Finding a place to park in each city we visit is a small miracle, not because of lack of parking or because we drive a monster-sized truck, but because of what we’re looking for. We want to plant ourselves exactly where we will be able to meet needs and build community. But it’s not like you can find that place on the map. So it comes down to that feeling in our gut, that instinctual intuition that says “Right here! That’s the spot!” and then putting the truck in park. Only God knows the perfect places.
That’s how we found the spot under the bridge next to the New Orleans Mission. As soon as we got out of the truck I knew that we were exactly where we were supposed to be. As I looked out across the parking spaces, I could count 15 people sitting or sleeping on the curbs that lined the parking spaces and piles of trash everywhere. That’s always a good indicator that people are living and doing life in this space. But we were the only the people parked in this particular parking lot, with the exception of another pickup truck and a car parked side by side at the other end of the lot.
I wondered if we would have to pay for parking here, because we were within 6 blocks of downtown and I knew the St Patty’s day parade was just a few days away. If we were going to have to pay, we would have to move. We came to this city, like every other city this year, on the last of our gas money. We couldn’t even make it across town if we wanted to.
Shane considered moving the trucks to the other lot across the street that ran perpendicular to the interstate that was thundering above us, to the opposite side of the bridge where all the other vehicles were parked. I voted to wait and see what would happen, and within 5 minutes, a short little Indian man walked up to the truck speaking broken English and asking us where we were from. We introduced ourselves as we dropped the tailgates and in a few more minutes he gave us all the basic info we needed to make our choice.
“No pay for parking here. Two AM they charge across street. But no here.” He pointed at the mission as he explained. “You go there, they give you shower, bathroom, you can shave. You get food, you stay the night.”
We told him that we’d be in our trucks at night, and he said that they would still let us get a shower if we needed one, and I examined the open lot next to the mission. Last year, there were more than a hundred people camped out on the sidewalk surrounding the building. They had tents, mattresses, suitcases and bookbags stacked up on every inch of pavement. Until the second day that we were there, when everyone was served an “eviction notice” printed by the mission, demanding that everyone vacate the sidewalk before the police became involved. When Shane and I held the piece of paper, we knew that it was in preparation for Mardi Gras and in the spirit of “cleaning up” the city for all the tourists. But now the sidewalk sits empty, and the grassy lot next door, abandoned for who knows how long, where we all used to sit and soak up the sunshine, is fenced off and holds a giant For Sale sign. No wonder there are so many people under the bridge.
When the outreach groups came to bring food to the street across from the mission, Paul brought us back a package of chocolate chip muffins as a “welcome to the neighborhood” kind of gift. I knew we were in the right place.
My next question was “where is the nearest public restroom?” because I knew if we were going to live here for a few days, we weren’t going to be able to jump inside the mission every time we needed to pee. When I asked Paul, he looked kind of embarrassed when he pointed down the street to the transit station. He explained that the bathrooms were very large and nice, and that I could probably get cleaned up in there. But a few minutes later, as he walked back to his spot on the sidewalk, Rob told me that he had been walking around and he had “found the pee spot” next to one of the giant concrete posts that hold up the interstate. I raised my eyebrows at him and he elaborated. “I could smell it. And I’ve watched three or four guys go over there and pee already.”
We had only been sitting on our tailgates for about three hours when I decided to walk over to the transit station to use the bathroom. It was about the equivalent of 3 blocks away, and Paul was right, the bathrooms were nice. On the walk back toward the truck, I noticed an older man standing in between the truck and the car parked on the other end of the lot where we were planning to live. He was wearing a blue button down shirt, and as I got close enough to see him clearly without my glasses, I was mortified to realize that he was bending forward, dropping his pants as he did so.
I shut my eyes and redirected them before I opened them again. What was he doing? And why was he doing it right there!?
When I reached the truck and took a seat on the tailgate next to Shane, I muttered under my breath. “I think that a guy might be taking a shit in between the truck and car parked over there.”
Shane’s eyebrows shot up and his eyes widened. He was speechless, so I said what I thought he might be thinking… “Like, what? Why would he need to do that right there? He couldn’t make it to the transit station?”
