Last Saturday I spent the night sleeping on a camp bed in a basement room with sixteen men. Even with my ear plugs in, the symphony of night noises was incredible. Operatic snores were layered under creaks and mutters, counterpointed with sustained trumpets of flatulence. Time and again I woke in the shadow of a guest standing by the table at the end of my bed, though Chris swears I was dreaming.
The call had gone out that, due to a lack of volunteers, the shelter might have to close at the weekends. I'd signed us both up in a vague jag of well-meaning, despite the fact that it didn't really sound like my cup of tea. I like me altruism like I like my exercise classes: full of sweat and incident, with no time left over for awkward silences. Even among the securely homed, I lack the knack of aimlessly hanging out. As a rule, I'd rather be scrubbing toilets than making forced chit-chat. That Saturday night, however, that rule underwent a major revision.
By the time we arrived we were late and chilled to the bone after having spent the last half hour aimlessly circling the church in a snow storm. Drugged up to my eyeballs on cold medicine, I was heartily wishing we'd given up and gone home, rather than a phoning a friend to check if there'd been a last-minute email with contact details on it. But we had, and there had been, and here we were, making ourselves at home amongst the screened and vetted denizens of the city's day shelters.
"Yeah, we were wondering how the, erm, guests found it," I said, motioning to the unmarked door we'd passed and repassed several times that evening. "It makes sense if they're bussed in."
"I know. If someone walks in off the street and says he needs help..." The volunteer co-ordinater spread his hands in what I take to be an expansive gesture.
"You let them in?"
"No! Unfortunately, we'd be shut down. We have to turn them away."
The men who've made the grade are either sitting on their beds, or have nabbed one of the spots on the old sofas near the television. They seem tired - perhaps unsuprisingly, since the rules say we have to wake them at 5.30 for the bus back to the day shelter. There are white men, Hispanic men and black men, ranging from twentysomethings to haggard men in their sixties, although I don't ask and no-one offers those kind of details. Two, Pierre and Alabama, come and introduce themselves and thank us for volunteering. Turns out they are new to the shelter. Alabama's just got into town, and is still holding out hope of a job and cheap flat which a friend of his sister is supposed to be sorting out. Pierre is more of a mystery. Unlike the other men he isn't overweight or gaunt, and he's got the soft voice and direct stare of a ladies man or a con artist. He tells Chris that he can train him and 'get him ripped' - in a good way, we hope.
After some dallying over a Rice Krispies bar I sit down in the one free spot by the TV. I soon see why no-one's taken it. To my right, a scrawny old guy in a green t-shirt sits raking his skin with his nails. While I try to follow the plot of Law & Order his hands are furrowing under his shirt, scurrying round his back, delving into his crotch. Already I'm feeling itchy, and although I'm telling myself it's eczema, I can almost sees the fleas leaping over the cracked leather sofa towards me. There's a limit on how close I can sidle up to man on the other side of me (who snorts disdainfully whenever the onscreen detectives turn up yet another red herring) so at the first commercial break I jump up to use the toilet.
There's no women's toilet. In the interests of discouraging overdoses and beat-downs, the cubicles don't have doors on, but if I can get the room to myself I can lock the outside door. With the door closed the smell is overpowering; the toilets look like the set of Trainspotting and the floor is sticky with urine. Later that night I'll forget to put on shoes before venturing inside, and feel my socks sucking up the grime. Other girls might have bolted at this point, but I've been to Glastonbury, and I was made of sterner stuff
At least I thought so, until the aggro started...