Friday, May 27, 2011

Another interesting day at the Clothing Room

When I get to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul Clothing Room on Thursday mornings, I always wonder what's in store. When I opened the door yesterday, not a soul was in sight. But by morning's end, I had met more than the usual share of interesting people.

First, Patrick and Gene came in. They wanted the usual, socks and underwear. They also asked for candles, so I went and found five of the "emergency" type that we keep in our cars in Canadian winters (in case we get stranded on a highway somewhere -- candles throw a lot of heat). When I handed them over to Gene, I asked what he was going to do with them. "See," he said, "I'm gonna see in the dark. The power at our apartment got cut off." He also took a small Canada flag, so he could show his pride when the Vancouver Canucks win the Stanley Cup in hockey. "Go, Canucks!" he and Patrick cheered as they left.

While I was looking for Patrick's candles, Jamaal wandered in the wrong door of the building. One of my co-workers in the sorting area pointed at him and mouthed, "he shouldn't be in here," so I steered Jamaal to the clothing room. Turned out Jamaal couldn't speak English. He pulled some identification out of his wallet and handed it to me, then pulled out his cell phone and shouted into it for a few moments. I wrote his information on a card, gave back his I.D., and went back to sorting clothes until Jamaal handed me his cell. A deep voice on the other end laughed and said, "You've met my friend Jamaal. He doesn't speak English, but he needs clothes. Is it okay for him to shop today?" When I said yes, the man thanked me and hung up. Jamaal was already shopping somewhere, unconcerned about his phone, which I returned to him.

Jamaal shopped the entire morning, and when I signalled to him that it was time to go by pointing at my watch, he came and kissed my hand, then gestured to me, and to heaven, which I think meant he was thanking Allah. Then he started speaking to me in Arabic, I suspect, but I couldn't understand what he was asking me. So finally he whipped out his cell phone again, yelled into it for a few moments, then handed it to me. The same deep voice as before laughed and said, "Jamaal wants to know if you've ever been to Syria or Iran." I laughed too, because Jamaal had gone back to shopping and didn't seem the least bit interested in the answer to his question. As he left, I learned that he knows two English words: Thank you.

I didn't have as much difficulty communicating with a couple from Slave Lake. Their neighbourhood was levelled by the fire that burned about a third of the town on May15th. They escaped with the clothes on their back. The fellow was telling me that he'd stayed behind to help fight the fire, and when he finished his shift, he was allowed to see what had happened in his neighbourhood. He missed his own driveway because all his usual landmarks were gone. And so is his wedding band, he told me ruefully. He and his wife volunteered with SSVP in the past, and looked us up so that they'd have a bit more than just the clothes on their backs.

People at the Clothing Room always remind me how important it is to care about each other, for caring's sake, and because you never know when it might be your turn to be down on your luck.

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