We watched as the older man, probably in his sixties, wobbled out from in between the cars and slowly made his way through the parking lot, holding his stomach the entire time. “He must not have been feeling good,” I told myself. “But that has to be really degrading, to have to drop your pants in a parking lot, with whoever walks past able to see your ass,” Shane said.
I tried to just laugh it off. “I feel sorry for whoever is parked in that truck,” I said. “We should keep an eye out and warn them.”
But a few hours later, I had all but forgotten it as Rob and I walked around the parking lot picking up trash, and Shane sat on the tailgate talking with Paul. As we got nearer to the car parked at the end of the lot, I realized the truck was gone. “Oh no,” I said to Rob. “I don’t want to look.”
I’m convinced that there is some weird part of the brain that is fascinated with gross things, because as we walked toward that end of the lot, both of us peeked around the car to look. Not only was there a trail of human feces on the ground that looked as though the man must have stumbled while he was taking a poo, Rob pointed out “there’s a footprint in it!” as I turned away and walked back to Jethro.
My stomach was turned upside down and I tried to think about something else, anything else… I asked Rob if he wanted to go for a walk to take pictures. We grabbed our cameras, and as we crossed the intersection next to the bridge, I made one final remark. “I feel so bad for the guy in the truck. Like did he realize it right then, or is he driving home right now going ‘what is that smell?’ the way we do when we step in dog poo. But human poo smells way different than dog poo. I wonder if he figured it out, and I wonder how he feels about that…”
Late that night, when we climbed into our truck to go to sleep, Shane was propped up on his elbow watching the people walking through the parking lot.
“What’s the matter? Go to sleep baby,” I mumbled with my eyes half closed. His answer wasn’t what I expected. “I don’t want anyone pissing on our truck,” he told me. My eyes popped open in surprise. I guess it made sense. Before we went to sleep, we watched a very drunk person piss all over the sidewalk, and a half hour later we realized that another guy was sitting down in that spot. We didn’t have the heart to tell him that he was probably sitting in someone’s piss… it was kind of too late. He must have figured it out, because he got up and moved thirty seconds later. Shane must have realized that as the only two vehicles in this part of the lot, we may have just become the new porta-potty.
“Well what are you gonna do about it anyway?” I asked him. “Are you gonna stick your head out of the truck and be like ‘dude, don’t piss on my house!’” I said with a laugh. “Yes! That’s exactly what I’m gonna do,” Shane said in all seriousness. I giggled to myself and got comfortable in my blanket. “ahhh, whatever you need to do babe.”
I felt the truck move in my sleep, and as my consciousness began to waken to the yellow light of the overpass, I heard the sound of rushing water. My eyes opened and I registered what was happening. Shane was already climbing over me to move into the front seat of the truck. He was looking from one side mirror to the other as I muttered “Here’s your chance babe.”
I wasn’t giggling anymore as I listened to someone piss on our truck and watched as Shane seemed frozen in place in the front seat. I felt anger and frustration simmer under my skin and ripped off my blanket. If he wasn’t going to do it, I was.
That’s so disrespectful! I said to myself. But as I sat up in our bunk, the sound stopped and the truck shuttered slightly with the dissapearence of whoever had just relieved themselves. Ugh. Too late. We missed our chance to yell at somebody and remind them that some people LIVE HERE. I glared at the back of Shane’s head from my spot in the back of the cab and wondered why he had failed to do what he said he was going to do. I rolled over onto my side in anger and pulled the blanket back up over my shoulders. I forced my eyes closed and thought angry thoughts until I fell back asleep.
I was having a nightmare about being trapped in a porta potty when I opened my eyes in the morning. I was laying on my back in our bunk and Shane was asleep next to me. I blinked a few times to try to expel the nightmare, but I couldn’t get rid of the smell. It felt like my skin was covered in the scent of human waste. It was thick in the air and I couldn’t breathe. The heat of the sun glaring on the interstate above us had turned our house into a sauna, and it made my nightmare feel like a reality.
