In my early 20s I lived in Boston for almost 2 years and worked as a case manager for older adults experiencing homelessness. It was my second job out of college and I had no social work training, no preparation. I learned so much as I went–the job really colored everything that has come after it. However, I never really learned how to separate myself from my clients’ outcomes, to not take it all so personally. It was an extremely difficult yet profoundly rewarding experience.
I wrote a few essays from that time, and I’ll share them here someday, but going through an old flash drive I found an unpolished piece. I don’t remember writing it, and really didn’t even recognize my voice in it. I can tell I wrote it as I was grappling with leaving my job and moving to this part of the country. That would put it in early 2008. I’ve cleaned it up a bit:
You Look the Old Man in the Wetness of his Blue Eyes
After you hug the old man goodbye you look into his eyes. You see the corners fill wet and you realize how much you are both needed.
A load to bear for both. The joys narrowly miss the explosion of your heart from the pressure of the morbidity. I will steal this from them, I will go away and leave them. Again. Another human gone, one more in a long line of abandonment.
They tell me their stories.
A Cuban in New Puerto Rico, America working the race track, living with the horses.
Southern man in the North, hustling the music scene, an epileptic trying to stay sober.
Woman ruined by crack and prostitution, pulling her life together for public housing.
They tell me what I want to hear. Silk-mind screens. Oh, great! Oh, that’s tough. Yes, I know.
Like I know.
Schizophrenic Black Panther, sixty two and pregnant.
Caucasian male, 56, Yale educated, delusion disorder.
Alcoholic Greek, kicking his girlfriend out of his room at the Y.
White curls of hair, cut smartly. You would never know, how maddeningly, torturously mad. Breast cancer patient, would like for her chiropractor to stop stealing her socks.
Homeless, divorced vets, navigating the system, suffering, wanting, getting what they want, wanting something else.
Downtown Crossing hot dogs with obese women content to wait for the first thing to come along.
Homeless woman goes to work and helps others find employment.
Appointments, current income verification, cash assistance and Social Security. Departments of Vital Records, courts, sign in, sign in, always sign in, lobbies and management offices.
Bad knees and back pain. Migraines, vertigo, fainting spells, blood. Seizures, relapses, degenerative eye diseases, neuropathy, chronic pain, high blood pressure. Diabetes, cancer, surgeries, CAT scans.
PTSD, stress, crisis, waiting and waiting and waiting and waiting and waiting and working and working and working and working and THEN! Hope you saved your money, apartment opens next week.
These are not exaggerations, or stereotypes. They are simply the facts of the cases.
As the years take me away from that reality, I am glad that I took some notes.
The artwork was made by one of my former clients, Peter. He came to Boston at 80 years old to participate in experimental cancer treatment and ended up homeless. He beat cancer in a shelter and moved into housing after a year of homelessness. Once he had a place, he set up his studio and was a prolific artist. He had a number of shows and donated the proceeds to Hearth, the organization I worked for. Peter passed away this year. I have a few of his pieces in my home and am so glad I broke the rules and accepted them. He was and is an inspiration.