Usually, it's peaceful at LaundryLove. There are a lot of people, we already know, some for a very long time. They feel like friends, family. Strangers are welcome, even the more difficult ones. Rarely, we encounter someone who makes it very difficult to help them. So was our experience with Michelle.
Michelle arrived very close to the time when we were about to begin. By this time, fifteen or twenty people had already registered ahead of her. Yet, she took her dirty clothes into the laundromat and started a machine that was already loaded with coins in anticipation of our initial rush. I suppose it is not hard to imagine how the other 15-20 people felt about this. Some had been waiting since 2 in the afternoon.
"She does this all the time!" said one of our regulars, an older woman who lives alone in her car.
Lots of grumbling in the line from people fed up with her antics. Shannon tried to explain the situation and why she needed to wait, to no avail. "But I have to leave by 7 to go to church," Michelle explained.
"i'm sorry, but these people have been waiting in line and you have to also."
Michelle continues to load her clothes into the washer. Shannon takes a breath and walks away.
"You are not a nice person," Michelle shouts to her across the laundromat. "You act like a nice person, but you're not."
I try my reasonable approach with nearly the same response. She has something to do, so she should be first. She yells at me, then at Steve and then the decision is made.
Sometimes, we are like the priest, understanding, generous. But sometimes we are Jean Valjean, who, even after this moment of grace shown to him, he snatches the coins just earned by the happy chimney sweep, and refuses to return them. Realizing his tremendous error, he cries out for the sweep to return, but the sweep has been frightened by the angry man in filthy rags. Jean Valjean despairs at his failings.
We let Michelle wash her clothes and dry them too, taking up 4 mid-sized machines and jumping ahead of people who had waited in line for hours. I told her we would do this one time, but that she needed to not return. I felt protective of our other guests. But what would the kindly vicar have done? Maybe the same, up to a point. There was a larger group to consider. But in reflection, the one major thing I failed to do was see her, really see her. I didn't ask her about herself. I didn't try to understand, which is different than allowing her to violate others, but it was an opportunity missed on my part. I've seen how it happens, how people fall into homelessness. Sometimes, it happens to people via a few bad decisions and a lack of loving support. Sometimes people never had any hope at all. Sometimes it's been like that since the beginning and on their own from an early age, they learn to survive. Oftentimes, they become so difficult and unpleasant that they alienate any possible help and burn all bridges.
Through the evening, we served a delicious homemade dinner of pulled pork sandwiches and cole slaw. Michelle ate too. We handed out groceries and toiletries, of which she also partook. When she was done, I watched her walk across the parking lot, alone, to her vehicle. Ordinarily, someone would have helped her with her load, but there was no one left who cared to. I can still see her as she left. Her shirt was faded and her pants had buttons on the pockets on the back pockets. Her skin had the ruddiness of spending a lot of time outside and her hair was knotted and like straw. When she looked at me, her eyes never met mine. When I looked at her, I didn't see her. Sometimes helping isn't easy.
I could have asked these things, but chances are, it wouldn't have mattered, at least in the moment. Her survival instincts were too strong. But maybe a tiny crack would have appeared in the heavy wall of protection and pseudo privilege. Maybe for a moment, she would have known. I have no control over that. Only over what I do, how I respond. I'll do better next time. But she still won't get a free pass to the head of the line!!
This is it. This is LaundryLove, where we help the grateful and ungrateful, the appealing and annoying. We care to the best extent of our best selves in that moment. We grow. We are humbled. We are grateful for it all.