Some faces are meant to be punched—but shouldn’t be. Some faces are meant to be kissed—but shouldn’t be without permission. Some faces are meant to hear the confessions, conspiracy theories and complaints of friends and acquaintances. I have one of those faces. Because I still have the soul if not the certifications of both the pastor and the journalist, people bring me stories. I listen empathetically, and ask probing questions, leading to more revelations. It’s a gift, I guess.
Usually, this face of mine brings me friends who want to unburden themselves of negative and pessimistic stories. So-and-so is a so-and-so is a typical introduction. Nobody understands my gifts is another. That organization/employer/institution has wronged me is another common one.
Yesterday, I had breakfast in Manchester with a friend who’s fallen on hard times through no real fault of her own, unless developing a life-threatening disease and falling for the wrong man—or the right man at the wrong time—can be tallied in the fault column. Eleanor, not her real name, has been living at New Horizons Homeless Shelter for the past three weeks.
(Full disclosure: when I was at Liberty House in Manchester, which offers food and clothing to anyone who needs it, I met a lot of New Horizons residents, and they almost universally complained about the place. Their complaints focused on what jerks the staff was, how unfairly they’d been treated and how inhuman the interactions were. In short, they made it sound like something out of Dickens—and not the happy-ending parts of the great man’s novels.)
When Eleanor and I had ordered our omelets, grits and chicken-fried steaks, I told her, in my either optimistic or insensitive way, that she didn’t look homeless. She beamed, and said that was the look she was going for—another woman going through life, instead of a potential bag lady. She talked about the challenges of walking the streets for eight or nine hours a day—needing to find spots to escape the cold, places to recharge her phone, avoiding the creeps—and of the night with some folks who are drunk or high, some who have pretty serious mental-health issues, and almost all who are in a state of high anxiety. Life inside those boundaries must be exhausting.
I mentioned the journalistic part of me, which kicked in as I asked her about the staff at New Horizons, fully expecting her tone to change from resolute optimism to a laundry list of complaints.
“They’ve been great!” Eleanor said brightly. “They’re not paid much money, but they’ve been patient and kind and compassionate.”
Eleanor said she didn’t want to stay at New Horizons one second longer than she had to, but the staff there was incredibly professional, human and caring. No matter what kind of verbal abuse they faced from homeless guests, the staff had maintained their cool, enforcing rules but doing so with gentleness.
I was gobsmacked. This conversation had never veered in this direction before. Because of that gobsmackedness, I have an obligation to share that good news. From at least one temporary resident of New Horizons Homeless Shelter, a woman I know and respect, the staff gets an excellent review. Over the two years Eleanor and I have known each other, she has not been a Pollyanna, whitewashing the problems in her life, her relationship or her universe. If she gives New Horizons a positive rating, I believe it must be doing a much better job than the Oliver-Twist-David-Copperfield stories had suggested. If I’m going to rake muck and reveal hidden problems, I want to also hold up spots in the world that deserve praise.
After all, I may have a share-your-darkest-revelations face, but I also have an honest one.