Walking into the store to begin my Friday afternoon shift, a large roller-wheel suitcase immediately caught my eye. Placed opposite my cashiering station, it was marked with a tag bearing the number 023. “Mary (not her actual name) insisted that everything she brought in have a numbered tag,” fellow cashier Fran indicated. “So I invented a number.”
As outside temperatures soared over one hundred degrees, customers found it easy to linger in the air-conditioned coolness of St. Vincent DePaul Thrift Store. It was therefore not surprising that Mary, a tall, very thin woman in her late sixties, remained about the store for most of the afternoon. At one point she came by to ask where she could catch the number forty bus.
“Near Jack-In-The-Box. ” I replied. I found it difficult to imagine this frail woman rolling her heavy suitcase three blocks under the blazing sun to the shade-less bus stop.
The world comes to shop at St. Vincent’s. It is not uncommon to serve customers from Northern California, Central Oregon, the Coast. Customers like the selection and variety of carefully presented items. Most all of our customers have money, a few do not. The latter shop with “vouchers”, clothing certificates valid for twelve months, distributed by our counseling services adjacent to the dining room in which free lunches are served. The poorest of-these poor are homeless. Worst of all are those with psychological issues. Mary, who frequently mumbled to herself, was in the latter group: a lone individual with almost no options and a string of hard-luck stories. “A hundred dollars that was supposed to come to come in through Wells Fargo,” she told me, “but when I went to get my I.D. papers, I found that someone had stolen them.” Such stories are common.
For some, St. Vincent’s Thrift Store provides a place of normalcy in their otherwise chaotic lives. That afternoon we played easy-listening radio, eventually switching to Montovani’s Romantic Melodies. Blending with the mellow mood, a cashier’s voice would periodically be heard on the speaker system, thanking our customers for their “generosity to the poor and needy” and announcing the final day of a furniture sale. We kept an eye on the suitcase, but when no one had seen Mary for over an hour, cashier Fran went onto the floor of the large facility to look for her, while I announced Mary’s name on the PA system. “She is still shopping,” Fran returned to report.
Cashiers at St Vincent’s Thrift Store seldom have time to speak with one another. But there were lulls that day, and the three cashiers, Anita, Fran and I chatted about the neediest poor. “Some of these people should not be out on the street; they need psychiatric care,” Anita noted. They also need protection. In recent days, someone had seen a middle aged man in the parking lot strike a woman partner full in the face, because she was walking too slowly. Mary had all these problems. “I called the night watch at Medford Police to complain that my boyfriend was threatening me,” Mary confided to me at one point. “They listened to a recording on my cell phone and called me back at 3 AM this morning to say that the message did not suggest violence. “I know him: it was a threat.” In the background, the music played “Love Letters in the Sand.”
The suitcase sat there, and the peculiar mélange of store life went on. I arranged for a dining table furniture pickup. I talked to a young man about a belt whose design he felt represented a scene from Milton’s Paradise Lost. On the floor, a few volunteers in blue vests, restocked and tidied shelves, while in the cavernous back room others sorted newly arrived items. I expressed regrets to someone who could not find a parakeet cage.
I can imagine a universe where the shelves of everyone’s life are tidy and no one lives from a suitcase. But real life is not tidy. The number of those who have no shelves on which to display their keepsakes and no closets in which to hang their clothes seems to grow each year, as do their troubles. For some, their entire past and future is stuffed into a single suitcase.
Late in the day, I looked up and the suitcase was gone. Mary had spoken of catching the 3:40 pm bus, but was that the bus driver might leave her on the sidewalk if she could not drag it onto the bus quickly enough.
The homeless live existences of struggle that we do our best to ignore. Fellow cashier Anita reported that the police had done one of their periodic patrols in the bushes along the Bear Creek Bike Way, a favorite camping area for the homeless. They had removed an enormous amount of items, some abandoned, some in use. We try to shut out such images. “Almost without being aware of it,” Pope Francis warns us, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, “weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own.”
At four o’clock, the dozens of volunteers in telltale blue vests who have been stocking the shelves throughout the day or working out of sight in the sorting bay ceased their work and the store closed. About thirty minutes later as I walked across the empty parking lot to my car, I heard Mary call out to me. She had not left St. Vincent’s after all, but was sitting in the shade of the store’s entranceway with articles from her suitcase spread out on the cement pavement. “I do not know what to do,” she exclaimed. “My cell phone is almost dead. I called the man who was assigned to provide me counseling services, and he won’t pick up! I do not know what to do!” For the poor it is always afterhours on Friday afternoon when no one answers the phone.
I told her to gather up her things, and said that I would drive her to the bus stop. It took two of us to heft her suitcase into the back seat of the car. Once she was seated, and with the air conditioning at full blast, I asked her where she lived. “Nowhere,” she said. “I was going to the Gospel Mission on West Jackson.” I told her I would take her there. “The Gospel Mission is for men,” she added, “but they let me have supper, and I can stay there till nine pm.” I did not inquire what happened after that.
As I drove south on Highway 99 downtown Medford, I spoke with Mary and I pondered. Jesus tells us that his heavenly father looks after even the lilies of the field. But even with God’s love, how the homeless carry their burdens is a mystery. The pittance of good that we do is never enough.
About 5 pm we arrived at the Gospel Mission, a well-maintained structure with attractive plantings in a run down industrial zone on the west side of the tracks. A dozen men had gathered and were quietly talking under an outdoor shade gazebo. I drove up to the office entrance and helped Mary move her belongs to the sidewalk. Grabbing her backpack she walked into the building, and numbed by the experience, I drove away. Sitting on the sidewalk awaiting Mary’s return was her immensely heavy suitcase.