I drove to downtown Raleigh a couple times a week, hanging out with some folks without homes, pouring coffee and trying to point anyone who was interested at the services available to them. The late fall temperatures were dropping every night, and the quality of their situation—which wasn't high to start with—was dropping with it. I had gotten to know several people who populated Moore Square during the day. Gotten to know their stories, their plans, their grievances, their hurdles. But I only broke rules for Karen and her six-year-old, Jessica.
They were doing what they could with the resources available to them. On their worst nights they’d stay in a minivan with another lady, her vehicle loaded to the dome lights with everything she owned. Karen and her daughter also owned a dog, which was an adorable complication. Karen assured me they were fine and had a plan. I didn’t press. She knew the system.
One morning I gave her some coffee and gave Jessica a little hug before moving on to some other folks huddled nearby. Moments later an argument broke out.
I was hearing every other word, but it was clear that Karen and the woman now yelling at her had some history. The woman felt owed something from the previous night, screaming things into Karen's face about being paid back or else. Jessica cowered behind her mother’s leg. I tried not to stare until I heard the last bit clearly.
“I’m serious bitch. I know where you sleep. I’m gonna get you both tonight.”
Karen retorted some silly thing about daring the woman, the taunt foolishly adding risk to her daughter's safety. The other woman made a dismissive sound and walked off. Jessica was crying and her mother was obviously rattled, despite her best efforts in sounding invulnerable. I walked back to where they were.
“Do you have a place to go?” I asked.
“The shelter again. Like last night. But only if we can find a place to put Sandi.” Karen motioned toward the dog, who wagged furiously at Jessica’s feet. The shelter didn’t allow pets, which is easy for me to pragmatically shrug at, until I consider any mother would want to provide her daughter both a pet and a roof.
“That woman that was yelling at you, does she stay at that shelter too?” I asked.
“She didn’t seem like she was just blowing hot air.” I said. Karen nodded. I thought about the fact that in a just a couple hours it would be dark. On top of all the other concerns, now there would be a monster in the dark too. What a nightmare.
“I tell you what,” I was suddenly saying. “Come with me.” And I loaded the two of them, their overstuffed duffle and their dirty little Sandi, into my car. I drove to one of the nearest, nicer hotels I could find. I went in by myself to ask about a room and reserved one nearest the top floor. The clerk made it clear that there was no smoking, no pets. I nodded as I signed and initialed all his forms. Then I went and explained to Karen that she and Jessica had the room for the night, which would hopefully be enough time for the crazy lady to cool off. I told her to call the police if anything even hinted at boiling over with that woman, but realized I had no idea how the law enforcement economy works for citizens without addresses. “Protect and Serve” means different things when read from different angles. I often wonder if I should’ve called the police myself based on what I’d heard the other lady threaten, but I was too worried someone would simply come take Jessica from her mother in the name of “whats’ best.” How would I know what’s best when I go home to the suburbs and complain about my wifi connection? Like I said, I still wonder about this.
I wrapped Sandi in a blanket and prayed that the wiggly, wagging flea bag would hold still long enough to get on the elevator and pass any spontaneous inspections. When I hit the button with the up arrow, the loosely rolled blanket held gently under my arm, Jessica’s eyes widened. She considered the shiny doors on the elevator, then turned to take in the vaulted ceiling of the lobby.
“This is a fancy motel, mama. Real real fancy.”
I told her I would call a few times to check in. And I did. They spent two nights in the hotel, ran up a facepalmingly high long-distance phone bill, but assured me over the phone that Sandi neither barked nor peed on anything. They were getting her to relieve herself in the bathtub, and had smuggled her outside in the fleece cocoon a couple times for her number twos. Karen also assured me that the screaming woman had left the shelter and the city and wouldn’t be a problem anymore. I don’t know how she knew that, but I couldn’t imagine she’d lie about it, considering. I could hear Jessica jumping on the bed in the background. Her mother shushed her harshly.
Karen didn’t answer my last call and I didn’t see her until the following Summer. I’d taken my young daughters to the square to help me pass out bottles of water in the triple-digit heat. Jessica suddenly came bounding from behind a Live Oak, her mother Karen followed a few feet behind. The conversation was thin but Jessica was eager to jump up and down and tug my hands off my wrists. I was happy to see them, though seeing them likely meant their situation was unchanged. I introduced Jessica to my younger daughter Anna, Jessica picked Anna up and swung her in circles, yelling and giggling. Anna smiled at me with wide eyes. It was not a greeting she’d forget.
Sandi wasn’t wagging at our feet. I left that question unasked. Karen said things were better and that she had a plan to use the services available to her in Raleigh. Only she knew whether that was true or not. After a few more awkward moments of catching up, I gave them some water and our two families walked away in different directions. That was the last time I saw them, and I've chosen to take that as good news.
Later that night, Anna asked about Jessica, trying to get her head around life as a homeless kid. I told her about the previous Fall, the confrontation I witnessed, and then found myself explaining how I had broken some rules—had even fibbed—for the sake of the desperate little family. As sacred as telling the truth is in our family—as verboten lying has always been in the Daugherty house—my daughters knew Love makes demands that mere rule-keeping can’t satisfy. I don't know why we all know intuitively that I was teaching my kids something of a higher thread count in telling the story of how, given the options, I cheated for another's highest good. We play by the rules until breaking them is better. What a relativistic mess.
I keep front-of-mind that I follow—with perhaps less of Jessica’s bounding and more of Karen’s tired shuffle many days—One who was known to be perfect and yet who got murdered by the rule-keepers anyway. Just an absolute mess when you think about it. As we, here in John Adams’ Nation of Laws, attempt to evolve as a society and a species, I hope we learn to recognize why our courthouses bear the Ten Commandments and not the Sermon on the Mount. I hope we learn in the course of our ordinary lives how to pick, when it matters most, which rules to keep, and for whom.