Homelessness

Burnout: The Catholic Worker’s Reality in 3 Microstories

She stumbled across the room, her hang-dog eyes swollen from heavy drinking the night before or, hell, that day for that matter.

“Hey,” she slurred, the liquor rolling off her in waves so pungent I could name the brand of whiskey she’d been drinking. I raised my eyebrows in a question.

“You know, you’re getting real fat around the neck,” she grinned crookedly.

“Are you kidding me?” I instantly flared.

“Didn’t want to hear that did ya?” she cackled, walking off as I slammed the kitchen door in her face.

“What’s wrong?” a seasoned Worker asked.

“Regina. She just said I was getting fat around the face. Like, really?!”

“Ah, don’t worry about it. She told me to go suck a dick last week.”

***

“EXCUSE ME!”

When I say she screamed this directly into my ear, I mean that she leaned down from her considerable six foot height to be at the same level as my ear. Then screamed right into my ear hole.

“What. The. FUCK?” I pronounced through gritted teeth and ringing ear. It took me every ounce of willpower not to scream back at her.

“If your racist ass would give me a lunch ticket, then I wouldn’t have to scream at you.”

“Racist. Really?” I felt my blood pressure spiking to dangerous levels, causing me to shake in anger. I reminded myself several times that I didn’t believe in violence.

“I see you handing lunch tickets out to all the brothers, but what about me?” she spat.

“You wanna explain to me how I can be racist when my WHITE ass is handing out lunch tickets to BLACK guys? Don’t you think that if i was racist I’d be handing them out to the white guys first?”

“Then why didn’t you hand one to me?” she began back peddling.

“Two reasons. One, you were BEHIND ME, and since I don’t have eyes in the back of my skull I couldn’t see you. Secondly, you’re a bitch.

***

“I’m calling Channel 10! This is bullshit!”

It was 8:30 in the morning. We had just opened the doors to the shelter and already Enoch, a six foot tall gangling elderly black man, was standing in the middle of the TV bellowing so hard that the veins in his neck protruded.

“What’s he pissed about?” Sue, a long time volunteer, asked.

“Nobody’s willing to drive him across town to get his prescriptions.”

“We just opened. Can’t he just wai-” she was interrupted.

“Ya’ll are a bunch of motherfuckers! Don’t wanna help NOBODY. I come her all the time, and none of you help SHIT!”

“I just wanna cup of coffee…is that too much to ask?”

****

It’s not uncommon to hear people talk about being burnt out; service workers, college students and, yes, Catholic Workers, too.  Rarely, however (and I can only speak for myself) is that feeling of burn out coupled with feelings of guilt – guilt that you can’t muster up enough compassion to drive a guest to pick up his prescriptions, guilt that you simply don’t have the resources to get everyone what they need, guilt that you just snapped at a homeless man for no reason other than him being a little too picky about the texture of his mashed potatoes that day. Worst of all is the guilt felt when you begin to consider leaving the House and the people that you’ve come to love over the course of time.

It’s this guilt (not of leaving the House) that’s prevented me from writing about a lot of the things that Catholic Workers experience during our long days and nights in the shelter. Nobody wants to write about the shit that irritates us because we all feel a hot, bubbling shame deep in our guts for being pissed off at people who are simply asking for help. There is no doubt that being a Catholic Worker is the richest, most rewarding experience of my life – but there is a reality to it that simply isn’t talked about. I guess no one wants to be thought of as the jerk who screamed at the amputee vet.

In the end, I hope these stories amused you as well as gave you a peek into the life of a Catholic Worker.

~Peace~

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