I lurched out of the bunk and onto the front seat. Shane’s eyes opened and I glared at him. “We’re moving our trucks right now!” I demanded. I knew that it was against our community decision. Once we find a place to park, we stay there. The longer we stay, the more likely we are to see some sort of change in the neighborhood, or in ourselves. But I was angry and the frustration from the night before was boiling over. Shane’s eyes were laughing at me. “Why?” he asked. “Because it smells like shit in here, and somebody pissed on our truck last night!” I said. “And you didn’t do anything about it! All that talk about yelling at somebody, and laying in the truck with one eye open, and you didn’t even do anything!”
I jumped out of the passenger side of the truck and took a deep breath. As soon as I opened the door, the smell evaporated from my mind and the space where we live. It was as though it never happened. Shane must have thought the same thing. “It doesn’t smell like shit in here. It’s in your head,” he said. “And you want to know why I didn’t do anything about it, Shay?” I glared at him for dismissing my frustration, but I waited for his explanation from outside of the truck, the sunshine behind me and my hands on my hips.
I watched as he slowly climbed out of bed and into the driver’s seat. His eyes weren’t laughing at me now, they were just sad. He took a deep breath and his voice became serious. He lowered his head and rubbed his palms together as he spoke. “Because last night, when I climbed down here and I was gonna stick my head out the window and yell at the guy, I looked in my side mirror and saw a woman… I think we saw her yesterday sitting over there next to the shopping carts. She’s really tiny and she has messy blond hair.” He paused to see if I knew who he was talking about. I nodded so that he would continue. “I saw her squatting down, leaned against our truck, and I don’t know man… I just,” his voice was upset and my heart was stirred for my husband. My hands fell from my hips and my eyebrows stitched together. “I just couldn’t be mad at her. She’s out here, living under this bridge… it was like 4 o clock in the morning. The transit station was closed. She just needed to pee, and she felt like the safest place was between Jethro and Bubba. It’s totally undignified. It’s totally not cool that she has to do that. I couldn’t yell at her… I just couldn’t.”
My mind replayed the image of him freezing in his place as he sat in the front seat. Damn. I felt like a brick wall collapsed in my chest. I suck.
I leaned against the passenger seat with my face in my hands. I’m sorry God. “I’m sorry babe. You’re right.” I suddenly wanted to cry. But Shane had more to say.
“I sat here for another hour, just watching the people under the bridge,” he said. “And you know the older black lady that lives on the other side of that concrete post over there?” he pointed across the street that divides us from the other set of parking lots that fill the unused space under the bridge. I could still see the woman’s shopping cart and her piles of clothes from where I was standing. I nodded, despite the fact that I hadn’t actually talked to the woman yet. He continued. “I saw her come running around the side of the post this morning at like 5 o clock. She was looking around,” his head moved from right to left quickly to demonstrate, “making sure nobody was driving or walking up the street, and then she dropped her pants and peed right there on the sidewalk. I turned my head you know, because I was embarrassed…” and I was embarrassed for both of them just listening to this story, “but like a few minutes later, after she was gone, she came back around this side of the post holding another pair of pants. I think she must have been trying so hard to pee quickly that she peed on herself…”
Shane’s head was so low it looked like he was praying. His voice was exhausted and sad. He lifted his head as though it weighed a hundred pounds and looked at me with eyes that wanted to cry. “She had to look around all crazy like and try to change her pants, without anyone seeing her… Right out there on the sidewalk….”
I felt ashamed. I was ashamed that I had wanted to yell at people, while Shane was moved with compassion. I’m so sorry God.
I was still standing there talking to Shane and wiping my face down with baby wipes when I saw Paul come around the corner on the other side of Bubba, looking in my direction with a serious expression. When he saw me looking at him he waived me over. Shane opened his door and he waived at both of us, gesturing us to come over there. As I began walking around the front of the trucks, I saw a small woman wearing a black fleece jacket with her chin tucked to her chest and her eyes fixed on the ground, following Paul around the corner. He looked from me to her and extended his arm in her direction. She moved toward it so that he had his arm around her shoulders.
