This began to happen when I went to live in subsidized housing for two years. There, the social worker, who was the assistant to the director, threatened me with a day-treatment program for the mental health-challenged because, as she said, I was “reading that book so much.” She seemed to have limitless power over the residents of the five housing complexes in town, so I gave away my furniture and left my little apartment with my Bible and not much else.Since I had a car at first, it was easy to live in the Boston shelter system. I was OK for about two years. But when the car had to be junked, I tried to stay at CASPAR, a “wet shelter” in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (A “wet shelter” is one where people abusing alcohol are welcome.) It was the only shelter I knew of where residents could stay not only at night, but also throughout the day.
I was happy to stay in all day because of severe rheumatoid arthritis, which made it hard for me to walk. Most shelters are for overnights only. Elderly, sick, or disabled homeless who cannot survive the streets are expected to accept nursing-home placement.
During the homeless years I continued to read the Gospels aloud in my car when I had it. The Gospel texts were my protection against the real enemies of the homeless: fear, resentment, anger, despair, and apathy. These enemies of the mind are contagious and threaten everyone on the streets and in the shelters. If one gives in to it—becoming embittered—one will be unable to accept a better lot in life should it become available.
So I spent four hours one day at CASPAR, reading the Gospels while sitting on my bed. Perhaps the other women spending the day in that dorm room complained. In any event, one afternoon in 2001, the staff asked me to leave CASPAR and not come back.
They claimed the reason was that I was not registered to vote in Cambridge and so did not seem to reside there, nor did I appear to be a drinker. But all kinds of people live at CASPAR, not just drunken Cambridge voters. I believe that they thought I was on a mission, perhaps as a “plant” from a Christian church, sent to pray or evangelize on the premises.
So I was kicked out for reading my Bible—I felt. The staff, as far as I could tell, did not check the facts. Several kind guests at CASPAR told me to go to Cambridge City Hall and register to vote. One gave me the address of her Cambridge relatives to claim as my own. She said if the registrar called her relatives, they’d vouch that I lived with them.
They also told me to keep a bottle of liquor and swallow a little before coming in so there would be liquor on my breath. Thus, I could pass as a drunken Cambridge voter. Though I was touched by their generosity, I didn’t register to vote or buy a bottle of liquor, partly because the walk to City Hall was too long for a person with arthritis. I also didn’t try to go to a Boston shelter because boarding the subway or a bus was physically impossible, and a taxi was far too expensive.
Happily, I wasn’t alarmed at the prospect of a night on the street. A few policemen had asked solicitously about me before this, and now I assumed a policeman would spot me and take me to a shelter sometime before midnight. With my orthopedic shoes, my trimly bobbed hair, and what I hoped was a dignified bearing and the face of an educated woman, I imagined that I didn’t look as if I belonged on the streets at night. My scenario turned out to be a fantasy.
At 1 a.m., restaurants and bars emptied out. Thankfully, the walk to the pizza shop was easy and painless. Some MIT late-nighters were there. Naturally, I dozed off and got some sharp looks from the management, but contrary to my partner’s assertion, I wasn’t asked to leave. Sometime after we finished the pizza, my companion went out the door and didn’t return. He had sincerely tried to help me, and when he found out he wasn’t able, he apparently could not face me to tell me. I was on my own.
At 2 a.m. I left the shop and stood outside. Well, here’s the acid test, I thought as I made a last attempt to flag down a police cruiser.
As the cruiser passed, I waved, and the policeman grinned, waved back, and went on. My pretensions of looking too middle-class for being on the streets at nighttime vanished. At that time of night, to the policeman, I probably looked like any other aging prostitute or alcoholic.
The only person to register shock at my being on the street was the owner of the pizza shop. He was sweeping the sidewalk in front of his pizzeria. He looked at me intently. Alarm and concern spread over his face. Perhaps my bulky form and bent-over body reminded him of elderly women relatives. In many other cultures of the world, women’s bodies age the way mine has. But he then turned decisively on his heel and went back into his shop and locked the door.
Now I placed myself in the protection of God. I walked to a bench under a streetlamp near a fire station, where a bright lamp burned in a window. I suspected it would burn there all night. Opening my Bible, I began to read the Gospels aloud.
Less than half an hour later, two people materialized in my circle of streetlamp light. One was a tall, strong-looking fellow; behind him a shorter, heavier form, possibly a woman. They looked me over carefully.
