Toni strutted into the children’s area of The Gathering Place with her shiny little baby girl and a presence that demands attention. I took stock of her in the three seconds it took her to close the gap between us. Toni was tall and wide, a undulating fountain of weave spilling out of a Vaseline slicked ponytail. Becca, the baby girl, was plunked in a tiny stroller with sparkly pink shoes, bedazzled and embroidered jeans with an elastic waste band, and a shiny purple track jacket to match her hair bow. Her cheeks protruded endlessly, begging to be pinched. For coming straight from a night in a shelter, this woman knew how to make her family look put together. “You got some diapers for my little mammi?” she barked, sizing me up. I always wondered how people knew immediately that I was an employee and not a client. My eventual friendship with Toni helped me to understand.
Toni would bring her little Becca into The Gathering Place almost every day during the first part of my year as a volunteer. It was a safe place to play, and we offered clothes, diapers and meals. We would sit on primary color plastic stools, low enough to the ground for Becca to use our knees as leverage. Toni told hilarious stories with overflowing gregarious energy. We would laugh until we cried. Over the weeks, she invited me into her world, where I had privileged access to the unwritten rules of the working poor.
One day, while the moms and kids were getting ready to get sent up to lunch, I brought a bagel out of the office. Once a week, my volunteer house would get a garbage bag full of bagels from Einstein’s that would be thrown out otherwise. We spent the rest of the week making bagel pizzas, bagel sandwiches, bagel chips and bagel croutons to try to finish them before mold took over. Toni looked at my bagel in disgust, clicked her tongue and said, “Shelter food ain’t good enough for you? Gotta bring your own food free of germs from the poor people?” Point taken. I made an effort to go eat the food, high in preservatives, calories, sodium and fat with the ladies who did not have the luxury of choice.
Toni invited me to Becca’s first birthday party at Chuck E Cheese’s. I went because I had started to consider her a friend, yet part of me felt like I was in the middle of a social experiment. The others at the party met me with skepticism and weak smiles. I was dressed wrong, I talked wrong, I held my posture all wrong. My diction, timing and subject matter felt foreign. I listened silently and felt small. As a volunteer, I only made $75 a month, yet Toni seemed disappointed as she made fun of the small gift I brought in a paper bag with a bow. Maybe that is why I was invited. I did not seem to be adding anything of value to them. When the bill came, Toni and her friend caused such a ruckus asking to speak to managers belligerently and arguing until the staff relented and they paid what they seemed to deem appropriate. I left, overwhelmed and uncomfortable.
A few weeks later, Toni asked me for a ride to the train station. I picked her up at a hotel that gave out vouchers when the shelters were full. She climbed in my two door, bright teal Chevy and sized it up with pursed lips. A few stop lights down the strip later, she inquired, “You got two parents?”
“They still together?”
“Yep.” I did not think much about the questions until I looked over at her and saw tears streaming silently down her huge cheeks. “Why are you crying?”
“It’s just that you look like someone who come from two people who love you,” she wiped her tears with her striped press-on nails. “I ain’t known my dad and my mom said I was a waste of a good fuck. I got no family. Just me and Becca now.” I drove on quietly. Her story was impeccably true. I knew my life was not that different than Toni’s life, but we lived in different worlds. I had two parents who loved me. I did not have to sleep on the floor of shelters. I had an aristocratic posture. That is how she knew, that day in the fall, that I was an employee. I exude an energy of the aristocracy. When we got to the train station, a staged moment of crisis ensued. Toni was $50 short for her fare. There was a long, windy story like there always is. It was not her fault because it never was. I knew I was not supposed to give a client money. I sensed somewhere deep inside that I was being set up.
“I don’t have any cash Toni,” I said after she worked up the nerve to ask me for the fare. I did not have cash, but that did not mean that I didn’t have any money. This is the thing that always gets me. It’s simple math. I know I have money that I did not earn. I know that she has poverty that she did not earn. I have money and she does not. She asks for some. I don’t know how to not give it. “I have a check. Hang on.” I wrote Toni a check for $50, and she got on the train. On the drive back to my volunteer house, I sensed that something had shifted in our relationship for good.
A few weeks later, Toni came in to The Gathering Place with Becca in a very sour mood. Something was up. I was in the office, frantically trying to wrap presents that the shelter gave out for birthdays monthly. She looked at me with sad eyes and gave me a slip of paper. I said, “Thanks,” in my busy and important voice, put it down without looking at it and kept wrapping. I had work to do. Short of an hour later, she poked her head back in and stared at me. I smiled, and kept wrapping. She turned and stormed off. Once I finished my task, just in time for the birthday party, I picked up the note from Toni. She was asking me for $20. Without realizing it, I had answered her request for money with silence.
I talked to my boss about Toni. I admitted to giving her money, and told her about the increased requests. I was still struggling with the simple math. It felt like I was being objectified, but I felt like I deserved it. “You can’t do it. You just can’t. That being said, we have all done it before. There is always a woman we care about and want to help. It’s human. Just don’t make a habit of it,” my boss encouraged her little bleeding heart volunteer.
Toni and Becca continued to receive services from The Gathering Place. There were moments that felt like days in the fall, full of feminine stories and guttural laughter. She never asked me for money again. One day, she walked in with contagious joy, with two big plastic bags hung on the handle of Becca’s stroller. “Sit down ladies. I brought lunch.” My boss and I tentatively flipped over two little stools as Toni spread out chips, sandwiches and sodas from a near by gas station. “You ladies give me stuff all the time. Today, I am buying you lunch.” I smiled with my whole being. I hated gas station food, but that day, it tasted pretty sweet.
Nine years after my volunteer year was over, I got an email in my work account from Toni. She had googled me and tracked me down. We shot emails back and forth for a few days. She sent me pictures of her growing girl. I desperately wanted to know what Becca was like and how Toni was getting along. I once again got excited that maybe I could be friends with someone in a different class, who lived by different rules. It was a theory I deeply believed in. I wanted to be the one to live out the vision of friendship that breaks down boundaries. But it was not to be. Less than a week after the first email, Toni was sending me messages about the fact that I had not called. I was working seventy hours a week as a teacher, writer and coach. Again, I was busy and important. I came home exhausted, giving what extra energy I had to my patient spouse. I had gotten better at boundaries. “I promise I will call this weekend.” And I meant it. Toni wrote, “You are never going to call. It’s ok. Becca is just walking around clutching your home made card you gave her at Chuck E Cheese’s. She has been asking for stories about you. I will just tell her you don’t care about us.”
The message made me nauseated. I simply replied, “That is cruel, manipulative and unfair.” I have not heard from her since. It took me three months to erase her number from my phone, to let go, to decide not to nurture the hurt that is not mine. Or is it mine? I can’t help wondering, is it Toni who is cruel, manipulative and unfair, or is it the life that was handed to her and not me? It is the simple math that keeps me up at night.