We shared a building with the Catholic church. Actually, they rented half of their building to the clinic but we were as separate as each unit in a large duplex. The Church housed a proper nave or worship-place, a residence for the brothers and the priest and a convent for the ‘sisters’. Even though we were very separate in our work, I liked the brothers and I particularly liked the last grouchy, old, plain-speaking, hard-drinking Irish priest. We got along well.
On one occasion I noticed that one of the brothers had not been seen doing his normal brotherly thing recently in the area and I asked the priest, “Hey, where’s ol’ Bob-the-brother. He OK?”
“Oh, yeah. Helluva thing that. But he’s fine.”
But I never saw Bob there again. NOT in the DE anyway…..
A few years (decade) later I bumped into him in an office building uptown. He told me his story.
“I fell in love with one of the sisters. She fell in love with me. We did what loving people do and then we felt real guilty about it and went to confession. A lot. We were forgiven but we found that we kept doing what we should not and finally the priest suggested that maybe confession was not enough to get the sin out. So, I went to a doctor. A Catholic doctor. He knew what to do and did it. I started taking estrogen. After I week or so, I doubled my dose. Every time I saw Sister Sue, I swallowed another handful of pills. But we both had to keep going to confession despite that. This might have continued on for a long time except, after about a year, my boobs were bigger than Sue’s. It was then I decided that neither drugs nor abstinence was gonna do the job. I quit the church, proposed to Sue and we have been together ever since.”
Drugs and sex – Vatican style.
I once asked one of the other elderly priests (really old at 65!) about God and religion and all the foofarah associated with it and he said, “Oh, Hell, don’t believe all that nonsense. That’s just story. None of it is true. Just crap”.
“Geez, that doesn’t sound quite right coming from a priest. Are you sure you wanna say stuff like that, having committed your life and all to it.”
“Oh yeah. I really committed my life to telling the truth, actually. Being honest. And then I committed it to helping people. Then I went down to basic general goodness, day to day, kinda. And then I kinda committed to scotch for awhile. But I am back to truth right now. Things change, eh? Go with the flow, man.”
I liked him. He seemed to be telling the truth.
We had more than a few religiously motivated workers in the DE. They were all pretty good. Pretty nice. Very brave. One old guy was a real hell-raiser. He’d get into it now and again with the locals. Regular punch-ups. That was always good PR for the local United church. I liked him, too, but he was a little whacked.
Probably the best of the bunch was May Gutteridge. Saint James Social service. She was in her fifties when I was in my twenties and she had been there for decades. She would last a few more decades after I left. May was the mother Teresa of skid row (“If you judge people, you have no time to love them”) but she was also a tough person. She and another old woman, Margaret (Chisolm, I think), ran their ‘services’ like drill sergeants.
These two old ladies would yell at and manhandle big, dirty, bad guys all day long. Some of the guys were crazy, most of them were angry, drunk or stoned, some of them were armed. Made no difference to them. Either of them would push Shaquille O’Neal out the door if they were ticked. And they were always ticked.
I had a few problems with some guys myself now and then. One story would curl your hair. But I would never mess with the two old ladies. No one sane would. Somehow they conveyed more power and fury, more threat and malevolence, more strength and commitment to do battle than anyone they ran into. Like Sun Tzu, they always won by simply showing off that they possessed a much greater force and were ready to use it.
The odd thing was that there were likely more women than men doing social work down there at any one time, in any one service. And, if the numbers were even, the positions weren’t. The women were always in charge. There was me, and maybe two or three other operations run by guys but the majority were run by grey-haired old women (15+).
Even most of my clinic staff (37) were women. When you think of skid row, you generally tend to think of danger, madness, violence, drugs and being amongst the walking dead. And you would not be far off. But when you think that the majority of the workers down there were old women, it is sobering and illuminating.