Some people hate these frigid mornings. Some open their eyes and calculate the range of possibilities for their next heating bill. Some wake under blankets heavy and sodden-frozen in odd, crunchy forms, because of sheeting rain chased by freezing temps instead of downy-dry, insulating layers of pillowed snow.
There are homes equipped with Designated Heater-Uppers. This is an ancient, time-honored, familial system, in which one soul, long-johned and night-capped, flees the warmth of quilt piles and warm beloved bodies and their blessed curvatures, to ignite a furnace, put flame to waiting kindling, twigs, and smallish logs, or maybe just to flick a switch on a thermostat.
The Designated Heater-Upper, depending on fortitude and genetics, may enjoy these quiet shivers of time and proceed to brew coffee for the less courageous, and whatever modern form of quick but hearty sustenance serves as the algebraic variable for gruel. Other Designates may race back to the bed and reclaim their spot of warmth, mingling icy toes with toasty ones, nuggling to beat the band. But usually, giggles and whispers set in, and there's no denying the day's begun.
Those many years ago when Fred and I helped out at a rare neighborhood-nestled shelter for homeless men (who were either actively ill or disabled, or both), me as an ardent volunteer, he as a paid worker who did miracles with very little money and exuberant donations to produce hot and [usually] healthy meals for 30-35 hungry men, twice a day -- we learned some survival tips we pray never to need. Oddly enough, I realized years later, in the swirling cyclonic mess of a medical crisis, that all of these "staying alive" guidelines depend on some version of a mise en place. Whether it's an encounter with a rousting cop, the intricacies of getting dressed, or a traditional coq au vin (if you have enough rooster, blood, and time), a well-ordered preparation is key.
We did not help much, in any lasting sense, at the shelter, since we always knew... well, I cannot bring myself to say it, or even describe it. Jesus said it. I don't know that he was the first, but he said it, and pretty well, too. Fred kept bodies and souls alive with calories, fed the jonesing junkies the sugary cereals, supplied those men with AIDS plenty of Sustacal, and turned water into wine with one hand tied behind his back, ready for any surprise. Like the volunteers from Outta Town Church, who promised to bring dinner -- and did, in the form of several huge chunks of fresh venison left on the steps, kinda wrapped in plastic and stuffed in a paper bag.
"Jesus said it." You know what Jesus said, and if you don't, you say some version of it yourself from time to time, when glancing about, summing things up, giving the state of things a good ponder. It hits you, suddenly, that some things never change. And that the "why" of it doesn't matter.
Anyway -- that brilliant segue -- those most experienced in surviving the rigors of cold weather advise that, for the best odds of waking up at all after sleeping exposed to the elements, layers are the way to go, especially layers of mostly unread newspapers, mixed according to some complex algorithm with softer, well-crinkled, seriously perused pages of the Journal or the Constitution or the Times. We knew a guy who collected styrofoam coffee cups throughout the day, then undid them, discarding the bottoms, for use as superb insulation, combined with newsprint, and his three, four, or five piece suits, and whatever blanket he could beg or borrow. Joe did not much like sleeping inside, especially with rows of other men, their snores, snuffles, and sniffles, their various stinks, stories, and woes.
Of course, Joe may not be the best example. I watched one of his ear lobes fall off, from frostbite, as we ate the first course of one of Fred's dinners on a cold evening -- a cream of tomato soup.
ADDENDUM, 25 JANUARY 2015 * This is a picture of Joe, taken by the talented C. Hinkle. Joe's story is a tragic one, that any editor with a decent heart and a bit of will might have altered, but that might have ruined the tale's attractive, romantic (and monetized) edge. He was, I believe, diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia while in college. He grew up in the neighborhood where the shelter I refer to is located, and after the death of his parents/diaspora of his family, became something of the suburban, white, intelligent, talented, mentally ill, moderately-annoying, homeless man poster child for progressive church outreach programs in the area. As Ed Loring said at Joe's Memorial Service, where many a chuckle-cum-tear was produced after many a Joe Story, "We ought to be ashamed of ourselves..."
A less fun Joe, likely overweight due to side effects of medications, probably choosier of acquaintances and of neighborhoods, perhaps employed, perhaps not, perhaps in a group home, perhaps in an apartment, perhaps in a nice home, with a wife, a partner, children. Perhaps a riotous Joe, set free? Joe on Joe's terms, not on the terms of newsletter/small grant-writing organizations plugging holes and doing legitimate good work based on Jesus' solid statistics. All it would have taken is one or several brave interventionists to commit Joe, keep him on meds, force him into the mental health system. It could have happened. In this best of all possible worlds.
© 2015 L. Ryan