Inspirational Hardship Story: Utterly Useless People
I’d never been homeless before. A series of poor choices, a man who pretended to be what he wasn’t. I thought it could never happen to me. Where would I go? Back home, where I’d look foolish, having sold or given away almost everything I owned just one month before? How could God let such a thing happen to me? Why me?
January is not a good month to be homeless. The heater in my car wasn’t working right so I stopped to scrape ice off the windshield before driving on. For those of you who don’t know where the Coopersville Library is, it’s a few wrong turns off the Coopersville exit.
From the look on the Librarian’s face, I presumed she didn’t often have disheveled and disoriented people wandering into her library. How could I explain all I was going through?
“Um… ma’am… could you tell me where I am? I mean… what is this near?” I suppose she could tell I was from out of town. “What time does the library close?” Hmmm… That early?
I found a seat away from her view. The Sunday edition of The Grand Rapids Press sat on a nearby table. As I placed it in front of me, it fell open. WANTED: Caregiver for group home. Live-in position. Coopersville.
“Yes, hello? I’m calling about your ad … No, I don’t really have a number where you can reach me. Would it be okay to come over now? Well… I’ve gotten myself into a bit of a pickle. You see…”
The room was small. A warm bed, somewhere to hang my coat. An old kitchen table for my computer. I just needed somewhere to rest. Nothing long-term, just until I could pull myself together.
Ten sets of eyes greeted me in the morning. I was certain God had made a mistake. I didn’t belong here… with these people. For heaven’s sake, they were weird looking! What happened to their teeth? How come they talked like that? I could tell, right away, the loud and obnoxious one would quickly get on my last nerve. “Please use your quiet voice, John.”
John was the one who caught me crying in the kitchen Valentine’s Day. He placed his hand on my shoulder gently, leaned in to whisper, “I guess we’re all alone. And that’s why we have each other.” We spent the rest of the afternoon pretending to be ‘kung fu fighters’. He surprised me by calling a radio station and dedicating the song to me. When they played ‘our song’, we mimicked the action, and fell flat on our butts trying to be ‘fast as lightning’. After that, he nicknamed me “Karate Mom from Hell.” He would later shorten it to just… ‘Mom’. One morning, Doris helped me cook breakfast. She inadvertently added salt instead of sugar to the batter. Pancakes that were supposed to assume the shape of silver dollars soon spread across the entire griddle, and rose thick enough to serve as catcher’s mitts. Everyone loved them, complimented her fine cooking skills, and asked for seconds.
How would I explain to Sue a mammogram doesn’t really hurt? I mean… not really. But then again… It was time for a woman to woman chat. She followed me into the kitchen. The talk went well, interrupted by John complaining a customer on his paper route was lying about not getting her paper for six weeks. John’s profanity offended Sue. “Did your mom ever wash your mouth out with soap when you were little?” John didn’t miss a beat. “I dunno… but if she did, she wasted her soap!” John’s uproarious laugh was infectious. I encouraged John to place six newspapers on the lady’s porch that day. She hasn’t called to complain again.
Art appreciated everything and everyone in his life. Whether it was the extra dollar in a paycheck, an invitation to a church potluck, or the phone call from family apologizing, something had come up… again Even when dinner was late, scorched and turned into leftovers one too many times. “Thank you for supper, ma’am.” He never failed to give everyone an affectionate noogie on the shoulder. I’m quite certain he’s never read Dale Carnegie’s book, but he intuitively knew how to win friends and influence people. “You’re a good friend, Sheryl.”
Jim always fell asleep after dinner in the rocking chair. The remote would slip from his hand and teeter on his knee. While he slept, Art would reach over and lovingly straightened his collar. “There ya go, Papa!” Jim bore a striking resemblance to Clark Gable. Not really… but he wanted to look like Clark Gable, so we went along with it.
Their capacity for compassion and forgiveness constantly amazed me. They loved me, even when I screwed up. I lost count of how many times they covered for me when I overslept. Although the countertop was littered with grounds, they had made the morning coffee. The juice had been poured, even though the kitchen floor was sticky the rest of the day. Someone mastered the toaster, while another managed to find milk and cereal. They’d never tell anyone, about the day I was so sleepy I gave Fred, Sharon’s birth control pill. I, likewise, never mentioned the $700 phone bill John racked up calling the Psychic Hotline.
They played along, letting me think I was teaching them. I never considered myself a very patient person. I insisted Jim work beyond his comfort zone, try something new, attempt things that had always been done for him. I wanted him to hurry-up! However, he didn’t take my guff for long. “Don’t git yer tit in a wringer! I’m trying to figure it out!”
