it was a perfectly formed line of people that started along the sidewalk of lawerence street and turned past the dirty brick building onto park avenue.   if it had been a different crowd with different people, it would have looked like a special night in downtown denver.  however, most people know better.  most people stay away from this area this time of night, unless they are driving by, on their way to a better place.  this is where the homeless and the helpless hang out every day and every night.  since it was nearly dinner time the crowd was much larger than the daytime crowd.  in the yellowish lighting from the street lights their colors were washed out and appeared like an old faded photograph from the great depression.  no smiles, no conversations, no cell phones…no families.

tonight was my volunteer night and i arrived as usual on my trusty green town bike.  as usual i missed the right street and arrived from a different direction.  i found myself having to cut through the line of hungry patrons… “excuse me”…”pardon”… “just one…sec” …”thanks”.  just toward the end of the line near my entrance, i found a good “no parking” sign that served as my bike rack.  i felt a little uneasy leaving such a pretty bike amongst the vagrants.  in reality most of them are not thieves nor are they evil, in fact they are  much nicer than your average mall shopper.  i didn’t have much choice and i was already late, so i locked my bike and walked away.   i had to cut through the line again to get to the entrance of the giant dirty brick building.  the door seems quite secure and daunting for some reason.  next to the doorbell was a sign that read,”press doorbell for 2 seconds and someone will let you in.” sure enough at the end of the 2 seconds someone opened the door.   every time i work here the entire staff seems to be completely different than previous visits.  perhaps they are the same i just can’t seem to keep their faces in my head.  i guess it goes both ways because for some reason every time i show up i am not instantly recognize as a volunteer.  i usually have to answer a few questions before i am allowed to enter.  i guess i really need to start looking less homeless.

on this night my job was to be the door man.  the doorman counts the people coming in and hands them silverware wrapped in a twisted napkin.  i’ve had many different jobs while volunteering here so each time it’s a surprise. what’s cool about being the doorman is that i got to look everyone in the eye and welcome them to dinner.  i greeted each person with “here you go….enjoy.”   after a while i had wished that i didn’t look some of them in the eye; quite disturbing.  you ever look into the eyes of a person that is totally insane? i don’t know how to explain it except that after it is over, it lingers on for a few seconds and you have to mentally pull yourself back into the moment.

as they came through the line one by one i couldn’t help but try to figure out each one.  i’m sure most of them had some tragic story of how misfortune and ill circumstances brought them to this lowest of lows.  i could tell how some of them were pretty new at being homeless, i could see that some were career homeless, and i could see how for many there was absolutely no hope for a miraculous turn around.  this latter group is perhaps what brought me here in the first place.

for the life of me, i just could not figure out some of these guys.  one guy looked rather well dress, and in a good state of mind…the only thing i could figure was that for some reason he wanted to come out for a free meal.  another guy had the most perfectly shaven head i had ever seen.  i don’t know how he did it, with out a home.  every year i shave my head around summer time, and i can not keep it cleanly shaven for the life of me….and i have a home.  another younger guy came in looking like dave gahan (for those of you who don’t know, he is the lead singer for depeche mode).  this one had on a very long leather-ish looking black coat that went down to his calves.  he didn’t talk to anyone and looked around quite a bit, as if he had a song in his head and he was looking around to see if anyone could hear it.  then there was the uni-bomber guy.  hoodie with mirror finish glasses.  this one kind of freaked me out a bit, mostly because i could not see his eyes, and he appeared to always be staring straight ahead, chewing his food for an unnaturally long period of time.  finally there was the guy with the sweater vest and tie. he was rather short and stocky and sported long curly dark hair, much like weird al yankovic.  he looked like he could have been in some kind of novelty ukulele band that specialized in carnival music.  no doubt that this little guy was weird, from his sweater vest and curled locks, to his timid eye shifting glares.  he was the very last to leave, never talked to anyone. even as we piled the chairs onto the table around him, he never talked, never smiled.. just sat there looking scared.

i don’t really care if the people coming through the door needed food, or appreciated the food they got.  they are society’s ultimate outcast. the unwanted, the unloved, the uncared-for.  somehow coming to dinner filled something in them.  it gave them something to do, or it made them feel cared for, or they just came to hang out with their friends. maybe they just came to meet new people.  even though i spent much effort trying to figure it out, the only thing that i really care about is that they did come.

it was a long night we served about 330 people.  this was much more than previous volunteer nights. i was exhausted and the night air smelled so good, after my 2 hours of duty.  i slowly rode my bike back to my car down the dark back streets of denver.