A tough but rewarding experience

Grace Lee ‘03
Rosie’s Place

When I first rang the doorbell at Rosie’s Place on the last Monday morning in June, I didn’t know what to expect. The forty-five minute walk from my apartment in the Kenmore-Fenway neighborhood to Boston’s South End had taken me through some pretty incongruous locales. Streets with meticulously-restored brownstones subdivided into expensive condos, charming neighborhood bistros, and tiny stores with overpriced merchandise were interspersed with grubby-looking neighborhoods replete with grimy sidewalks, rusty cars, long-shuttered shops, extravagant graffiti art, and dusty, dirty railroad tracks. The mulched and landscaped lawns of Rosie’s Place and neat wrought iron fence seemed just as equally out of place on its block, especially when I turned to see ‘Liquor-Land’, the large warehouse-sized liquor store across the street.

Vilma, one of the front desk receptionists, opened the door for me, smiling warmly. I smiled back at her nervously and stepped through the double doors. I stood uncertainly in the middle of the lobby and looked around. There were maybe ten or fifteen women (or ‘guests’, as I later discovered was the preferred term) sitting in the easy chairs, clustered around the front desk, making their way to the locker and laundry rooms, waiting for their turn with the payphone, or just standing in easy conversation with one another and various Rosie’s staff members. I felt very out-of-place. Wanting to stay unnoticed, I sat down when one of the chairs became available and then immediately regretted it. Was I supposed to be sitting there? I picked up a newspaper and tried to look inconspicuous for the ten minutes that remained before my 9:30 appointment. All sorts of questions ran through my mind. What was I going to be doing for the rest of the summer? Would I make it through the next ten weeks? Would these ladies accept me? Most importantly, why was I doing this?

That first week was the worst. Generally speaking, the end of the month is the most stressful time for the guests and the staff, because money is short, or altogether gone. The summer season brings additional challenges. Children are on vacation and therefore can’t use the reduced price meal programs at their schools, and the hot weather also makes everyone’s tempers shorter. For the ladies, many of who do not work, the last week is all about trying to keep things together until their checks (pay checks, welfare, Social Security, disability) come on the first of the month. As the food program intern, I saw the majority of the guests, behaving or not behaving, and eventually learned how to deal with them, call their bluffs, or find them appropriate assistance.

Of course, I didn’t know any of this at first. I ran afoul of a few ladies that first week, doing nothing more threatening than offering them bread while I was manning the soup line. One of them reduced me to tears, calling me a horrible and worthless person; since I didn’t have a college degree and she did, how could I presume to lecture her on nutrition? (I had asked her if she would like some bread, and she asked me to tell her why it was nutritious. She then proceeded to harangue me for a good ten minutes and then returned to follow it up with added jabs at my personal character.) This lady, Joanna, was a very mentally unstable guest with a charming Australian accent; the next time I saw her, she was the picture of congeniality. Depending on her mood, she would either regale the volunteers with entertaining stories or drive them away with harsh words and invective.
I spent the next few weeks trying to figure out where I stood with the rest of the staff members and with the guests, most of whom I found pretty intimidating at the time. I did a lot of back-kitchen work without much interaction with the guests, and many of the staff, kitchen or otherwise, gave me pep talks that were meant to be inspiring and comforting (although they helped, such frequent affirmations made me feel weak and in need of constant emotional support). I envisioned myself up to my arms in suds behind the dishwasher or swathed in large amounts of insulating fabric and working the ovens, for the rest of the summer.

Obviously, this would not have been a productive use of my ten weeks in Boston, nor would it be a worthwhile expenditure of my DPCS funds. It would have been a depressing and monotonous summer full of stacking plates, scrubbing pots, and hiding behind dishrags and expansive kitchen counters. Additionally, I would also have to suffer the embarrassment of going home and listening to my parents tell me that they were right; they doubted from the outset that I could handle the job. So, about three weeks in, with the rest of the kitchen staff watching me carefully, I took the plunge and started talking to the guests again.

