The Breakfast

By Kate Uhlir
Fragments of newspaper swirl wildly in the winter gusts.
     November's cruel authority grabs and imprisons Cleveland, spreading biting cold with 40-mile-an-hour winds. November! Winter adds new dimensions to Cleveland's homeless, who often sleep on concrete and steel streets.
     "Hey man, leese it ain't snowin'!" Ed's pleasant, mellow voice doesn't have much comfort for the trio who sleep in skull caps, overcoats and plastic garbage bags. The night on Superior Avenue's sidewalks means huddling together in a large cardboard box. And not moving around much. If you move in the plastic shelters, you have to be careful not to make rips. Even a little rip'll quickly conquer all the warmth in these fragile shelters.
     A little white churchwoman steps into the street from the front of St. Peter's church. She blows up warm air from her lower lip to her cold nose. She shivers, pulls up her coat collar. She takes a deep breath and puts her hands into her pockets and stands still. She's watching a sad chapter in Cleveland's downtown life.
     Three street people gently huddle together against the cold. She hears their soft voices chuckle and laugh. Should she envy the comfort they eagerly give each other? The little white churchwoman has been lonely for a long time.
     "It's so loving. It's so loving," she murmurs to herself.
     Hushed voices continue. "Ain't snowin', but Ed man, it sho cold!"
     The soft voice of a young woman! Surprised, the little churchwoman sees Catherine, who spent the night in a clean, warm bed at the women's shelter. Who walked to 18th and Superior to find Ed amid the plastic-sheathed trio on the sidewalk. Catherine wants warm food for Ed. Today it's too cold to be without warm food. How will she get warm food?
     It's Sunday. Cosgrove's closed.
     Five mornings a week, downtown's Bishop Cosgrove Center is open. It's warm; full of homeless people who chat, drink hot coffee and eat great day-old pastries. But today, Cosgrove's closed and a noisy, bitter wind blows newspaper into the air outside.
     Ed's baritone voice swells again. "First off woman, we gotta get you some gloves. Looka yer hands." Catherine nods. She walked through the streets to look after Ed, but Ed's first thoughts are for her. He presses her bony fingers between his warm palms. The 28-year-old woman stares silently at their four hands locked together.
Catherine stares a lot. Words don't work anymore. Everything's been said. She has nothing to add. Her mouth tastes bitter; with loss, discouragement, loneliness, stupidity, ugliness. Her head's filled with her momma's screams, "You never gonna be nothin'." Catherine's lived with years of drugs and abuse. She feels too destroyed to rebloom.
     But Ed talks gently. He patiently insists that Catherine is important and beautiful. Ed's smart and strong. His words are so important now.
     "Can I get anyone some coffee?" The little churchwoman's voice sounds strange!
Jack squints a wondering eye upward. He answers with a grunt and slides further into his plastic bag. Ed smiles a mellow, "Yeah, we'll go." Catherine nods.
     Ed and Catherine crawl out of their bags. They straighten their overcoats in the cold. They fold their ragged blankets and cardboard shelter. Ed's voice continues his appreciation. "This'll be great! Y'know, Cosgrove's closed today. This'll be great."
"Car's over there. Hop in." The little churchwoman opens the door of her big car. Their little world warms quickly and for a long moment, it's so wonderful. The trio drive to the East Side.
     Ed chats about his part-time short-order cook job and his ability to juggle many orders efficiently. "I love to cook," he says. Catherine smiles silently. Laughter interrupts the chatter. Half-hour later, everyone bounds into the little churchwoman's pretty house in the Heights.
     "Nice place ya got here, ma'am!"
     "It is, indeed." But the little churchwoman wonders what her neighbors will say. A strange trio with big plastic garbage bags full of blankets and folded cardboard pieces. What will she tell her kids if they come for a Sunday morning visit and see that she has homeless street people in the kitchen for breakfast? What would she do?
     Her silent questions quickly change into, "Would you like to shower and freshen up a bit while I make coffee and French toast?"
      "Yeah, man!" Eagerly, Ed goes into his big bag and withdraws a small, zip-lock baggie. It's a tidy shaving kit, complete with a tiny bottle of skin bracer. The little churchwoman gives him a large fresh towel and leads him up the steps to shower. She returns to her kitchen and chats with Catherine. The two make breakfast. Ten minutes later they hear Ed's mellow voice again. "Feel like a brand new man, ma'am." He looks wonderful. And they all laugh.
     It's Catherine's turn to shower. The little churchwoman finds a wool skirt. Offering it to Catherine, she says, "I hope you won't be offended. But I can't wear it anymore. I've gained weight. Catherine, I don't have any extra gloves, but I think I've got a pair of earrings you'd like. And here's a lipstick. It'll help those chapped lips."
     A ten-minute miracle later, Catherine enters the breakfast room. her black eyes dance as she swings the dangling earrings. She's full of giggles and beaming.

Breakfast is fragrant, tasty and loving. For a long moment the world is warm and so wonderful.

Copyright NEOCH and the Homeless Grapevine published January – February 1996 Issue 13