L. is a small, furtive woman, with dark browns and deep circles of wrinkles around her eyes and her mouth. There is obvious evidence of behavioral disorders and disabilities. You can read the story of her life in the shuffling walk, the thin, cold shoulders and the narrow, cracked line of her teeth. She lives in a tiny studio apartment in a hundred-year-old SRO building in downtown Portland.
My supervisor A. warned me that L. is hard to turn around; she doesn't trust people, or change. She's had a rough time of things and she's seen a lot of people turn their backs on her. She can be spiteful and vindictive, pacing the lobby like a malevolent, radioactive squirrel.
All of this notwithstanding, L. is one of A.'s favorite residents. She can be very sweet and open, in her own way. She has two cats that she cares very deeply for. As with my Mom, the smallest gestures cause enormous delight for her. A. makes a point of giving me as many details about L. as possible, anticipating that I will need to be on the ball with what she needs.
People start moving into the lobby and immediately everyone globs onto A., since she's the face everyone knows and loves. Also, A. is tall and curvy, whereas I'm male. But you must never underestimate the power of cookies and coffee; the cookies and the coffee are like twin gravitational wells, against which no body can exert any real resistance. Soon enough small knots and strays peel away from the gaggle around A., and then, much to everyone's surprise, I, too, now have a gaggle of Brechtian/Dickensian characters, pleading or wheedling or curious or hungry or all at once.
- M., a stooped, greying, fastidiously combed yeti of a man with wistful eyes and yellow-stained fingers. Wants to open a shoe-shine stall by the waterfront. Need to call City Hall.
- E., a septuagenarian Navy veteran with children ranging in age from 59 to 16. He's still paying child support. Very genteel and soft-spoken, understated sense of humor. Can I score him some baseball tickets?
- P., alcoholic, tattooed, nerve damage in his legs, just qualified for a coveted Section 8 voucher. Misses his motorcycle. Overwhelmed by complicated websites. Needs help with application forms. P. belly-laughs like my Grandpa. A. notices that I can make P laugh, and she smiles and says I'm doing good.
What followed was a fifteen minute nonstop monologue on how L grew up with horses. Tall horses, proud horses, gentle horses. She knows how to turn them, how to rein them in, how to connect with them. She knows how to take care of them, how to feed them, how to watch out for them. She's scared of the big, fiery ones. She hasn't seen a horse in thirty years. She misses them. She would really, really like to ride a nice, gentle horse again. Could I get a horse for her to ride?
Later A. tells me that when she was talking me up to L., A. mentioned that I knew how to ride horses bareback (when you don't have a college degree to put on a resume, you put down everything you've got), and I guess that's what got through to L. more than anything else. When L. said she didn't know what to say to me, A told her to ask me for something that I might be able to do for her, because that's what I'm here for.
I'm looking for horses right now.