A couple of days before, I called my mother, a veteran crochet artist. She gave me instructions over the phone on how to start a chain and crochet a simple hat. VERY simple. This was all I wanted to tackle, since I hadn't crocheted since I was a child. I felt grateful I could ask my mother for advice and count on her support. I thought about her and wished every person who faces homelessness could have the foundation of love and resourcefulness she gave to her own children. I wanted to crochet some of that into every stitch of my hat and have it magically strengthen those who most need that strength.
With these thoughts in my mind, I packed my bag and drove downtown toward CASS for my first Friday in the project. I was happy I could join Ann on the inaugural day! As I approached, people spilled out of the gates and milled about on the streets a couple of blocks from the campus. I was apprehensive; this was a new experience for me and I wondered what it would bring.
I pulled into the parking space adjacent to the large grassy commons. Only later did it become apparent the grass was artificial turf -- considering the high foot-traffic in the area, a very good idea.
I found my way to a reception desk. Nearby, a high-spirited resident in a blond wig broke into song and danced an impromptu jig. Just the first instance of the self-expression I would witness as the morning progressed. After checking out the dental clinic, started by my friend Dr. Kris Volcheck, I located Ann and her daughter Meghan, spoke for a few minutes, then found a perch outside and began to crochet.
Solitary for awhile, I was content to sit in the sun and observe as I worked. Conversations around me gradually revealed facets of this place. Cigarettes and food were central themes. Two fellows discussed the merits of a certain brand of tobacco they'd received in a research study. "Too dry," said one. The other confided that he hides his "rollies" (new term to me: hand-rolled cigarettes) in a Cheetos bag to fend off requests that he share. "Hey, man, all I got is Cheetos," he would say.
A toothless older woman wearing slacks and a pink jacket sashayed briskly by on platform shoes, swinging a yellow handbag. Upon request, she loaned a younger woman $1.50, saying, "Don't worry about it, baby girl." Her language was less civilized a few minutes later, when she shouted out to no one in particular, "HEY, YOU A _ _ HOLES!" I kept my eyes on my handiwork, but she became harder to ignore when she plopped down on the bench immediately in front of me and let out a loud, proud belch. A couple of other individuals asserted themselves in similar style over the next couple of hours.
Soon, a young man with a boom box walked up and set down the boom box, stretching and yawning in the sun as he removed his T-shirt. Older men sitting nearby complained about his loud rap music and exposed flesh and wagered it wouldn't be long before the guard showed up; sure enough, security arrived a few seconds later, advising the offender to put his shirt back on. Security was never far away, and everyone knows it, which I found comforting.
Between cigarettes, a couple of the men on nearby benches weighed in on my handiwork. One said I should stop soon, or the piece would be too long for a hat and more like a purse. Together, we decided when the length was right. After two hours (not counting the hour and a half I'd put in the night before, per Mom's instructions), I had finished my first hat.
As I began my second hat, Joe struck up a conversation. He explained he had become homeless nine months ago, after losing his job as a cement-truck driver. His daughter lives in north Phoenix with his two grandchildren. He hasn't seen her for awhile. "It's not a good place for her to visit," he said, even though his daughter works as a nurse at a downtown hospital not far away. When it was time for lunch, Joe wandered off, leaving me to contemplate his story and wonder about the missing pieces.
A cheerful woman circulated through the crowd, announcing that Andre House would be serving Thanksgiving dinner tomorrow morning at 7:30 a.m. No one seemed to question the breakfast timing, although I had heard plenty of other grousing about the food normally served on campus. Seemed to be no shortage of bags of commercial snack foods; one guy was hoarding a nice stash in his backpack; I watched as he took inventory.
I gave my first hat -- a black one, flecked with bits of confetti color -- to Marilyn, who was there with her husband. The two of them were sitting on a bench off to the side, talking softly to each other. This was their second day at CASS. They told me how hard it had been to leave their apartment, and now, to be separated at night -- he in the men's facility, she in the women's. Their landlord had kindly let them slide on the rent for a couple of months after they both lost their jobs. They said their downward spiral had started with his on-the-job injury, and had gotten worse when construction dried up; no jobs, especially for an older iron worker. She had worked for a call center that had been closed down for fraud after employee paychecks were written on a bad account and bounced.
Marilyn was thrilled with the hat. Especially when she found out my mother's name is Marilyn, too, and that their birthdays -- Marilyn's, her husband's and my mother's -- are all in February. I hope when Marilyn wears the hat she'll feel some of the strength of my mother.