She walked in right at noon—the moment the doors opened—and it was clearly her first time at The Bridge, a day shelter for people who are homeless.
“Where do I sit?” she asked.
“Anywhere you’d like,” I responded with a smile.
Moments later, a security guard corrected her/me.
“Hey, those tables aren’t open,” he barked. “You need to sit up here.”
She shrugged and found a seat at the front of the room, near the serving line.
“My bad,” I said.
The guard didn’t care whose bad it was.
“What time is lunch served?” she asked, hope in her eyes.
I delivered the bad news:
Her shoulders sank. She was clearly hungry. Hungry, hungry.
Several minutes passed. I made eye contact with her, and she asked for the time.
“12:11,” I responded.
She sank lower in her chair and wrapped her arms around her mid-section.
“Hey, do you want to play cards or something to pass the time?” I asked.
She hesitated, but then said, a bit shyly, “All right. Sure.”
I pulled the cards from my bag.
“Do they have brushes here?” she asked as I sat across from her. “Like to brush your hair?”
(Side note: This was the second hair-related question I’d had that morning. The first was a woman on a desperate search for a pair of scissors so she could cut out her tangles. I could probably round up six brushes at my home. Some people have none.)
“Ummm, I don’t know if they have brushes.”
“But your hair is so short! You brush it anyway?”
Her hair wasn’t just short. It was buzzed.
She ran her hand across her head.
“Well, yeah,” she responded (with a hint of “duh”).
A nine-year-old who’d come along to serve sat down between the two of us. We did introductions, and after I was certain another guest at the same table didn’t want to play, we dove into a game of War.
We were having a blast, laughing and complaining about the junk cards being passed around. T–who had seemed so dejected–positively came to life. We’d just had our first actual war (between Kings, which she won) when I felt the security guard behind me.
“You can’t play cards in here,” he growled.
“You can’t play cards in here.”
“But . . . why?” I asked.
The most ridiculous scenarios flashed through my head. Is there some gang association with cards? Is it because we’re playing War? Have they had fights break out over losses?
Nope. Nothing like that.
“Because we’re in a church,” the guard said, his tone condescending.
“But . . . but we’re not playing for money,” I said, my tone bewildered.
“You can’t play cards in here. You’re in a church.”
He walked away. Swaggered a bit, really.
I looked across the table at T–. Her shoulders sank as I collected the cards.
“Well, that’s just stupid,” she muttered.
“Yes. It is,” I responded. “Really stupid. Sorry.”
After lunch, T- approached the table where the chef and I were sitting.
“Thank you so much for lunch. I hadn’t eaten in two days. It was real good. Thank you.”
“Aww, you’re welcome, Boo,” the chef replied. (Everyone is Boo.)
I later learned that the actual reason cards are disallowed in the dining room has to do with a gambling ring they had some time ago. Whatever. I imagine T– would still say, “Well, that’s just stupid.”
I’m glad she had a good meal that day; she was clearly hungry. But she was also clearly starving for something more than food. Maybe something like normalcy. Make something like companionship. Maybe something like being seen as a human being, worthy of attention. Worthy of the exquisitely simple pleasure of playing War before lunch.