A Story That Needs to be Told.
November 28, 2015.
It was the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Many Americans get extended time with family over this long holiday weekend; eating leftovers, watching movies and football games inside tucked away from the cold, maybe bonding with cousins or little nieces and nephews, or spending special time with Grandma or Grandpa. On this Saturday, some were already traveling back to their Monday-Friday lives, maybe on planes or in cars with loved ones.
In Salina, Kansas, it was Laundry Love Saturday at Quick & Clean Laundromat on the West end of town. Thanksgiving brought with it a severe ice storm this year; there were some power outages, many traffic accidents, and wind-chill temperatures that we were not prepared for.
It was a small red car that drove up to the laundromat that afternoon, shortly after I arrived, carefully making my way across the still-frozen sidewalk and parking lot. I was bouncing with excitement at the privilege of spending a few minutes saying hello to my friends; I work a second job on Saturdays, and hadn’t gotten to participate in 4th Saturday Laundry Love in about a year.
Out of the small red car walked two young men, one shorter than the other, both wearing thin hoodies and jeans. I noticed the shorter young man’s shoes first, as I watched him make his way through the icy parking lot. They adequately covered his feet, but didn’t look like something I’d want to wear in snow and ice.
While I was talking to a friend, Debbie came and got me. She had started to offer quarters to the young man, but he didn’t speak English, so she came and got me so I could talk to him in his native Spanish. I explained what Debbie was trying to offer; a few quarters to pay for your load, something we offer to everyone we see in the laundromat today. He gratefully, but hesitantly, accepted, and he and his friend moved their laundry into the more spacious machines so they wouldn’t have to cram it into regular-sized washers. They were washing mostly bedding, their thick, soft blankets that I recognized as being sold in Mexican stores or outdoor markets in the Southern United States. I had the feeling that maybe the two hadn’t been here long.
I began talking to the young man, whose name, I learned, was Carlos. Carlos had been in Salina for three weeks. He moved here from Texas, for work, he told me. “Oh”, I said, “what kind of work?” and he told me, “Restaurant business…I work at Pancho’s.”
I love Pancho’s, so I enthusiastically kept talking to him, and found out that he was working night shift. His friend who was with him turned out to be his cousin, Emmanuel. Emmanuel was working two jobs at fast food places. Emmanuel had been in Salina for about 6 months already, so he knew a bit more about the lay of the land.
“Wow, you moved here during the worst weather,” I told Carlos, “this must be very different for you.” He told me yes, it was, especially because he had to walk to work every night. He and Emmanuel worked opposite and overlapping shifts, and Emmanuel was rarely available to give him rides to work. “Oh my goodness”, I said, “Did you walk to work the other night when the ice was falling?”
“Yes,” he said, “and yesterday I fell twice in the morning while I was walking back home”.
I remembered while I was sitting there talking to him, what it was like my first winter in Kansas. I’m originally from the desert southwest in Arizona, so my heart went out to him because I knew how harsh the change can be.
“Well do you have a coat, are you keeping warm enough?”
He said the hooded sweatshirt on his back was all he had, but he had one other long sleeved shirt on under it.
“What about shoes? Are these the shoes you walk in?”
He nodded yes. I could see the struggle and stress his eyes.
“You’re going to get sick! Are you feeling sick already?”
“It’s starting a little bit…”
I said, “Oh, no. Let me go talk to my friend. We’ll have some clothes and stuff for you.”
So I went to Debbie and I believe my exact words were, “Red alert, red alert….” I told her what I knew (I had already gotten shoe and shirt sized from Carlos).
So next, I found out where they lived, and got Emmanuel’s phone number. We couldn’t stop thinking about these two young men, and I went straight home and threw a pile together of my own stuff out of my house that I thought might be useful to them: jars of peanut butter from my pantry, a couple long-sleeved sweatshirts, a pair of gloves, a face mask. I stopped by K-Mart and bought three bags of ice melt; two for them and one for me.
I met Debbie and her husband at the boys’ apartment later that evening. Debbie’s husband went in with me and Debbie stayed with their baby granddaughter in the car. The apartment was the size of my living room. I couldn’t see the bathroom, but I’m pretty sure there was no kitchen. There was a hotplate on the ground, and a full-sized mattress on the floor.
The coat we brought for Carlos fit well, and he opened his backpack from Debbie: socks, hand warmers for his coat pockets. The pair of running shoes we brought him fit. I explained to him how to use the ice melt; their parking lot at their apartment complex was in as bad shape as I feared. He walked out with us to the car to thank Debbie, and he gave her a hug. We said our goodbyes and got in our cars to leave.
I watched Debbie drive away, and I couldn’t move. I couldn’t think about anything other than how Carlos was sitting by himself in that tiny apartment, with nothing to do, no one to talk to until Emmanuel came home. I thought about how he probably had no idea how to walk in the snow and ice to avoid falling, how he might not think to pack an extra pair of socks in case his feet got wet walking in the snow, about how the ice storm from the other day was literally the first time these boys had experienced this type of weather. I thought about how I was once new to Kansas winters, and how scary and foreign it was.
