the long walk home 13
I was in a progressive city in the United States and I was sitting in what is called a day center in some places. This was a day center for homeless women.
The functions at day centers can vary. At this day center, people could receive mail, take showers, eat breakfast and lunch when served, do laundry, sleep, and hang out. Sometimes, there were other activities, such as movies or substance abuse recovery meetings.
This particular day, I was sitting in the activity room, chatting with some of the other women, who were telling me about another day center that was only open once a week, in the morning. It was nice, but… But what? But the singing. What singing? They make you sing. They force you to sing? No, but they make you sing. Is it a requirement that you sing? No.
Details on this singing thing were sketchy. It was really weird that every woman — every woman — complained about singing, while insisting they weren’t forced to sing. All of the women except one said they sang anyway. Why, I kept asking, do you sing when you hate it but you’re not required to sing? I would get this weird silence from normally strong, opinionated women. Even the woman who said she did not sing did not give me an answer when I asked her why was everyone complaining about the singing. Or could not.
(Writing this now, I remember the looks on the womens’ faces as they avoided my questions. I was so confused why I couldn’t get a straight answer from any of them.)
Well, I decided, I was going to go and I was not going to sing.
It’s nice when you get warned in advance, don’t you think?
It took me about a month or so to make it there. I was busy doing other things or I’d forget about it because it was only one morning a week. One day, I finally made it. This special one-day-a-week day center began with a lovely breakfast. I remember real scrambled eggs! I remember a lovely, clean, peaceful environment, courtesy of a nearby school. I remember time on the computer (then a rarity for a lot of homeless programs), with printing!
A little after breakfast was cleared away, a lady came to start the singing. I watched, horrified, as the women groaned and feebly protested. It was terrifying to watch them squirm and shrink into themselves as they tried to stay polite and tried to avoid singing. Some would physically disappear, beating a hasty exit. (Some had already left before breakfast was over.) I remember being mystified that the program keepers would, seemingly oblivious to the expressed discomfort of the women, repeatedly cajole and wheedle the remaining women to sing. (Let me explain the irony of this. I’ve had native New Yorkers call me thick and insensitive, and here I am in a supposedly touchy-feely city, surrounded by avowed leftists pulling this.)
The song was the nursery rhyme “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”.
I didn’t sing.
The program keepers were liberals, progressive, lefties who — had this been a program run by some right-wing group — would have picketed the program and denounced the group bitterly as being insensitive to the dignity of the women. They would point out that even though the singing wasn’t required, that these homeless women were adults, many of them were mothers. They would note that the women had voiced their objections to singing, and were only singing under duress, and to be polite, feeling obligated because of the services offered: breakfast, activities, and access to computers and printers. They would have criticized the right-wingers for being so inattentive and so uncaring. They would have appropriately characterized the scene as humiliating for the women.
It was one of the grand introductions to the great dichotomy between the press releases these programs would put out about the Great Work they were doing and their actual practice.