November 18th, 2008, by Mike O’Malley
The Join staff, just like any community, can be grouped along many different fault lines: meat-eaters and vegetarians; right-handed folks and lefty southpaws; coffee drinkers and tea sippers; loyal true-blue Democrats and ornery Nader-supporters; those who appreciate the work of Bruce Springsteen and those who feel that Bon Jovi is actually the best thing to ever come out of Jersey. To this list must be added: those who love meetings and those that tolerate them. I tend to fall into the latter of these categories, but, since I am lucky enough to work with some of the coolest, most extraordinary and talented people on the face of the earth, I don’t mind spending an hour every Tuesday morning in staff meeting. Sometimes we pick up some donuts to make the meetings more palatable—nothing like fried dough to take the edge off the morning. The donuts are noticeably lacking at this morning’s meeting, but there is a new staff member—her name’s MC, she’s a JV, and she’s AOK by me. We spend the hour discussing some of the pressing issues facing our agency right now and sharing stories with each other. Since I spend a great deal of time working on my own, I really appreciate this chance to check in with my co-workers and bask in the warmth of their company and their wit.
When the meeting adjourns, I head out in Join’s furniture-moving vehicle, a giant white box truck that is the vehicular equivalent of Moby Dick. Today, I am bringing furniture to two people who Join helped move off the streets and into apartments. I am assisted in my efforts by Amit, a generous friend with a strong back and a work schedule that is flexible enough to allow him to volunteer a few hours for Join every once in a while. Together, we drive to the Oregon Community Warehouse and sift through their aisles and aisles of donated furniture and household items, the blessed detritus of our society (“We are totally dependent on America’s habit of upgrading its home furnishings,” one Warehouse employee reflects). Amit and I cram the great white whale with some nice pieces of furniture and head first to Sally’s apartment.
I met Sally in 2001, camping near a freeway off-ramp in the Hollywood district with her longtime boyfriend, Ted. We’ve stayed in close contact over these past seven years as she struggled to survive on the streets while battling her addiction, eventually kicking heroin a couple of years ago with the help of the methadone program. It was a happy, joyous day last April when Sally finally moved off the streets and into her own one bedroom apartment, a beautiful place in Southeast Portland. I’m thinking about that April day as Amit and I pull up to her place and unload the furniture. Sally is there waiting for us and is extremely grateful for the recliner and queen-sized mattress, though I catch the emotional exhaustion in her voice. Last week, Sally came home to find Ted lying dead on her mattress in a pool of blood and bile, a victim of liver failure. On the same day, Sally was informed that her best friend in Portland had also died. Amit and I spend a while hanging out with Sally in her apartment and offer what emotional support we can, but this is a woman who has experienced the kind of bad day that few of us can imagine. Considering the hard rain of events that this last week has brought her, though, she actually seems like she is doing fairly well. “I just have to keep moving forward,” she says. “It’s what I’ve always done.” I leave the apartment in awe at the strength and resilience of her spirit, with a promise to visit her again soon.
Our second furniture delivery is also in Southeast Portland, just down the road from Sally. Roger is another long time camper, someone that I have known since 2000. He moved off the streets a few days ago and has been sleeping on the floor of his empty apartment in a nest of gray disaster blankets ever since. Amit and I bring him a veritable IKEA’s worth of household furnishings: bed, couch, coffee table, end tables, lamps, armchair, artwork, and various kitchen sundries. I can tell that Roger is very pleased with all that we have brought him, though he is not one to gush. To be blunt, he is a cranky, cantankerous, crotchety old-timer, but I am actually very, very fond of this weathered survivor and extremely happy to seem him safely inside before the winter cold descends on Portland. As we sit and chat in Roger’s now furnished apartment, the subject of a telephone comes up. “I don’t want one,” Roger says emphatically. ” People don’t want to talk to me, and I don’t want to talk to them!” Present company excluded, he assures me. I thank him for that honor and tell him that I’ll come back and visit soon. Amit and I return to the box truck and head back to Join.