And I thought about the language barrier on top of all that. Yes, people can learn English if they move here, but that’s not the point. The point is, what must it feel like to be alienated from your family, working a night shift at a fast food place, walking to work in ice and snow, in a new world where you can’t even understand what the person in line in front of you at the grocery store is saying?
So I got back out of my car and knocked on the apartment door again. He answered it still wearing the coat we just gave him. And we walked around the parking lot together and I taught Carlos how to throw down the ice melt. And when I left, I fought back tears and told him, “Stay encouraged, it’s all gonna be okay.”
Part II: Sunday
I had texted Emmanuel the night before when I got back from dropping things off to his cousin. Sunday morning came and I was looking at the forecast, knowing there was more ice and snow coming that week. Through text message, I asked Emmanuel if they had ice scrapers for the car. He told me no, they hadn’t been able to get any yet. How they managed during that ice storm, I don’t know, I told myself.
After church, I was on a mission: find these guys some ice scrapers. Of course, everyone in town was on the same mission for themselves and their families because our recent storm had told us that winter was hitting early. So I had to go three different places before I found any ice scrapers, and of course they were big, fancy, and not the dollar-store kind. I kept telling myself, these guys deserve something that’s going to work well. And I kept thinking, “What else can they do to outsmart the weather?”
I thought of tarps. Tarps, so they can cover the windshield when ice is in the forecast overnight, genius, Gilda! So I picked up three of those: two for them, and one for me. I liked how in shopping for my own winter-prep items, I could make sure someone else was taken care of as well.
I went home and packed up the pile I had thrown together the night before; the sweatshirts, peanut butter, long-sleeved shirts out of my closet, the extra coat I only ever wore when I had to shovel snow. This time when I visited the apartment, both boys were there, and I explained to them how to use the ice scrapers and what I thought the tarps could be helpful for, and how I hoped the sweatshirts could be useful. I also got Emmanuel’s shoe size so we could try to find him a pair of winter shoes, as the running shoes he wore were worn through. Both boys were so thankful, yet still seemed hesitant. But you could feel the trust between us.
I texted Debbie about every detail from that day. She wanted to know more. What did they have? What else did they need? Did I think they could use (item A, B, C)? I tried my best to answer her questions and help brainstorm about how else we could help.
Monday came and went and all I could think about was those two boys. How do people in their situation get help, I asked myself. How do they go to the doctor if they get sick? How do they set up utilities in their apartment? All things I had little control over, yes. I couldn’t sweep in and save these boys from anything, I knew. But the desire was there to just try and make life easier for them.
Part III: Tuesday
On Tuesdays, I usually work at my second job in the evenings. I met Debbie at the Salina Shares building late that afternoon and helped her pull random stuff that we thought the boys could use. We found a little wooden nightstand that had been in our building for too long without finding a home. A couple odd-end pots we thought were good for the hotplate; macaroni and cheese; some fleece sheets for the bed; bars of soap and washcloths; a pair of boots for Emmanuel. We drove it over and left it at their front door, secluded from the rest of the apartment complex by a second door and a little hallway, after texting back and forth with Emmanuel and realizing they weren’t home, but we weren’t going to be able to go back that week.
We got a text from Emmanuel the next day saying they had received everything and that the boots fit, and that they were very thankful. They were so sorry to have bothered us for so much. The thing was, they had never asked us for anything in the first place.
Part IV: Two Weeks Later
On the third Tuesday of December, I texted Emmanuel to invite the boys to Laundry Love at Speedy Wash on Iron Avenue. He texted back, “Thank you…but we’ve actually moved back to Texas..thank you again for everything, we were so lucky to meet you ladies.”
I stared at my phone for a few seconds, re-reading the text. Yes, they really left, my brain registered. Yes, we really spent all that time worrying about them and finding them stuff, and now they’re gone.
I’m not going to lie and say I wasn’t disappointed. But mostly, I wondered, “Was life just too hard here for them? Did they not have enough help? Did they feel totally unconnected, and up the creek without a paddle? How did other people treat them while they were here? What made them decide to leave so quickly?”
And then I realized that none of this mattered. What mattered was that we were obedient to the still, small voice in our heads and hearts that told us, “Clothe your neighbor. Feed your neighbor.” What mattered was that we were willing to connect, willing to put our vulnerability right next to theirs, and step alongside some complete strangers on their journey, trusting that our paths intersected for a reason.
For me, it was life-altering. I had never felt that much of a sense of urgency for complete strangers, never felt so involved in someone’s story. Maybe it was the fact that I could communicate with them and offer that connection. Maybe it was that both of these boys could have been my younger brothers, and I felt a sense of responsibility. Maybe I wanted to experience a little bit of what Debbie did so often, in the earlier days of Salina Shares, when she was getting stopped in her tracks by all these immediate needs, with no plan, no funding, and nothing but the compassion in her heart to guide her decisions.
I’m thankful for that cold November day. It, along with the days that followed, reminded me that I’m part of a huge human Family. And no wind chill can take that warm feeling away.