New Year’s Night – Year Two of the Pandemic
Read the published essay in Our Pandemic, a publication of The Writer’s Workout. All proceeds from the sale of the magazine go to Direct Relief which provides emergency medical services around the world.
He was about seventy, slumped on a bench, with a bushy beard, and soiled black clothes. His dirty hands clutched a bag of candy as tightly as a child would, as if he was terrified his precious sweets would be snatched away. We were in the lobby of a police station on New Year’s night, the second New Year of the pandemic. He was homeless, and I was an outreach volunteer. I didn’t want to be there. No doubt he didn’t either. But I did what I was supposed to do—said my name, asked him if he wanted tea or coffee, or a sandwich for the morning.
“No,” he snarled back. He just wanted a bed for the night. I called the city placement team who needed his details which is how I learned his name: Raymond Grey, b. 1971. 1971. He was fifty. Fifteen years younger than me. For a moment, I was shocked. It felt good to be shocked. Then it faded, and I felt nothing again.
The placement team got Raymond a bed in a hostel about two miles away, but a pandemic has its protocols. The police told me they couldn’t put him in one of their cars, and my outreach driver and I couldn’t take him in our van either. I didn’t know if taxi drivers had protocols, but they wouldn’t take him because he was dirty, and drunk, and more than a little pungent. I told him he’d have to walk. He called me a bitch. He had a point.
I left Raymond on the bench and followed my driver back to the van. Outside, a fox sauntered down the opposite side of the street. Since the pandemic, foxes had taken over. We saw them everywhere, cautious but confident, slinking through their reclaimed world. Sometimes I threw them a sandwich. Once I watched a fox eating from the hand of a homeless man camped on the steps of a church. I liked the fox coup. It was one of the few up-sides of the pandemic, that and being able to hear birdsong all day.
“Beautiful.” A man’s voice came from behind me. “They are beautiful.” His accent was Eastern European. He looked about half Raymond’s age but tall, and far too thin, sheets of cardboard under one arm, a sleeping bag dangling from the other. If he wanted, he had what he needed to bed down in a doorway, but he was shivering and wanted to be inside. I called the placement team again. They put me on hold. The man wished me and my driver a happy new year, opened a conversation with us about how we’d spent Christmas. I was still on hold, but I moved aside like I had to attend to the phone. I’d been an immigrant. People emigrate with hope for something. Yet here he was sleeping alone on the streets of Dublin in the middle of winter and I couldn’t listen to him. I couldn’t listen to him be so polite, so kind, so accepting. A taxi passed. I thought of hailing it. I wanted to go home.
Then Raymond appeared on the steps of the police station and suddenly, the bag of candy he clung to so tightly hit me right on my festively sequined face mask. It happened so fast I barely saw his arm move. He grunted again, looked around at the night, then staggered back into the station. The bag burst, so the sweets inside scattered in an arc at my feet. I ran my tongue around my teeth. All intact. I felt my mouth with the back of my latex glove (another requirement of the pandemic). A little dab of blood, nothing serious.
Raymond was so drunk he couldn’t walk straight, yet his arm was so swift, his aim so true he hit the bull’s eye in one shot. I found that funny. Giggles uncoiled inside me. Sometimes people laugh when they’re frightened or cry when they’re angry, like crossed wires in the brain. I didn’t question it, but I knew it was inappropriate; the men would think I was going insane. I pushed the laughter back down and talked to the placement team who secured a bed in a hostel for our young client. As we climbed back into the van, I realized that being hit in the face had weirdly lifted my spirits.
The year before the pandemic began, I retired from my job in the United States and returned home to Ireland. My plan: to fill my latter years with family and friends, and to travel. After a lifetime of working, I was, at last, going to visit places I’d longed to see, cultures I’d longed to experience. But before I could book a flight to anywhere, the pandemic struck, and police-enforced lockdowns shrank the whole world into a two-kilometer radius of my home. At first it was ok, a novelty, over by Christmas as the British said of World War I. I took to walking in the park behind my house. After walking the same route every day for months, I grew to detest the park. I talked to friends on the phone or WhatsApp, but isolation begets isolation; over time, they called less frequently, and so did I. The pandemic slow-choked even electronic connection. I took to breaking the lockdown. I drove into the countryside, kept driving until I had to either turn back or spend the night in the car. I had to see trees, mountains, lakes, anything that didn’t look like the inside of my house or the park behind it. I got caught, of course. But the police were flexible—be good, don’t do it again. Advice I didn’t—couldn’t— follow.