“Hello,” I said.
“Hello,” they replied. Then silence reigned. I resumed my reading aloud. They went away.
Then, shortly after, I began to hear chirps, whistles, and animal noises coming from the direction they had taken. I supposed the couple was sitting in the dark, just beyond the lamplight, hoping I’d move away from the bench. Maybe they thought I’d be curious and stray from the seat to find out what made the noises. But, much more likely, they thought I’d be alarmed and go off into the dark to find a better hiding place. This would be their chance to jump me and rob me of any presumed cash.
I knew I’d be out there for three hours before daylight. I needed to stay focused on the Gospels. I must not be overcome by powerful fears, be unable to sit still, and be driven from the lamplight in front of the firehouse.
In my own strength, sitting still would have been impossible. But with the words of the Gospel, I could do it.
“But you, Lord, are a shield around me,” I said loudly, “my glory, you keep my head high” (Ps 3:4). I read steadily out loud for two hours.
It was cold out. A CASPAR resident had impulsively put a pair of heavy socks on my feet that afternoon. Without her act of kindness, I could not have made it through the night.
By 9 p.m. I’d taken up residence on a bench on Mass Avenue, near MIT. At 10, a fellow I’d seen at CASPAR sat down next to me and struck up a conversation. He talked about his ex-wife and explained why the marriage had failed. He seemed to read his wife’s point of view so well, and explained so simply why he could not meet her expectations, that I liked him right away.
I felt he, though thoroughly inebriated, made more sense on the subject of women and marriage than most men do when sober. I asked him if it was dangerous to be out all night and what he did about it.
“Here’s the plan,” he said. “First we sit very close to each other for warmth.”
Charmer that he was, I agreed to this part, and we pressed close together on the bench. Then he said, “We just sit here perfectly content.”
He explained there would be plenty of happy people around us until 1 a.m. when the restaurants close. Some would come up and talk to us. After that, he said the pizza place stays open till 2 a.m. I volunteered that I had five dollars so we agreed to go there at 1 a.m.
“It’s very important not to fall asleep there. The owner will toss us out.”
And after that he planned to sleep on the floor of the ATM cubicle outside the bank. Someone with a card would let him in, and if anyone else used the machine between 2 and 6 a.m., they wouldn’t care if we were there sleeping. After all, this is tolerant Cambridge, Massachusetts.
“It’s safe,” he insisted. “Care to join me?”
“I can’t,” I replied, and I explained why. “I’m afraid to lie down on the ground anywhere because I can’t get up again without help.”
I wasn’t afraid of this man, but I was afraid that other people might break into the ATM cubicle and beat up both of us. My benchmate advised against refusing his suggestion because thieves regularly circulate at night, beating up and robbing drunk and homeless people. Other than that, he tried to reassure me that it’s fine to spend the night on the streets.
At 4:30 a.m., the menacing couple reappeared. I kept reading. This time they detoured around me, always facing me, staring at me, and keeping a distance, seeming to have been spooked by my reading aloud.
Half an hour later, the sky began to lighten, and the welcomed blue appeared. A news truck rolled up to the opposite corner and dropped off a bale of papers. A mail truck stopped across the street. The street gradually filled with traffic. With great relief I greeted these signs of daytime norms.
I forced myself to wait till the traffic was heavy before I left the bench and started for the Salvation Army headquarters two blocks away. An early staff person let me in and gave me tea and rolls.
The anxiety I had refused to feel all night now rolled over me. I resolved not to chance another night like that one. Maybe my Bible reading had startled that pair into inaction, but by the next night they might jump me right there on the bench. And I know it’s not the job of firefighters to respond to a scream from the street.
I began agitatedly to ask for help. A social worker, noticing my arthritis, referred me to Betty Snead House, the temporary hospice for street women with medical problems.
Eventually, for health reasons, I had to leave the shelters. I stayed in a rest home, then in subsidized assisted living, and lastly in nursing homes, where I am comfortable, well cared for, and allowed to read the Bible.
Here’s the verse from Psalm 17 that I return to again and again: “You have tested my heart, searched it in the night. You have tried me by fire, but find no malice in me. My mouth has not transgressed as humans often do. As your lips have instructed me, I have kept the way of the law.”
Gail Busiek lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.