The Riverside Cemetery is a couple of neighborhoods away from mine, maybe a 30-minute walk from my place. Mom and Dad and I visited it on a recent Saturday. Despite the nice weather, the place was practically deserted, apart from the permanent residents.
The oldest graves dated from the early nineteenth century. Some of the headstones were for vets of the Indian Removal Project, and some others were for Civil War soldiers. Mostly, though, the graves were for folks who died in the twentieth century. The most famous people buried there are William Sidney Porter, aka O. Henry, and Thomas Wolfe, who wrote Look Homeward, Angel, which is not associated with this picture but ought to be. This is a photo of the Bird Girl statue in Savannah, made famous when it served as the cover of the book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. For some reason I think of this girl when I think of Look Homeward, Angel.
Because I have not ever bothered to read Thomas Wolfe, I can only offer here a weak segue to today’s main topic. I am going to assume that Look Homeward, Angel considers themes of home and belonging (and possibly also celestial beings, but I don’t want to lay claim to that without at least checking the wikipedia entry). With the working hypothesis that Look Homeward, Angel really is about home, I’d like to congratulate Thomas Wolfe on his final resting place. Asheville’s Riverside Cemetery, i.e. the one not represented in the photo here, seems like a really lovely place for an eternal home.
And I’d like to observe the irony of my new volunteering gig at the homeless shelter. I’m the one who’s supposed to be making the homeless folks feel at home, not the other way around.
I had just about worked myself up to embracing the idea of moving away from Asheville. Long-term readers will recall that I grew up around here, moved away for thirteen years, and then very deliberately moved back. The reasons for this were various, but the honest if incomplete truth is that I wanted to be home again.
My parents are nearby; I love Asheville; I love the scenery. I do not love the lack of job opportunities. I just got turned down for a job supervising volunteers because they were looking for someone with more direct experience supervising volunteers. I SUPERVISED VOLUNTEERS FOR FIVE YEARS! AAAAAAUGGGGH! But that’s quite all right, I don’t take it personally, I’ll just go beat my head against this rock here then shall I.
After a year of waffling between outright unemployment and severe underemployment, I decided there was no choice but to move in the coming year. And that is still my decision. Nothing’s changed. I still have precisely zero job offers going for me.
But these homeless folks are going to make it that much harder.
I’m volunteering at a day shelter. I have nothing to do with people’s overnight accommodations. (Some folks sleep at one of the nearby shelters; some crash with friends; some sleep outdoors, which cannot possibly be pleasant when there’s snow on the ground.) At 7 a.m., though, I am there to help out with various and sundry. I distribute toiletries and locate people’s mail and answer the phone.
I also provide a sympathetic ear. People come up to me and talk about whatever. The men, especially the older ones, like to flirt with me. If a strange guy in a store or a restaurant called me baby, I’d respond with a tongue-lashing, or at least I’d grouse about it to myself for the rest of the day. If a homeless guy at the shelter wants to call me baby, I just smile and ask him how he’s doing today.
Think of it this way: I’m not offering professional counseling, because I’m not advising anyone on how to cope with addiction, or where to seek low-cost medical services, or when to apply for food stamps. I am offering a friendly and good-humored conversation, free of judgment.
Let me be clear: I am not romanticizing my work as a volunteer. My volunteer work is not going to save the world. Nor am I romanticizing the homeless people. Some of them are assholes. Some of them could have avoided becoming homeless in the first place. Some of them complain when they ought to be grateful instead.
But I am completely willing to serve a few bad apples, because the overall experience is so very worthwhile. I feel like I’m doing something useful with my time. I never felt this sense of purpose in libraries. Perhaps I am too dense to appreciate abstract concepts such as freedom of information and freedom of expression. Maybe I need my social good-deed-doing to hit me over the head with a club.
I’m astonished at how much my volunteering experience has elevated my mood. And I am surprised — though maybe I shouldn’t be — at how much it has reigned in my aspirations of globe-trotting. If I seek my fortunes elsewhere, I’m going to have to leave behind my homeless folks. I realize that homeless people exist in other communities, but I already have a particular attachment to these homeless people, for reasons that Thomas Wolfe described with compassion and insight, or so I’m going to assume until someone tells me otherwise.