Throughout my life in the US and in Ireland, I’d volunteered with homeless organizations, so I joined the outreach before the pandemic began. As everything else shut down, those few hours a week of face-to-face contact with human beings gave me a reason to get up in the morning. It didn’t last. We had just passed the second Christmas of the pandemic, the Christmas of Omicron—more people infected, more people isolated than ever before. No end in sight. Four Christmases were lost to World War I. I couldn’t contemplate four years in lockdown.
As our van snaked along the river toward our next stop in the Docklands, the sky hung low and heavy with water. High-rise glass buildings jutted into the blackness. City lights flowed across them like satin. This was the new Dublin. It had grown up while I was living abroad. We parked near the old canal dock. The man we were looking for slept behind one of the little barriers coffee shops use to section off their outdoor dining from the street. We were too early. His sleeping bag and a few sheets of cardboard were neatly piled into a box behind the barrier awaiting his return. We left sandwiches, water, and wet wipes on the ground next to it.
Spikes of red light jutted up from a light installation behind us. Red light danced on the windows of the surrounding buildings. These glass-fronted towers are home to Facebook, Google, and Twitter, but most are apartments owned by international property investors. On a cold night in a locked down city, people should have been at home, but at least half the apartments were in darkness. I read a report earlier in the year that said up to 30 percent of them were unoccupied because distant landlords are unwilling to rent for below the market rate of 2-3,000 euro per month. We had fresh fruit that night. As I put a banana on top of the packet of wipes, it occurred to me that I’ve rarely earned that much money in a month in my life.
Around the corner, our next client huddled in a doorway. He took food, wipes, and a sleeping bag. Then he wished us a happy new year. I tried to say it back. Wishing a homeless man a happy new year when the new year was going to be exactly the same as the old year seemed like an insult. I couldn’t do it. My driver took over, covered my discourtesy. I wanted to hug the man, to take him somewhere warm and safe he could call his own. I also wanted to go home and never see him again. I used to be a good outreach worker. I used to be able to hold conversations and bear witness to people’s lives. I expected my driver to say something about my rudeness but he didn’t. Instead, we walked to a bridge over the river to search for a couple who lived in a tent there.
The tent beneath the bridge looked abandoned. Maybe the couple found accommodation. Maybe they just moved somewhere more congenial. I often thought if I were homeless, I’d camp out at the back of a church on the wealthier south side of the city, or along the canal. Those places seemed safer. If nothing else, they were prettier.
During the previous spring, two young men and an older man set up tents next to each other on the canal bank. The older man had been beaten up when he camped downtown. The young men told me they’d protect him. They found an old table and placed it between the two tents. When I admired the vase of flowers balanced on its formica surface, one of the young men pulled a daisy from the vase and handed it to me. Those were the early days of the pandemic, when I found such gestures charming, before they made me want to cry.
We covered the southside that night too. We distributed food to tents along the canal, gave clean underwear to one woman, dry socks to another. We gave toiletries to a French couple sleeping in a laneway. They worked full-time but couldn’t afford the most recent rent increase. We gave coffee and sandwiches to a woman camped behind the Ionic columns of the church where I’d seen the fox being fed by a homeless man. We always had an abundance of sandwiches in the van, so I gave her an extra one for the fox in case he came by. Then we headed downtown, to Henry Street.
In pre-pandemic times, Henry Street was one of the city’s busiest shopping areas. Now, all but essential businesses were closed. I dreaded it, even during the daytime–the unwashed shopfronts, the peeling paint, cardboard and sleeping bags in every other doorway. We rarely met children on the outreach, but we met plenty of teenagers and twentysomethings. Many of them hung out on Henry Street.
We could see Conor walking toward the van even before we parked. He had a bouncy, skittery walk. Conor liked sugar, six spoonfuls of it in his tea. He also took three bags of mixed candy and some bars of chocolate. While he waited for his tea to brew, he told us he stole his mother’s medication and believed—even though he wouldn’t admit it to her—that she was right to kick him out of the house. I admired his honesty. In my head, I demanded to know how he could do such a stupid thing. How could he turn his back on a family and a home to live in a doorway? I knew the answer already—addiction. But I kept my questions to myself. Instead, I asked if he needed underwear or socks.
