“Looks like we’re full,” a desk attendant at the Dorothy Day House said when I entered the converted Victorian mansion on First Street in Rochester, Minnesota. The temperature was just below freezing. The city was covered in sheets of ice speckled with salt.
My stomach sank and I uttered an “ohhh” under my breath. The volunteers gave me an apologetic look, and then glanced back at a bulletin board lined with 4×6-inch photo sleeves. They use the board to quickly ID guests as they come and go. Half of the beds slotted for women were available. They noticed one empty photo slot on the men’s side. Wait, it looks like [so and so] just left. My white-knuckled sweaty grip on my briefcase handle softened. Yes, there was one bed left. To give people a better chance at finding a more permanent housing arrangement in the area, the house guarantees people a 14-night stay once they’re in.
The man at the desk checked my ID and asked me to sit in a wooden chair to his side. I dropped my brown leather briefcase and blue duffle bag and felt a sense of comfort and relief. Safety and food for a couple weeks. He read me the rules, in a nutshell – be in (sober) by 10 p.m. each day, be quiet at night, and don’t steal other people’s shit. “If you have anything valuable, keep it with you,” he said. I probably shouldn’t leave my passport and hand-signed copy of ‘Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain’ laying around. Or my Sony MDR-7506 production headphones, for that matter. I would need them later to hypnotize myself with “Libertango” performed by Bond to write this post.
I was informed of my right to eat cookies and drink coffee in the basement. If I found any clothing in the donated clothing room that fit me, I was free to take them. Family style dinner at 6 p.m. each day. Leave the house from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. After signing a piece of paper agreeing to those terms, a volunteer holding a stack of linens lead me up to my third-floor room, which consists of six twin beds, each with about 2 to 4 feet of space around them.
With nothing else to do, I snatched one of the cookies and took a seat on one of the comfortable leather couches in the living overlooking the dimly lit, dreary First Street. The desperately poor talk freely of their struggles – with jail, prison time, assaults, getting kicked out of apartments, moms getting arrested and daughters running away with boyfriends, living near state borders to double-dip on food stamps in both states, getting high, begging doctors for opiates and benzodiazepines, faking illness to claim disability benefits, and even getting kicked out of jail. (Yes, you read that last one right. More on that story to come. I didn’t know that was possible, but it is.)
I listened to all of this while clicking away at my crusty old laptop, stealing wifi from the nearby Gift of Life Transplant House. I put my laptop away when a guy asked me if he could borrow it to surf for pornography. I told him no, but referred him to a place that sells rebuilt laptops at a low cost to low-income adults.
Forgive the blessing in disguise cliché, but it seems as a medical journalist my nutter buttery-ness has landed me in a gold mine of stories and willing subjects.
Onward and Upward, Kirk Klocke
p.s. – If anyone is interested in sponsoring Thought Frontier (with funding*, programming, or graphic design) please get in touch. I will give you an account and routing number.
*be careful about giving funds to a homeless dude. You never know what he’s really going to buy.
Special thanks for kind words of support from friends: Mom for buying me dinner, Editor-Mike and Marie in Rochester; Jenn in Texas; Cassie, Monika, Jimmy and Luis in NYC; Meg in Boston; Uncle Peter in Colorado