Yes, our tempers did flare on occasion. I can recall a particularly tense evening. Everyone was eating dinner. Cold silence engulfed the room. John walked in, late as usual. His only excuse was someone had given him a collection of Motown music. I assured him, sternly, Motown music was the last thing we needed. Despite my objections, within moments, the room filled with the voice of Marvin Gaye, singing, ‘I Heard it Through the Grapevine.’ Soon, everyone’s head started bobbing with the beat. Forks moved in unison with the rhythm. Joyful humming ensued. Spontaneously, one by one, each started dancing. Fred turned into Fred Astaire, and for a magical moment, I was Ginger Rogers. My problems seemed miniscule next to theirs. “How do you think it feels when they say you are nothing? That you won’t amount to anything, that you are a potato? I didn’t ask to be born like this!” I watched how they handled obstacles in their path.
John was bored with sorting parts at the sheltered workshop. Convinced he could find a better job, he called almost every business in Coopersville. He introduced himself politely and asked to speak to whoever was in charge. He didn’t take the rejections personally. In John’s world, there was no time for self-pity. He pressed on. The presidential primaries caught John’s attention one day. Within the hour he was at City Hall picking up applications to vote. That evening, it was a circus-like atmosphere while he tried to explain the registration process to the others. John was personally responsible for getting ten people registered to vote. It didn’t seem to bother him, later, when he was the only one to actually vote.
One morning, John rushed to my room in a panic. Upset, he explained there had been an air crash. John looked at me as if there was something I could do about it. A disappointed look crossed his face when he realized I was as helpless as he was. John raced to the living room, got down on his knees in front of the television, and began fervently praying. By evening, the news reported there were few survivors. John asked to stay up and pray for them. Assuming he would eventually find his way to bed, I was shocked the next morning to find John still praying in front of the TV. When he saw me, he fretfully told me, one of the survivors, a man with extensive head injuries, was in surgery. “If they don’t fix him soon, he’ll be like us. Brain damaged and handicapped.”
Sharon was the most stoic of the bunch. She wore an invisible sign on her forehead that said, ‘Stay Away From Me’. I obeyed it. One day I decided Sharon and I needed a day together. Just her and me. The silence between us had gone on far too long. First we ate lunch at McDonald’s, the same one that marks the Coopersville exit. We spent the rest of the day scouring thrift shops, looking for treasures. While riding home in the car, she told me she had only one wish in life. She wanted to dress up and go to the symphony. She spent over 30 minutes describing every detail of a symphony she had been to, long ago. Who would have ever guessed that Sharon, regularly, enjoyed a song in her heart?
One day, her glasses broke. The lens had popped out, which caused them to come apart at the temples and sit crookedly on her face. Sharon insisted on wearing the glasses, nonetheless. It was that particular day she picked to really come out of her shell. Standing in front of me, she gyrated her hips repeatedly, and imitated Elvis Presley. At first, I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me, but then she did it again… and again. “Now that was one sexy man, ay, Sheryl?”
Fred was always looking for attention. It didn’t matter what he had to do to get it. As a result, I really didn’t believe him when he told me there was a bird in our kitchen. I finally relented and followed him to the kitchen. Just as he had described, a large, shiny black bird was perched on the countertop, looking at us curiously. I screamed and ran to hide. Fred, meanwhile, grabbed the kitchen towel and chased the bird around the house, assuring me he had the situation well under control. I cowered in the corner, watching Fred, who looked like a bullfighter flapping his cape. He tried to trap the frightened bird for over an hour. I eventually felt sorry for the frustrated and exhausted Fred… and the bird wasn’t faring well either. Sometimes, when we have no other choice, we find the courage within ourselves to overcome fear.
To most people, John and the others are nothing more than greasy-hair misfits, wearing two watches and ill-fitting clothes. Chattering incessantly about stainless-steel inner tubes and Rod Stewart being their best friend. To those people, this home is nothing more than a zoo filled with loonies. But where else can a sweet old woman, named Thelma, laugh at nothing… just because. Or talk to baby dolls, who answer her back. Maybe Steve really is a superior being from another planet. You never know, the notes he takes obsessively could come in handy for other visiting extraterrestrials. Doris probably was a famous figure skater in her last reincarnation. What does it matter if Fred loves to vacuum all day? John’s mythical corporation grossed one kazillion dollars last year. Who else can brag such success? And perhaps, someday, the fire department really will page him on his imaginary beeper.
I’m glad I got lost in Coopersville last winter. I found people who taught me a new way to look at life. “God loves us, doesn’t He, Sheryl?” I’ve come to the conclusion, there is a gift in everything that happens to us… Even insanity.
By Sheryl Ellis, M.S.
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