The best and most low-key way to meet the guests is to go around the dining room with a cart and collect dirty, used plates and bowls during the meal. The guests are noticeably nicer and more relaxed after being served their plates of lunch or dinner, and it’s much easier to strike up a conversation at that point than during the opening chaos. When the doors to the dining room first open, the crowd of waiting women rushes in, lines up for soup and bread, and peruses the counter drawers manned by volunteers that contain decaf coffee, sugar, tea, condoms, feminine hygiene products, and any travel-sized toiletries that might have been donated. As the ladies push and shove to get handfuls of plasticware and napkins and carry off as many mugs of juice and coffee as they can from the beverage dispensers, they are often in foul moods and are impatient with each other, the volunteers, and the staff. Those guests who stop to say hi and chat in line are often given glares by the rest of the women, and the muttering gets louder, and the pushing a little more insistent. At first I thought the majority of them were rude and ungrateful. But for women that have had to fight for basic necessities for most of their lives, aggressive behavior is second-nature.

The shock and discomfort that some of the volunteers initially register is also complicated by the socio-economic gap that exists between the guests and the volunteers. Anyone that has the financial security and resources necessary to donate time and money to a homeless shelter is automatically better off than those that he or she hopes to serve. The guests know this and use it to their fullest advantage. It’s hard to walk the very fine line between being in control and being condescending, especially when the ladies are very observant and often ask an unwitting new volunteer for something they can’t—or shouldn’t—have.

As I slowly became a familiar face behind the counters or while making my way between the tables in the dining room, I liked to think that the women I served started to accept me and become accustomed to my presence. I could comment on Sasha’s new braids, poke fun at Dana’s sparkly pink cowboy hat, compliment Margaret on her new teddy bear, or play with Breanne and Faith as their mothers sat and ate, without feeling uncomfortable or out of place. I felt at home with the other members of the kitchen staff and didn’t feel the need to do everything on my own. I learned to sit back and relax, albeit with a watchful eye.

It’s surprising how much one can learn without even trying. I learned that appearances can be deceiving. Dana, the somewhat menacing, transgendered woman with the rough voice, tangled wig, and aforementioned cowboy hat, was a sweetheart, loved kids, and would somehow always have a stuffed animal or toy to show the younger children. (The other ladies, not as understanding of her needs, would make comments about the fact that she didn’t really need those maxi pads, or the pink nail polish.) Chris, the diminuitive and roly-poly manager with cherubic curls and the high falsetto of a 10-year-old, ruled over the dining room as a seasoned veteran, never having to raise her voice. Even the highly underappreciated staff, during a serious (and still on-going) crisis of personalities, presented a false face to volunteers and guests alike—the possibility of one or more resignations wasn’t enough to trump the importance of a united front.

I also learned that life is very difficult. That may sound trite, but as an upper-middle-class college student with a stable family background, I have never had to weather economic or severe emotional conflict. So, seeing some of the incidents that occurred in the dining room was really a new and shocking experience for me. Jo, for example, was a tall, rather large lady who didn’t say much. She definitely looked like the kind of person who could take care of herself…until the day she came in with a black eye and broken jaw. It turns out that an argument with her boyfriend had developed into an altercation, and she was nursing broken ribs as well, while her boyfriend was in jail. Social Services was in the process of relocating her to a different apartment in a different neighborhood, and this was the first time she had ventured out of her apartment in two weeks to see her friends at Rosie’s.

There were also various women who would come in, obviously high and/or drunk. Sally was a 50-ish, petite woman with a horrible mouth and attitude to match—she dealt drugs on the side to support her own habit (but had not yet been caught in the act at Rosie’s), and her hands trembled so badly that she spilled anything and everything that she attempted to carry to her table. First she would mouth off viciously if not given her 5-10 packets of sugar (there was a limit of 4), and then apologize profusely when someone had to mop up the trail of coffee that led from the counter to her seat. Tanya, on the other hand, always nicely dressed, would drop entire bowls of soup and plates of food because she had a tendency to fall asleep at the ice machine or at her table, pushing whatever happened to be on it to the floor. She supported her habit with prostitution and would often come in, wiping away tears after a ‘discussion’ with her pimp. One Sunday, two senior-age women (one with a cane and a young grandson in tow) got into a fight over seating arrangements and a misinterpreted comment and had to be taken away by the police and ambulances.

