I try to give money to the Salvation Army whenever I can. It’s never enough, I always feel it should be more. There are a lot of so-called charities out there, but the Army is one of the few I feel use their money for helping people instead of padding the salaries of the mucky-mucks at the top. I’m biased, though, from listening to my parents when they talked about the easiest places to get free food or a shelter on a rainy night. The Salvation Army wouldn’t ram religion down your throat or anything, they would quietly help in whatever way they could without harshly passing judgment. They gave me clothes and Christmas presents, served me warm food on Thanksgiving. They had kind smiles, and you could feel they meant what they said when they said “You’re welcome.” When their shelters are full, they try to find you a motel room and that was always the best.
When the bored Santas stand ringing their bells on a streetcorner, I always search my purse for cash or write them a check that I can slip quietly into that red pot of hope. A little here, a little there, like a prayer of thanks.
Homeless shelters have a ranking system, from the good ones that gave you toys and games and a nice room with a door, to the ones that made you wish you were sleeping outdoors away from the smells, away from the old lady that sat in a plastic chair and stared at you as if you were a slice of pizza. Some of them would let you stay for a few weeks, especially a family with children, while they helped you find a job and while you pretended you wanted one. Most of them would close up in the middle of the day, providing a place to sleep and kicking you out into the world after breakfast. We would spend the days in parks, in Boise, Idaho, in Spokane, Washington, in Duluth or St. Cloud, Minnesota. I would pick grass, lying on my back staring at sky blue skies, a book open on my chest and a deep, satisfied sigh. I liked being out of the wilderness, around civilization. I liked having a real bed and a shower, even if it was shared by other people in a long hall that looked like old college dorms. There was always hope, that maybe we would stay here. Maybe I would go to a school with an art program, a library, with students and teachers and that imaginary “normal life.” The real yearning for that didn’t kick in until middle school age, when I got tastes of school and friends and society at different schools around the country. I was tired of just us, of our little insulated world away from everything else. The important stuff, I imagined.
Now that I have had all those things, I look back fondly and wonder what it would have been like if things had never changed. I would probably still be where I am, now, if they hadn’t, an escapee from freedom.