Behind the Bench*

It was a very long night.

I’d decided that I had to sleep, that I wouldn’t be able to deal with the next day if I stayed awake all night. So I rolled out my sleeping bag on a slight hill covered with wood chips. It would be softer than the grass, I thought, cushioned. But the incline of the hill and the slipperiness of the sleeping bag made it impossible to get situated. So I moved down the hill to right behind the bench. It was flat earth there and having the bench felt like having just a bit of a wall between me and the world.

I was with five other people. One of the two men in our group was already hunkered in his sleeping bag and appeared to be out for the night. The second man was pacing. From my vantage point behind the bench, I could see his shoes passing by as he did a circuit around the planter in the middle of the park which was our first night sleeping place. The others – three women – were wrapped in their sleeping bags but sitting on the benches, telling stories and laughing, the sounds sweet and reassuring. I closed my eyes thinking of my aunts in the kitchen after Thanksgiving dinner, their heels kicked off and wee glasses of bourbon in their hands.

I decided that in order to sleep I had to stay motionless, will my body to be still, and not let my mind roam around the big bits of fear that seemed littered around me like leaves dropped from the trees. I was alright, I thought, the others are awake, nothing bad will happen. I thought that for a good while and then, thinking that I had been awake for hours, I suddenly awoke and looked around. Now, the pacing member of our group was in a heap in a sleeping bag yards from me and the women had stopped talking because they were asleep on the ground or on the benches. No one was awake but me.

Cars screeched through the intersection that was just yards away from where we were sleeping. The light from the all night gas station radiated like a beacon on a lighthouse and I thought of going across the street to use the bathroom and look at the donuts, bask in the extreme fluorescent light, and pretend that I was a regular person, just up very late and hungry for gas station food.

I stayed in my sleeping bag and stared at the back of the bench. There was a tangle, a messy web of thin strands of dirt and insect construction just inches from my face and I studied it, but not for long, deciding it was better to close my eyes than to watch for whatever crawling thing lived there. I turned to face the other direction.

What if I open my eyes and someone is looking at me? What if the people who own the voices across the street decide to pull my sleeping bag out from under my head? What if the police come? What if a dog finds me or a rat? How do people do this every night? How do they sleep alone outside? Thank God, I had my group, sleeping or not, they were with me. I wasn’t alone. Still, the peril that I felt made my heart pound.

I pulled the sleeping bag over my head and covered my face with my hands. You have to let go of the fear, I told myself. You have to sink into the earth and give up needing to know what will happen next. I said these things almost out loud, like a prayer. And then I slept until morning.


*48 Hours of Homelessness is the annual fundraiser for Street Angels, a Milwaukee homeless outreach organization. I’m the president of the board of directors and a long time volunteer/advocate. This year, I participated along with five other people in ‘being homeless’ from Friday to Sunday night. I will be writing about this experience intermittently over the next several weeks.

6 Comments on “Behind the Bench*

  1. In the 1960’s my grandfather in Evanston was involved in starting an urban immersion experience for pastors in training. The students would get a few dollars and told to spend the weekend on the street. It was very radical at the time, but he said they really learned a great deal from being there.

    • That was so wise of your grandfather. It’s an experience that can’t be put into words but really creates a much deeper understanding of what life is like….I got a taste of that but I was with five other people who I knew and trusted. If I had done it alone, I don’t think I would’ve lasted more than a few hours. Thanks for sharing your grandfather’s wisdom.

      • You are welcome. He once got assaulted on the street in Chicago when he was in his 70’s defending an “old man.” I love the guy.

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