I also regret what happened to Andrew, a 12-year-old boy with a lilting voice and heavy gold chains around his neck who would fetch toiletries and perform translations for his mother. He participated in many of the activities during “Fun in the Sun” week (events planned that allowed mothers and their children to spend time together on field-trip-style outings free of cost); he especially enjoyed performing cannonballs and splashing everyone during our trip to a community swimming pool. All-in-all, he was a well-behaved kid who innocently wore an excess of cologne and never caused any trouble…that is, until vocal complaints from a few ladies forced the Rosie’s staff to enforce the rule forbidding males 12 and over from entering as guests. The mission statement of Rosie’s Place specifically reads that it is a place of refuge and comfort where poor and homeless women can find support and opportunities for bettering their lives. The presence of men becomes problematic since many of the ladies have had bad, or even traumatic, experiences with males. So now I wonder where Andrew is, and his mother, because she stopped showing up, too.

Even in strained circumstances, these ladies’ lives went on. One of my favorite guests, Molly, was an upstairs guest (she had one of the twenty beds available in the emergency overnight housing program on the second and third floors) who always had a wink and a hug for me. She also had an impressive collection of medical problems that she tried to end by downing a bottle of Valium after an appointment at the Boston Medical Center (the large hospital complex a block from Rosie’s and next door to the converted factory building that houses the city-run shelter known as Intake). In doing so, she lost her bed upstairs and ended up at Sancta Maria, another women’s shelter. However, she still tried to carry through the meatloaf dinner that had been in the works for the women upstairs. Chris refused, since she was no longer living at Rosie’s. Last that I heard from her, she was talking to her advocate once again and had been promised the next empty bed upstairs.

Molly and her friends, mostly longtime upstairs guests, would sit in the far left corner of the smoking-friendly half of the dining room and joke good-naturedly about being the last people served (we usually started at the other end of the room, and zigzagged between the tables). Next to them was Dara’s table. Now she was a character. Dara was a large and incredibly loud lady with short, brassy hair and a tongue ring that she loved displaying to passersby; it complimented the large gold stud she wore in her upper lip. She liked to heckle the staff members for fun and had a penchant for collecting the extra piles of napkins that were left on tables. She apparently took them home and ‘recycled’—for personal use or the good of the environment, she never specified.

One of Dara’s friends, Kate, was a different story. She dabbled in being a low-level drug runner, and after she broke up with her boyfriend (a dealer), she was caught doing one of her self-proclaimed last runs. A custody battle for their baby girl then ensued, which Kate lost to her boyfriend. While it can be said that she wasn’t the best role model, I cannot see how being raised by someone more entrenched in the drug subculture is better. This was a woman who was never really pleasant to be around, yet, on my last day, she and Dara came up to me, wished me luck at ‘Dart-Mouth’ (accompanied by much eye-rolling), and told me not to ever let the world get me down.

I also got to know Ana, a lovely and soft-spoken woman who had five beautiful, amazingly well-behaved daughters all under the age of ten. She and her children lived in a family shelter somewhere else in the city, and when they came, her older daughters always said please and thank you and rushed to help their mother with the baby and the two-year-old. She is starting as a vocal student at the Berklee College of Music as soon as she can find childcare arrangements for her younger daughters who are not in school. On my last day, she stopped me as I walked by her table, and she wished me well in life, for I had ‘a beautiful soul’ and had done so much good at Rosie’s. It is encounters like this that make me want to cry…for here was a woman who couldn’t be more than thirty, who, as a single mother, had already gone through so much (the Boston city social services that are in charge of family housing are notoriously harsh and unsympathetic; they have to weed out as many applicants as they can because of tight budgets) and was still able to smile every day. Another one of my favorite guests, Fiona, embarrassed me in front of the entire dining room on the last day, by calling me up and presenting me with a homemade card that had been passed around the dining room.

One of the most important lessons that I learned this summer is that these women, however hard their lives have been, wherever they are and wherever they are going, have so much to offer to me, the staff, the community, to society as a whole. And, I admire those who are able to give their time and energy to help those in need. The staffers at Rosie’s are unsung heroes who perform a necessary service that many others are loath to take on, whether for reasons of financial or emotional stability. While volunteers may come and go, the staff members have made public service their profession. In such a stress-filled environment, staff burnout and subsequent turnover is high; the ‘veterans’ at Rosie’s are those with two or three years under their belts. My DPCS mentor, for example, is no longer directly involved with Rosie’s at all. She spent 10 years volunteering in the kitchen and on the Board of Directors, and decided to take a much-needed break from active involvement a few years ago. It was as hard of a decision for her as it was for me to leave on my last Friday; I highly respect anyone who has made the choice to work at Rosie’s Place, and will wear my Rosie’s hat with pride.