“You talk to her,” Paul said to me as he nodded toward this small woman, who lifted her eyes up at me for a second to reveal a bright shade of blue that reminded me of someone. “She needs to talk to you. Girl talk,” he said with a smile as he removed his arm from her shoulder and touched Shane’s arm, leading him away from the trucks.
I focused my attention on this small woman who was nervously glancing at me every few seconds. I was confused… but okay. Girl talk. I kind of suck at that but I’ll do my best for Paul. She introduced herself as Shawna and told me that I’m beautiful. I laughed and told her that she was too. She started telling me a bunch of random stories about last night, and how she sleeps with three other guys next to one of the concrete posts. She told me how hard it is out here to be a woman and not have people mess with her. She said she can’t be alone out here, it’s too dangerous. I was wondering why she needed to tell me all of this when she told me that she saw us walking toward downtown last night.
“We’d been having a little party over there, you know. We were messed up,” she said with a sad sigh and half chuckle. Suddenly I realized where this was going. Was this the little woman that Shane saw peeing on our truck? And was she about to tell me about it? “It was really late, like really really late I mean, and I needed to GO, you know what I mean?”
I knew what she meant. I could feel my eyes grow wide but I kept my mouth closed so that she could continue. “I was over there, you know, and I saw the trucks, and they were the only spot. You know and I had to GO. But when I was going I saw all the writing on the trucks,” she said with her finger lifted in the air to demonstrate where she saw it, and I knew she was talking about the writing on our camper shells. “I saw all the states and places and stuff, and I realized that you were cool people. And then I realized that I think… I think you guys were sleeping in there…”
My mind was blown. Was this girl trying to make amends for peeing next to my truck? Any anger that I was feeling this morning had melted away. In its place stood compassion and understanding. It suddenly was not a big deal at all, it was such a small deal that I didn’t even want this woman to have to go through the process of apologizing. I tried to stop her. “It’s okay, really… it’s okay.” I said with a half smile and a shrug to let her know that it didn’t matter at all. But she continued. “No, I think you guys were sleeping in there, and I had to GO. Like, I think I took a shit next to your truck while you were sleeping.”
Wait a minute… What? What was she talking about? Did she just say she took a shit? I leaned forward like the wind had been knocked out of me as she continued. “My stomach had been hurting all night, and I tried to tell somebody, like one of the guys, to be like.. you know, to have them go with me somewhere. But they’re assholes, and I didn’t want to walk to far away from anyone while it was still dark out. And I saw your truck, and man… I’m just sorry. I’m sorry that I did that. And If you stepped in poo….” She lowered her head to her chin and bowed over slightly. She forced out a little embarrassed chuckle with her eyes closed. “I’m just sorry man. I realized that I took a shit on you… like on my friends. I mean I didn’t even know you really, but you’re cool people and you’re my friends and I’m sorry I did that.”
I didn’t know what to think. I couldn’t even believe it. I felt like someone had slapped me in the face and said I’m sorry for it in the same instant. What do I say? I closed my eyes for a moment while she wasn’t looking at me and saw Shane’s eyes in my mind. I saw the tears gather in them and I felt the brick wall falling down in my mind. It’s okay… it’s okay….
I changed the subject. We talked for another half hour and she told me about how she met Paul. When she walked away and I walked back to Jethro, I stole a sideways glace in between the trucks. There was a pile of human feces right beneath the window where I lay my head at night. No wonder I woke up feeling like I was living in a porta potty.
I went looking for Shane and found him giving Paul a haircut. They both smiled at me but Shane knew immediately that I was upset. He cocked an eyebrow at me and mouthed “what’s wrong” but I didn’t want to interrupt. I just shrugged and waved at him so that he would know that we could talk about it later. I wondered if Shawna had gone to Paul this morning, feeling guilty, and told him about what happened. That would explain why Paul brought her to the trucks and told her that we needed to talk. He would want us to reconcile. “That’s so brave!” I thought to myself. I don’t think I would have done that. I probably would have tucked tail and stayed away until we left town. But I couldn’t stomach the fact that there was a pile of poo next to our truck.
