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.

last week i finished up my volunteer work for the denver rescue mission.  i didn’t have any obligation to work there except for the one i imposed upon myself.  you see normally i would have been satisfied to put in my one day, call it an experience and be done with it.  however, in this case there are are several reason why i wanted to make this a regular event.  the first reason is that i really want to help the homeless. the first day i was more of a liability to them. i didn’t know what to do, how to do it, where things go, or when things happen.  i had to ask every little thing.  kind of annoying for the people that manage us, but they are used to it i guess. …judging by the way they so gracefully micromanage us volunteers.

after observing round after round of noobs each time i volunteered, i don’t think it was just me that needed minute by minute guidance.  back when i did my first day, i naively assumed that the volunteers participated in an egalitarian society, everyone had more or less the same job, no favorites no rankings.  after my second visit i quickly learned that filling water cups was for the ‘green”.  most first timers have to fill these water cups and place them on a cart, so they can hand them out when the lines starts.  funny thing about these cups, they are corporate coffee mugs, left over from the dot com bust.  lots of unknown company logos adorn the  sides of these ceramic artifacts from a different culture (a culture that i am way too familiar with).  one thing that can be said about all the volunteers, is that they seem genuinely happy (unlike the corporate world).  it must be because they feel like they are doing something worth while and making a difference.

so as a five time veteran of  volunteering i pretty much know what is going on at this place.  i know more or less, what needs to be done, and how to do it.  i’ve fill the water cups, filled the trays, handed out the trays, cleared the tables, wiped the tables, and helped in the kitchen.  there are not many jobs that i am unfamiliar with these days.  we had a full staff of volunteers this time, and mike started giving out the assignments.  as the new people were given their jobs, i started to wonder if there would be enough jobs to go around.  he already handed out all the jobs that i was familiar with, so when it was my turn, i was pretty excited to think that i was going to get something new.  he turned and pointed to me and said, i need you to do something for me.  he then walked over to me and explained what my new job was going to be.

it turns out that the mission is having a little problem with the homeless leaving at different times.  ideally if everyone would eat at the same time they could leave at the same time.  however due to the buffet style lines, some people would start eating much earlier than the guys at the end of the line. this would cause some guys to get bore and ask for seconds, or just take off.  in order to correct this, the denver rescue mission was trying a “dining room” style eating.  everyone would sit down and get served at more or less the same time.  this way they could eat and finish at the same time.

the end of dinner was 7:30 and everyone was required to stay seated until that time.  so my job, was to be the house security or “bouncer” if you will.  i would stand at the door looking tough and keep people from exiting before 7:30.  i’ve been to way too many concerts and events where the power hungry ill equipped security guards detour the crowds with terse arrogant  directions…”don’t stand there”, “stay behind the line”, “this exit is closed”…etc.  today was my turn and i was naively excited to get this job.

the minute all the food was handed out i marched over to “my” assigned door.  i was instructed to try and talk people into staying  and to not use force no matter what.  i was also instructed to not try too hard to keep people in, it might make them angry.  so there i stood with an eager look on my face, quite unfitting for the task at hand.  with little or no attention payed to me, the first homeless guy walked past my guard.  at that moment i realized that i was going to have to look a little tougher.

i looked around and studied some of the other guys doing the same job.  these other guys were quite a bit harder than me.  they were former addicts and were actually going through the rehabilitation program at the mission.  they somehow got off the streets and came into the shelter to get help.  most of them were quite tough looking,  as they stood there, mad dogging every homeless person thinking about heading their way.  hmm…i could do that.  i straightened up my apron, rolled up my sleeve so my tattoo would show (note: my tattoo is of a bicycle), and stared off into the distance like i was looking out the bottom of my nose.  since i was the only one guarding a door that led to the outside,  most of the homeless headed my direction.

i would start out with a cool, “how’s it going man?”

i would follow that with a “so you’re not going to stay till the end?”

…then they would counter my questions, by just walking out. buy the end of the evening i had turned back three guys, and let two go, and only one got out of hand.  he was trying to get out by saying he had permission. other bouncers came over to help out, and just made the guy really mad.  he started yelling at them…and finally we just let him go.  apparently the other homeless guy don’t like this guy either.  he is annoying to them as well.  we all laughed about it afterward.  no matter what the group, there is always at least one ass hole.  it’s ok, though it brought me a little closer, to the people i was trying to help.

at the end of the evening i went to the back room to get my stuff so i could go.  there were two female volunteers there getting ready to leave as well.  i didn’t get a chance to meet them earlier so i introduced myself.  after our short intros, they said, “you looked pretty intimidating out there”

i said “oh heh…thanks”.  i think it was a complement, at least i took it as one, because i was really trying to look intimidating.

it was a great night anyway. i would have rather handed out the food, but i’m glad i didn’t.  most people can not say they were a “bouncer” at the homeless shelter.