The barber finishes one man, and the chair opens. Another man, young, too young to be here, too young to have hit bottom, has been sitting impatiently, bouncing his knees, tapping his feet, and elbows another man out of the way to get into the chair first. The barber shrugs and dutifully, carefully buzzes away while The Dentist on the microphone welcomes them, announces birthdays, thanks volunteers, shares prayer requests. When the barber finishes, the young man gets up and pulls a women's compact from his pocket while another guy sits down in the barber chair. He looks at himself in the tiny mirror, turning his head back and forth, checking the fade in front of his ears, furrowing his brow, noticing something isn't quite right. He still has his vanity. There's pride, intensity, don't-mess-with-me in his eyes.
The Dentist prays, and the barber has his head bowed, but the young man starts to elbow him. He looks at the barber, tries to get his attention, then looks at his fresh do in the tiny mirror, then at the man trying to get him to shut up while The Dentist prays, then back at the barber, then back at the man trying to get him to shut up. The Dentist finishes and the barber silently makes an imperceptible fix on the young man's sideburns. He whips out the compact again, and nods approvingly.
Volunteers hand out meals to all the men and women at the tables. The rule is, you don't get clothes until you've eaten. No more clothes at seven. But the young man with the fresh haircut comes, stakes a claim on a pair of shoes before he's had his meal.
Don't give it to him, Jose. Because soon, they'll all be up here.
Jose hands him the shoes he wants.
Soon, there's a crowd. Clothes start flying, in all shapes, shades, sizes, just like the addicts here.
Big ones, with beer on their breath. Size 38 waist please.
No tenemos 38.
I shuffle through the pile of pants.
Aqui, 40. Pero no hay 38.
The words I'm most comfortable with come out in that lispy, cut-off Puerto Rican accent that I'm trying not to pick up. He rejects the pants for now, but comes back for them later.
Another one, with no voice, no teeth, lips curling over his gums, holds up nine fingers and points to his feet. This is a language I can understand. I dig for size nines in a shopping cart. They're already gone.
Lo siento, señor, no hay nueves.
Another one, so very skinny, asks for size 30 pants, makes his request with gravel in his voice, it's rough and jagged like volcanic rock, the roughest I've ever heard. It's a wonder he can still use it. I fish him out some 29s.
Size 29 jeans?
There are women, too. One was up front, for her birthday, they sang her at least three variations of the birthday song, as Puerto Ricans like to do. Big bandages on her arms in three places, three places where there was pain, and then escape, and now healing. Someone told me the puncture wounds get infected and they often leave them untreated and the skin rots away, down to the muscle, to the bone.
For some of the people here the symptoms are obvious. You can smell them on their breath, hear them in their voice, see them in the wounds on their arms, on their face, so clearly struggling, sitting on the bottom of society, providing examples of "At least I'm not..."
For some of them, the symptoms are not clear. They're clean, they're getting by with clean clothes and fresh haircuts, you wouldn't know it by looking at them.
Here, they're fed, they're clothed. Their wounds are treated, they're bandaged, welcomed back whenever they want.
Christ is followed here.