I have a cold. It hit me good yesterday as I was working on a freelance assignment, trying to finish a project while grabbing tissues every couple of minutes. Today there’s less need for tissues and more need for oxygen since my head is so stuffy I can’t breathe.
But while “I’m sick of being sick” I’m so much better off than someone without a warm bed, hot water for tea, or even a tissue to wipe a runny nose. There are health services for the homeless in most cities, but they are few and far between, and often involve long, miserable waits. The thought reminded me of the scene below, which was written a few years ago about a kid I got to know pretty well when I was volunteering with The Night Ministry in Chicago. I’ve changed his name, but this kid is one of the inspirations for the character of Chris in my novel Painted Black.
The cushioned chairs are covered in vinyl with squared, wooden arms. Across the aisle, a mother and her teenage daughter talk quietly. The girl is pale with dark circles under her eyes. The mother touches her daughter’s forehead with the back of her hand.
In another corner a Hispanic family speak Spanish in tones not so low or subtle: a man and a woman, an elderly lady, and two children around four and six. They arrived shortly after an ambulance pulled up to the door and rolled a sheet covered figure into the trauma unit. Though their language is foreign to me, I can identify the fear and concern. The four year old has fallen asleep in her mother’s lap.
Devin is almost asleep, but he stirs himself to look at his watch when I ask him the time. 4:10 a.m. The hand wearing the watch is still red and swollen, the fingers skinned from the concrete wall he punched. It’s the reason we’re here, why we’ve been waiting so long.
The security guard has been talking on the telephone for at least two of the four hours we have been waiting. Before that, he had been sitting behind his desk doing head nods that would wake him every few seconds.
Devin is familiar with the routine here in the emergency room at the Illinois Masonic Hospital. He gave me his State ID just in case they searched him, and took off his chain and backpack before passing through the metal detector. I suspect sometimes he comes here not because he’s sick, but because it’s warm. And relatively safe.