The streetlights barely lit the way to our destination. Flashlights, although necessary, didn’t keep the shadows from invading our space as we pushed our way through the broken fence. Bramble scraped against skin as we slid down the hill to the pavement below. The stifling air made it hard to breathe, pushing my fight or flight response full throttle. Having a battalion of armed men would not have settled my nerves, and I had only two. We marched in armed, not with guns but with folding camp chairs and provisions of coffee, sandwiches, and pastries donated by Starbucks.
The darkness outside could not match the blackness of the underground subway. Nor did the flashlights help us navigate through the broken bottles and rocks. The abandoned subway with graffiti lined passageway sidled against the Genesee River. The dampness invaded our senses with the stagnant smell of water and the pungent smell of garbage and crack cocaine.
The canvas of graffiti spoke of the divine beneath the streets of Rochester, NY. Beauty interred by the night. From a darkened doorway emerged a man. Our leader positioned the flashlight not on his face, but on the ground guiding his path to the circle of chairs. When I saw him I realized how I stereotyped the homeless. Ron didn’t wear rags; he wore jeans and a white t-shirt. I heard the tale of a man who had everything going for him, but lost it all when his son died in a tragic accident; and how he drowned his sorrows in a bottle of whiskey because he couldn’t bear to face his wife, his coworkers or his life. Desperately wanting to get back to the world above, he went to the Department of Social Services, but they refused to help him. He didn’t have a permanent mailing address. My first reaction? Put a mailbox outside the underground subway and call it a day, but it doesn’t work like that within the system. As we listened, my jaw tightened as I considered the red tape a homeless person has to go through to obtain housing. It is easier to remain on the streets than to fight the bureaucratic world above the underground subway. We continued to talk about his plight until a scream invaded our conversation.
Although a balmy 90-degree night, goose bumps covered my skin. No one reacted. It sounded like a wounded animal. It reminded me of the night I camped at Burton Island in northern Vermont. Raccoons fought outside my pup tent, my only means of protection, and I had an anxiety attack because I felt trapped while the little demonic sounding creatures screeched at each other for hours. This scream didn’t sound much different. I pointed my flashlight in the direction of the sound.
“It’s just George. It’s his nightly ritual,” Ron assured me. “War. It does it to some of our soldiers. He’s a vet. Fought in Iraq. Now he hears voices. He screams at what he hears in his head. Nightly I tell you. Nightly.”
If I came out to serve, then I needed to do something. I grabbed a sandwich and a cup of coffee. I walked in the direction of the screams, down another tunnel, and behind a brick wall.
“You don’t need to yell George. It’s okay. It really is. You are safe.”
He stopped screaming.
“I am not going to come in, but there is a chicken salad sandwich and coffee right here on the ledge for you George.”
“Thank you,” he said softly.
When I turned around to leave our leader was standing behind me.
“Never go alone on the streets Kathy. Two by two. That is how we do it.”
Ryan wanted to protect me, but I knew his heart. He started Streets for Christ, a ministry hoping to transform and encourage the lives of the homeless. Ryan saw the necessity of reflecting God’s merciful and unconditional love. I wanted to do something to help the homeless as well. I am a person filled with fear of the unknown, but I faced my fear of night and went to the underground subway. I wanted to be like Christ and do what he would have done: serve what the world considers undesirable.
George didn’t scream the remainder of our night, but other voices put every member of our team on edge. We could see them coming through the back of the tunnel. One wore a black cape. My imagination soared as I thought of every monster movie I had ever seen. Corpses often floated to the surface of the Genesee River. Foul play. Murdered. We turned off our flashlights and remained still as they occupied the areas surrounding our circle of chairs. Their drunken laughter set me somewhat at ease. They were merely teenagers carousing in a fantasy world under the streets of their turf.
“These kids are always stealing from me,” Ron exclaimed. “But they are harmless otherwise. Don’t pay them no mind.”
I have doors in my home to shut out the world and to somewhat protect me from intruders. Ron and other men, women, and children on the streets do not have the same luxury. The blackness of the underground world has a dim light of hope. We are that hope. We offer food, conversation, and help in the world above. We helped Ron get out of the underground subway into his own apartment. It’s hard to believe such a world exists, but after my first experience, I had to go back. I had to let my heart pound and hands sweat while my flesh felt the heat of summer and the biting cold of winter, so I could give a little of myself to the men who created their space, their home within a world I could not imagine living in. It made me thankful, both for what I had and for what I could give. My hope is others will feel the call as well.
Kathy Buckert holds an M.F.A in Creative Writing from Goddard College’s low-residency program in Plainfield, Vermont. Her work has appeared in The Blue Hour, Black Mirror Magazine, Silver Birch Press, Cheap Pop, Carnival Literary Magazine, Muddy River Review, Bookends Review, The Effects of Grace Anthology and other publications. She is an adjunct assistant professor at Monroe Community College in Rochester, New York. She is currently working on her novel Jacob’s Vow.