64: A Place to Call Home

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Campus Chronicles

By Andrew Zaleski

A Place to Call Home

Unselfish and noble actions are the most radiant pages in the biography of souls.

~David Thomas

I didn’t quite know what to expect the first time I drove down to St. Vincent’s. I had volunteered on a whim when I decided to stay behind in Baltimore for the summer following my freshman year of college. Right before freshman year, my family moved from Pennsylvania to Maryland. Going “home” over the summer wasn’t exactly an option for me — staying at school to work made more sense. When Marya, my boss at the campus community service center, asked me if I’d be interested in driving a van of students bringing sandwiches and drinks into downtown Baltimore every Tuesday evening, I thought, “Why not?” I figured it’d be a good way to help pass the time until school started up again.

Loyola College’s Care-A-Van program normally runs from September to May, when the regular academic year is in session. Student and adult volunteers travel down Baltimore’s winding Interstate 83 until they reach this open lot situated right next to St. Vincent’s Church. Some people call the place Tent City on account of the makeshift houses erected using some rope, tarp, and two trees. Father Jack calls it People Park. Regardless, if you’ve never had an encounter with a homeless person before, the lot next to St. Vincent’s would be the place to start.

Traditionally, volunteers arrive bearing ham and cheese sandwiches and containers filled to the brim with iced tea and water. In the winter they bring hot chocolate. During the summer, we brought lemonade — lemonade, sandwiches, as well as some good company and conversation.

It was desolate. The grass that once blanketed the lot had died off, replaced by a morbid, dusty brownness. Cars zoomed by the place, kicking up dust in their panic to get to the safety of the highway. Sometimes people stopped at the red light glanced out their windows at the people there; staring emptily, apathetically, they often returned immediately to the comfort of their cars’ front windowpanes. “This is it,” I thought. This was pathetic, sad: an empty, ominous, dirt lot, decorated with a few dying trees here and there and boxed in on three sides by asphalt. St. Vincent’s stood on the fourth side, mocking the conditions there. For any religious homeless folk, the irony of having God so near and yet so far must have been unbearable.

And then there were the people. They lived in blue-tarp tents held up by some sticks and white rope; the Boy Scouts would’ve been proud. Others slept on benches, their clothes folded up in piles underneath, covered by today’s newspaper, which doubled as a blanket in the night. One man rested on an old, musty mattress, dressed only in boxers and an undershirt. No pants; no socks; no shoes. Father Jack would later tell me that the guy had AIDS, as well as a drug problem. No dignity either, I suppose. I was numb.

“Would you like water, iced tea, or lemonade, sir?” What the hell was I doing here? Me, a nineteen-year-old preparatory school graduate. I had both my parents, a car, a nice life; I was the quintessential Prince of Suburbia, and now I was hanging in downtown Baltimore.

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I tried starting conversations with some people. How do you talk to a person who’s homeless? I was nervous — I thought they all resented me. I hated being “well off.” I shouldn’t have, but I couldn’t help it. What could I possibly do for anyone here?

This one guy — his name was Eartle, which was easy enough to remember, since it sounded like “Myrtle Beach” — was lounging against a tree that still had some life in it, using its leaves to provide shelter from a sweltering June sun. Summers in Baltimore are hot, even at 6:30 at night. I went over and introduced myself, feeling guilty because I couldn’t stop my darting eyes from absorbing the scene around me: Eartle on a makeshift cot, surrounded by a couple of trash bags holding his personal belongings and an overturned cardboard box he was using as a table.

We talked; he called me Prince Andrew to remind him of what my name was. “Yep, that’s me,” I thought. “Prince Andrew of Suburbia.” I told him I used to live near Philadelphia. He had some friends up that way. He asked what I did at school.

“I’m an editor of The Greyhound.”

“Yeah? They came down here and interviewed me once.”

Next Tuesday night I was back. Eartle was still there, under that same tree. I brought him a couple of sandwiches and hunched down next to him. He invited me to have a seat on his cot. He asked me how my week had been. “Rough,” I replied. “Busy at work, and I’m taking a summer class.”

“Just keep pluggin’ away,” he said. We sat in silence for a couple seconds. Then it happened.

“How’d you end up here?”

I shouldn’t have done it. It was rude and misguided; this guy sleeps on a cot at night, and I had the audacity to ask him how it happened.

Eartle laughed. “Choices, Andrew — it’s all about choices.”

And then he went on and on about his life. He had served during the Vietnam War. According to him, a bullet had been lodged in his brain for some time; it was out now. He played baseball during the war on a traveling team. They went around the States recruiting soldiers. I just sat and listened.

He had been to a lot of hospitals. A lot. They all had cute nurses, though. Eartle was an expert in cute nurses. He had a million different jokes, and they were all funny. We laughed it up, Eartle and I. I learned he was Native American, and he told me stories about festivals he’d been to in Baltimore’s Patterson Park. Eartle was starting to feel like a second uncle to me. Oftentimes I’d forget that I had to get up and leave at 7.

Tuesday night became the best night of the week. When work ended at 5, I was busy helping to get stuff ready for my weekly trip to People Park. I raced down I-83. After my job for the night was finished, I sauntered over to my seat on Eartle’s cot. We talked baseball. We talked about journalism and newspapers. Actually, Eartle did most of the talking, always pausing every ten minutes or so to see if I minded. I never did. I just sat there and listened, and baked in Baltimore’s summer sun.

I laughed to myself later on. In Baltimore, I was about two hours from my life in Pennsylvania. In a way, then, I too was homeless. But Tuesday nights were different. With Eartle, I had one good hour every week where I could just forget the world and get wrapped up in conversation about anything. I forgot that Eartle was homeless. Instead, I remembered that I had a buddy, a friend — a semblance of home.

~Andrew Zaleski

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