Dale and I sit in opposite corners of the nearly empty McDonald’s where I come to grade freshman English themes — he by the front window and I in the back near the restrooms. Twenty years ago we worked together, but now Dale is homeless, and I pretend not to know him.
I could grade papers at home, where I have a quiet study with green plants, a new carpet, and few distractions, but I prefer the vinyl seats and fluorescent cleanliness of McDonald’s. I like the hum of the busy restaurant, the overheard snatches of conversation between construction workers and insurance salesmen, mothers and children.
Dale has a routine. First he sets his briefcase on the table, then goes to the counter and orders tea. He carries the styrofoam cup with both hands, arms extended, and leaves it steeping on the table while he opens the briefcase, which is filled with wadded clothes and plastic bags. He carefully extracts the sandwich bag that holds his toothbrush, toothpaste, and comb and slips it into the pocket of his yellow-and-brown-plaid polyester suit. Then he hurries toward the men’s room.
As he passes my table, I grade papers with particular zeal so that I won’t see him. It’s perfectly reasonable that I wouldn’t remember him.
When he returns a few minutes later, his fine blond hair is wet and plastered to his forehead. He has buttoned on wide red suspenders and tucked his pants into the tops of his white socks.
Twice more Dale rushes past me to the restroom, and twice more I fail to see him. I can tell by the way he hesitates as he passes my table that he will stop to talk if I look up. I don’t.
At last he returns to his seat, stuffs the plastic bag into his briefcase, and forces it closed, leaving a bubble of white-cotton underwear protruding from the side. When I first knew him, that briefcase held his dissertation. Perhaps it still does.
When we were in our early twenties, Dale and I worked together at a discount-chain warehouse — “Twenty-Six Acres Of Merchandise Under One Roof.” Pallets of crock-pots and lawn chairs and lipstick and toilet paper and cat litter and blenders were lined up wall to wall and stacked almost to the twenty-five-foot ceiling. Giant conveyor belts jangled and clanked sixteen hours a day with a constant stream of boxes flowing out of the warehouse and into the dark mouths of waiting trucks at the shipping docks. I drove a forklift in “casepack.” Dale drove the trash cart in salvage.
I didn’t know Dale very well and didn’t want to. But I did know that neither of us would remain at the warehouse. We were lucky enough to have the potential and the means to move on. Dale, his quiet pretty wife, and their sweet blue-eyed son lived in a suburban ranch house on my side of town. Like my husband, Dale was finishing up his doctorate at the university. Sometimes he brought his briefcase to work and pored over his dissertation during break.
I rarely talked to Dale if I could help it. He was the kind of person who wouldn’t get a joke. “Oh God, here comes Dale,” my friends and I would say, then disappear around a stack of boxes. Sometimes I waved as I drove by him on my forklift, but I pretended not to notice when he wanted me to stop and talk. He often stopped me anyway, deliberately blocking my path with his trash truck. He stood too close and spoke too eagerly, always pressing his point. Behind thick, black-framed glasses, his eyes blinked as though I’d shone a flashlight in his face and surprised him.
His house was just a few blocks from mine, so occasionally I gave him a ride home when our shift ended at one in the morning. At first I didn’t mind. Then he seemed to need a ride more often. Soon, dropping him off at the corner near his house wasn’t enough — he wanted me to drive him all the way to the end of his dead-end street. Then he wanted to sit and talk for a few minutes before he went inside. So one night I made up some excuse why I couldn’t give him any more rides. He seemed surprised. “OK,” he said, blinking, and he never asked me again.
An hour and a half has passed. I look up from my graded papers. It has begun to snow, and Dale is still drinking tea and reading the New York Times. Engrossed, frowning at the paper, he could be mistaken for a rumpled, eccentric professor.
Why Dale? Of all the men I knew at the warehouse — the ones who showed up drunk or stoned night after night, the ones with black eyes or scratches on their faces, the ones whose lives were ruined by Vietnam — Dale seemed the least likely to end up homeless. What happened? Did his wife and son leave him? (No doubt, but was that cause or effect?) Was he flawed from the beginning, or simply too delicate and fine to last? Did fate shove him over the precipice, or did he jump?
I gather up my papers, pull my coat around me, and head out into the snow.
I’m ashamed. And I’m afraid: afraid of weakness and failure made public; afraid of being like Dale, a dog with a tin can tied to his tail and nowhere to run or hide; afraid of being eaten alive by need, pulled at and torn at and devoured by need until there’s nothing left of me.
So I do nothing. Not even a small thing.