I decided to go for a walk around the neighborhood, and when I got back, the scent of lemon cleaner greeted me. When I peeked in between our trucks, I saw Shane holding a jug of water and a spray bottle full of OdoBan, a cleaner that we use whenever Indy has an accident in the truck. The space around Jethro was clean and sanitized. Shane saw me and smiled. “So maybe that smell wasn’t just in your head this morning,” he laughed and I smiled as he gave me a hug. Resting my head on his shoulder I breathed a sigh of relief… and a raw mix of emotions bubbled up in my chest. God, what kind of life is this? Where people are living in such a state of degradation and the rest of the world doesn’t seem to care. How hard is it to put a porta potty down here? What kind of person would I be if I didn’t have Shane around to transform my frustration into compassion? Why couldn’t I have just cleaned up the poo like Shane did? I hugged him hard and whispered my gratitude through my tears. He leaned back to brush the hair out of my face. “It’s okay… it doesn’t bother me,” he said with a smile. Thank you God.
Every day that we lived under the bridge, we cleaned up garbage with a picker and a shovel, and filled a dozen trash bags. We tied a sheet up to a fence that we surrounded in cardboard. We placed a bucket under it with a plastic bag inside, a roll of toilet paper next to it and 30 extra plastic bags. We left a little sign and told everyone living close by that we made a little potty spot for those late night situations.
I’ve thought of a thousand stories to tell as we’ve moved through the last few weeks. Yet I’ve never let my fingers reach the keyboard. Two days ago I sat in the passenger seat of my truck with a heavy heart. I created sentences in my mind, and with the completion of each thought I realized that it was incompetent. It just didn’t do it justice. I couldn’t create a story that expressed the totality of the grace, the redemption, the peace, the love, the joy, and the generosity that I discovered deep in the darkness.
4 days ago as I walked away from the transit station across the street from the bridge where we had been living for 3 days, I stared at the lights in the office building in front of me. While the dark night enveloped the city of New Orleans, and the fog settled on the rooftops, the lights in the office building formed the shape of the cross. The first time I noticed it, my mouth gaped open in wonder and curiosity. Did they do that on purpose? Surely they must, I thought as I walked toward the light in the darkness. What are the odds that magically, the same 12 offices have their lights left on each night?
As I took another step toward the cross in the direction of my temporary home under the bridge, the heaviness of our experiences here weighed on my shoulders like I was carrying the dead body of hope. My brain was too exhausted to conjure up the tormented images of people surviving in the most degrading, undignified manner, and the perpetual struggle to make it through each day and still wake up in the morning. I was too numb and tired to replay the images in my mind, but I could feel them. I knew they were there. And they hurt me. For a moment my vision of the cross in front of me blurred, my mind became fuzzy like an old black and white television with a bad antenna, and my ears went deaf to the sounds of life around me. My balance teetered with the weight of my pain, and for a moment I thought I was going to faint in my weakness.
It was then that I saw the cross rush toward me as if it was the ground beneath me as I dropped from the sky. I threw my hands in front of my face to touch it as it made contact with my soul. To catch myself as I fell, to save myself. As if someone flipped the station on the old TV in my mind, I saw myself clearly falling down, face first… the stained and dirty pavement of the sidewalk only millimeters from the tip of my nose, and there amongst the gravel was the cross, shining like a light in the darkness.
I could see my friend Danny, sitting on the sidewalk in Boston, his fist hitting the pavement and his voice repeating the words… “THIS is the only thing that’s real. Eventually we fall, and we hit the dirt, and we realize that THIS is the only truth. The only reality.”
I heard my own voice telling my friend Lori that I wanted to get lower, to get deeper. I wanted to get down and dirty in service. I wanted to do things that no one would know about. That no one could congratulate me for. That would silence the speakers that proclaim that what I do is “awesome” and lift their hand to pat my back. I wanted to get LOW.
I heard my voice tell the street preacher that I didn’t want to simply DO things for the “least of these,” I wanted to JOIN them. I wanted to be the least… the last… the nothing.
I saw the cross rush toward my face and realized the beautiful paradox of my life. The more mistakes I make, the closer I get to Grace. The more I hurt, the more I am healed… and the lower I go, the closer I get to God.