus from faraway childhood, one that is always new.
About the author
Ernestine Hayes is a writer and professor from Alaska. She lived with her grandmother in the Native neighborhood of Juneau as a child while her mom was sick with tuberculosis, and moved to California when she was fifteen. Hayes didn’t make it back home until she was forty. She is a member of the Kaagwaantaan of the Tlingit Nation and in 2016 was awarded the Alaska State Writer Laureate. She has published several books including Blonde Indian, The Tao of Raven, and Juneau.