Come in, she said, I’ll give ya shelter from the storm.
— Bob Dylan
I’ve told this story before, maybe even in this space. So if you’ve heard it, you have my permission to move on to the Comics.
But as we mark the 25th anniversary of the Great Flood of ’94 that devastated this region and we all remember how unified we were as a region, I offer the following as a reminder that, even as the inherent kindness that we all like to believe — hard as it may be sometimes — is inside each of us, greed, selfishness and the worst of human nature also have taken up residence inside many of us.
Working as a volunteer at a shelter during the Flood of ’94, I was asked by the Red Cross to manage a makeshift clothing distribution center that was set up at the shelter when so many in the community donated clothes to the thousands of residents who’d had to flee their homes with only the clothes on their backs. (I was certainly not qualified for the job, but, as Red Cross officials explained, distribution of donated items did not fall within their purview. So I kind of got the job by default.)
There were a few other volunteers who joined me in the makeshift distribution center, and we came up with a plan to “open” the center for a couple of hours at a time several times during each day. In between, we’d take all the new contributions (and there were truckloads, from individuals in the community and from retailers) and try to sort them in a way that would make it as easy as possible for shelter residents to find the things they needed.
I watched with what I admit now was a certain amount of annoyance as some shelter residents came in during each period that the distribution center was open to look over what new clothes had come in since the last time they’d been in. And even though we told them that they would be welcome in any time the center was open, some ignored our “rule” that they take only so many items of clothing at a time so that we could make sure every person staying in the shelter — there were hundreds — had an opportunity to find some clothes as well.
It was easy enough to overlook such transgressions, though. All it took was a look around at the space they were confined to, at the conditions, the lack of privacy, and what had led to their being there in the first place. As Jim Stafford once sang, “Ain’t much pride when you’re trapped inside a slowly sinking ship.”
Our little distribution center worked well for a number of days, and as word spread that clothes were being accepted to help storm victims, donations poured in. Some well-known retail outlets sent over truckloads of brand-new clothing items, and some kind citizens told us they gathered all clothes that they didn’t wear regularly as a way to pitch in.
I admit I felt pretty good about our community, and I was proud of the work that the volunteers at the shelter did on behalf of their fellow citizens. Then I got a call that kind of changed everything.
A gentleman I know called and said he was working at another shelter that had not received quite as many clothing donations as our shelter had. He had a couple of young ladies, he said, who had not been able to find clothing and wondered if they might come over to see what we had.
Of course, there was nothing proprietary about what we were doing, and I don’t know if there were any rules — written or unwritten about such things — but I told him to send the young ladies on over. I told him to send them at a specific time, between our residents’ scheduled visits to the center.
The young ladies, who appeared to be in their late teens, came in, and I showed them where we’d laid out clothing for females in their age range. There was no one else in the center at that time, and I told them to take their time. They looked around for a half-hour or so, and I noticed a couple of things: 1) They hadn’t taken any clothes to that point and 2) they talked animatedly as they went from table to table.
Finally, with the time nearing for our residents to return, I asked the young ladies if they were having trouble finding anything that fit. I’ll never forget the response.
“Well, we were really looking for designer clothes, and we just haven’t seen any,” one said. Then she started naming some of the labels that would be suitable to their taste.
I know they thought I looked like a madman when I just stared at them with my mouth open for a few takes. Finally, when I’d calmed enough not to say the things I wanted to say, I tersely said, “You young ladies need to leave here. Now.”
I know, I know, I could have been more tactful. I could have used that moment to offer words that might have served as a life lesson. But when “our” shelter residents came shuffling in a few moments later, some of them who’d been living for weeks in a strange place among dozens of other strangers, all with no idea of what they faced when they were allowed to go home ... and even now, 25 years later, I’m comfortable with my reaction.