Homeward looking

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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.

bird girl

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.

4 responses »

  1. May the spirit of the Season be upon you Jess.. Cemeteries,though associated with the great beyonder can indeed be venues for literary learning, not simply Socratic contemplation. It’s nice to hear that you can stroll over to Riverside and look about with your parents on an educational day trip. “Indian removal” is a topic this reader was discussing with an old friend as he drove me back to my quarters in Williamsbg. from my annual visit with his family in Maryland and Pennsylvania only an hour ago. As a retired Sargent Major with 30+ years in uniformed service Joe’s liberal, intelligent, cosmopolitan outlook on life and politics is a credit to all believers in Jeffersonian Democracy. You two would get on well. Thehypocrisy of some loudly self-proclaimed “Christian” believers is a subject we discuss often in the Christ child birth context.The family in that story were as close to homeless and needy as any older Jewish carpenter and his pregnant teenage consort could be yet they headed out dutifully to register with the tax authority of the Roman Military Occupation Government. That several Confederate Generals and a dozen or so homeless, ie. “unrepatriated” German sailors are laid to rest at Riverside brought that topic to mind.. Thank you Jess.. Now at risk of further long digression, I’ll leave the network to consider the second portion of your Post..


  2. The key to my happiness, & I think it is so for most folks, the feeling of being needed. Wherever you go, Jessica, there will be people who need you. Even better news is that you have so much to give them. Never doubt that.

  3. Jess, Having your latest Post in mind, ye olde journalist contemplated the “good deed” aspect of your volunteer work all the more smilingly as the Billiousburg pre-Dawn morning “required’ a brief moment of cold toes at O-dark-thirty today. There were no doubt still folks camped out under the Asheville stars who were looking forward to little else but the bit of warmth, tea and sympathy that awaited them when the shelter opened in your neighborhood. You have a good heart Madame and this correspondent still hopes that 12 months hence you’ll be gainfully employed at meaningful work in a venue that may require leaving “Your” homeless ones” to the care of another. If that be a wish that seems anathema to you now, let’s hope that strategic Zellers thinking will keep you warmed with the idea of regular income, a good benefits package AND most importantly, the opportunity at whatever level, to initiate a change or changes that may keep the future free from homeless ones needing the Shelter.. End of second portion of reply:) Have a swell day doing a good job! Tom


  4. Hey. Fellow Asheville book nerd. I was going to send you a message but I can’t find a way to contact you. Am I stuck with a public comment?


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