On an excruciatingly hot day last summer I saw a beat-up Ford come to a coughing, jerking stop in the middle of a shopping-center parking lot. The door opened slowly, and an old man got out on metal crutches. His legs bent in unnatural directions, providing no support at all for his body. While I watched through the waves of heat, deciding what to do, another woman helped him into a store.
One morning I saw an old woman with orange-dyed hair down on her hands and knees on the sidewalk. Maybe she had fallen. But maybe she lived in that house and was down on the ground pulling weeds. Anyway, there were people coming toward her from down the street, and they were nearer.
Another time, I saw an Indian man with blue-black hair down to his waist sitting in the middle of an intersection, drunk. “Somebody better get him out of there,” said one of the onlookers in the grocery store with me. “He’s going to get killed.” Finally someone did. It wasn’t me.
“Boundaries are the key to helping these people,” says a friend of mine who works in a program where he befriends inmates at the city jail. “You just have to make the boundaries very clear. For example, you never tell them your last name or your address or phone number.”
Like erecting a wall around yourself, I say, building a dike against need.
“You have to,” he says. “You can’t stand it otherwise.”
He’s right. The problem is I can’t seem to erect those kinds of barriers. They work only for a while, until the sea of need becomes a flood, and then they are swept away. Already Dale’s need seeps through the cracks. If I’m not careful, if I relax my guard, Dale will be sleeping on my couch and making tea on my stove.
One day a radio news story catches my attention, and I turn up the volume. “They treat us pretty good,” one of the residents of the Salvation Army shelter is saying. “Sometimes they bring us doughnuts. The only day we get nothing to eat is Saturday.”
It’s Friday afternoon and there is still time, a chance for a small offering.
I thumb through the cookbook and decide to make orange bowknots: sweet yeast rolls glazed with orange frosting. They are complicated and time-consuming to make — grating the orange peel, kneading the dough, waiting while it rises, punching it down, watching it rise again, cutting it into pieces, tying the pieces into bows, brushing on glaze. But the effort seems worth it. If the people at the shelter like doughnuts, they’ll love these, I tell myself.
The orange, yeasty fragrance fills the house as the bowknots bake. I eat two of them to test, then lay them on sheets of wax paper in a dress box. When they’ve cooled, I brush on the glaze.
Finally I am finished, but it is getting late. The radio said that residents aren’t allowed into the shelter until nine o’clock, but it’s already past eight. Suddenly I am nervous about taking the rolls to the shelter, worried that I will have to barge through a crowd of homeless people, drunks and schizophrenics who will grab on to me and try to talk to me.
I call for directions, but the man on the phone is vague: “Just come on in the south door. If you can’t find anybody there, check the building next door.” His voice echoes as if the phone were in a gymnasium. I begin to worry that the orange bowknots are not really done, that I should have baked them longer.
It’s dark by the time I find a parking place half a block from the shelter. A crowd is gathered by the door.
“Excuse me,” I say, edging through with my dress box. “Excuse me, please.” They stare politely and move aside. Among the crowd I recognize the man who argues with his reflection in the Woolworth’s window, the troll-like man who used to bother my daughter on her way home from high school, the teenage boy who smokes in front of the library. But I don’t see Dale. I thread my way through them, up the stairs, and into the building, avoiding their eyes.
My footsteps echo through the tiled hallway, and the box of orange bowknots grows heavier with each step. I should have made whole-wheat bread or sandwiches or something nutritious instead of these stupid bowknots. I hope they won’t open the box while I’m there and see this silly tea-party food I’ve brought them. I walk down the empty hallway wearing my stupidity and fear like a sandwich board.
“Yeah?” says the large-bellied man who seems to be in charge.
“I just have some rolls,” I say. “I’m not sure what to do with them.”
He takes the box and sets it down on the table behind him, unopened. He’s not curious; I’m glad. Earlier in the afternoon I had imagined that someone would say thanks. I’d even imagined that someone would admire the bowknots — noticing how much trouble they’d been to prepare, how heavenly they smelled — and say that these were the best-looking rolls they’d ever had at the shelter, that these guys were lucky to get them, that a lot of people just brought them junk, but these looked . . . beautiful! Now I’m relieved simply to be rid of them.
As I leave the shelter and walk toward my car, the December air is clean and cold on my face, heavy with the feeling of coming snow.
The car is still warm when I get in. I turn the key in the ignition, switch on the radio, and head home.
At the corner I stop for a red light, and that’s when I see Dale. He’s asleep on the side steps of the church, where the bricks are whitewashed with pigeon shit and feathers drift like snow into the corners. One arm is curled under his head; the other encircles his briefcase like a lover.
I wait, impatient for the light to change.