Eddie came to the side of the van looking for a sweater. Even though he drifted between hostels and a tent, the man had style. I admired his outfit—on-trend black jacket, perfectly fitting blue jeans, black and grey scarf. “A person has to make an effort,” he said. “If you look good, you feel good.” I held up an array of donated sweaters we had in the van. He apologized for taking so long to reach a decision, but “Style can’t be hurried.” He chose a pink V-neck that felt like cashmere.
“You could be a merchandizer, or a stylist,” I said. “Have you ever thought about a going back to school, a career in fashion?”
He ignored my question, held the sweater up to his chest, “Perfection,” he pronounced, his elegant way of telling me I’d gone too far.
There were so many people on Henry Street, my driver decided to make the teas and coffees at the back of the van while I fielded orders. An Asian man peeped out of a cardboard box and waved me over. He had been living in the box in the same spot for a few weeks. He wanted me to take his collection of candy bags. “They give me these every night. Sugar. I don’t eat sugar. Take. Give to someone else.” I took his haul and asked him if he’d like some food. “No. Nothing,” he said, then closed the flap of the box over his head. Even though he didn’t ask for it, I left a cup of tea, no sugar, beside the box.
Three tents had been set up further down the street. I walked toward them intending to take their orders. A girl sat outside the middle tent. I knew her face. Seventeen, maybe eighteen, always shivering, always so stoned she’d wander after whoever she was with at the time. I tried to talk to her in the past, but she kept looking off to the side. Maybe she thought looking away would make me, or her, disappear. She was so waif-like, so insubstantial she almost wasn’t there anyway. Any man who wanted her could take her. There were men on both sides of her tent. I thought I saw a man inside her tent too, but I couldn’t be sure. He could be her protector for the night, or he could be the one she needed protection from. My money was on the second option.
I walked straight up to her. “I can call the placement team for you.” I wasn’t supposed to say things like that. I was supposed to offer tea or coffee first, ease into a conversation. I didn’t care. She couldn’t stay there. Whatever might happen to her during the night, she had no fight in her, nothing to push back with. “Do you hear me?” I asked. She turned her head away, but I wasn’t going along with her I’m-not-here-act this time. “You can’t stay here. I can get you a bed for the night.”
“Leave her alone.” There was a man in the tent. We had been warned often that homeless people sometimes carry knives. I don’t know whether he had one or not, but he had the sort of voice that makes you back off.
“It’s too late,” another voice, softer, came from the tent next door. He was right. The placement team went off duty at midnight. It was probably after one. I couldn’t make good on my promise to the girl; I shouldn’t have made it at all. I backed away. I hoped I hadn’t made things worse for her with the man in the tent.
We were tidying up the back of the van when Danny shuffled out of a doorway. He had been standing with another man I didn’t recognize. The man palmed him something then hurried away with the menacing, high-energy walk of a dealer. Danny was twenty-three. In the year I’d known him, his front teeth had rotted.
“Could I have some soup, Miss,” he asked. I suggested pot noodles for the bulk. “Just soup please, Miss, thank you. I’m not hungry tonight.” He warmed his hands on the steaming cup. “Can I help you with anything, Miss?”
“Where are you sleeping tonight, Danny?” I asked, too sharp, too angry. Poor gentle, polite, helpful Danny recoiled. But I couldn’t stop. “Why don’t you go home? Why don’t you go to McVerry’s?” I almost shouted the name of the non-profit organization that works with homeless young people.
“Are you alright, Miss?” he asked.
I apologized. He said it was ok, but it wasn’t. It definitely wasn’t ok. I wanted him to fight. I wanted the girl at the tent to fight. Fight me, fight the man in her tent, fight against whatever made her homeless. I wanted them have some of Raymond’s anger.
Raymond was three the year I first volunteered for homeless outreach. I was eighteen. In 1974, Ireland had a few hundred homeless people, all of them older than me. In 1974, I believed what I was doing had an effect and one day, in my lifetime, homelessness would end. Since then, the homeless count has exceeded ten thousand. Giving people sandwiches and clean clothes, finding them a bed for the night changed nothing. It simply wasn’t enough and now, it seemed, I was no longer fit for the job.
I had talked to other volunteers. They nodded, polite, sympathetic, as if they understood but didn’t share my experience. I saw no point in talking to my driver that night. After the way I spoke to Danny, I had only two options: I could wait out the pandemic, or I could do outreach. Pandemic isolation had drained me of whatever it took to do both. As we drove back to base, I knew this would be my last night out in the van.