One of my favorite parts of *many* episodes of Orange is the New Black is repeated use of flashbacks and backstories to illuminate the particular series of (often disturbing, unfair, violent) events that lead to one of the characters ending up in jail.
I’ve been volunteering at Veterans Village for a long time now, and each time I go I try to imagine a new story about how someone got to this place, to being a homeless Veteran in Tallahassee Florida, eating dinner with me and my friends and our students.
Most of the Veterans I talk to give me pieces of their story and I try to not fill in the rest using my overactive imagination.
This past week I didn’t have to imagine anything for one of the Vets who opened up to me.
This is how it went down.
I arrived during at Veterans Village with two trays of cakes, two trays of arroz and a crockpot of corn and bean fiesta from a cookbook my mom sent me.
When I went upstairs (carrying a cake… on slippery stairs during a thunderstorm --- who trusts me to do that, who?) to the room we usually serve dinner, the door was locked. I walked back down and asked if anyone could call someone to unlock the door. Yes, I could have called myself but I already spent enough time cooking and driving and all that, and now that I’m here surrounded by people with cellphones, I trust one of them will help. And while I wait and trust, one of the veterans came up to me.
I didn’t ask his name, but you would know him right away. He’s taller than 6’0 (I’m so short, I only know to look up at people and judge: “shorter than me” “short like me” “not so tall” and “OK, you’re tall”) and probably my age.
I say this because of his choice of hairstyle: he has his hair is parted down the middle and braided into two pigtail braids, just like Snoop Dogg. I recognize it. I recognize him. We hug.
After we hug he asks, “You’re the doctor, right?” and I say yes because I’m not always here and I’ve been a blonde and I’ve had longer hair and I’m sure I’m a blur as I race by anyway.
He thanks me for the dinners we bring and then he tells me he used to live in Los Angeles on Skid Row. I nod, still holding the cake, ready for what is coming.
“We had to look for food, no one was feeding us,” he told me. “So I went into dumpsters looking for food. Mostly at night.”
I don’t say a word, just leaving space for where he is taking our story. I’m still holding the cake.
He continues, “One night I was behind a grocery! There was so much!”
I smile back, nodding, imagining the moment.
“But it was dark and I was in there going through bags and then BANG someone else jumped in and almost landed on me.”
My friend continues, laughing…. “He starts going through the bags and I was afraid he would find me and so I sat so quiet….”
I clarify, “He didn’t land on you, right? You were ok? I bet that was the scariest thing ever!”
He laughs more. Yes, he was OK. We don’t talk about Veteran stuff, about army stuff, about VA stuff. This is just human stuff. Hunger. Loneliness. Fear.
I put the cake down and hug him and tell him he never has to look in a dumpster for food again.
He agrees, he never has to do that again. Never.
We hug again. I hug him for his mother, his grandmothers, his aunts, for the people who for whatever reason aren’t here for him tonight and have sent me and my friends and students instead.
Just then, someone tells me that the room has been unlocked upstairs, and so I pick the cake up and carry it up there and get on with what we were all there for.