Wednesday 10 July 2013

Charity is a Gift - 15

If English your second language? click here for a simplified version of the dialogue.
 ...Continuation from ‘Homeless in Billings’.
 Being ‘Sleepless in Seattle’ or ‘Homeless in Billings’ had not featured in our plans when we set out to leisurely cross America by Greyhound bus. However, on arrival at Billings, Montana, we found that two conferences and the Montana State Rodeo had filled all available hotel rooms. 
Montana Rescue Mission
     There was therefore no room at the inn for us. And so it was, that on a cold October night, we found ourselves officially ‘Homeless in Billings.’ We could either, sleep on a cold bench at the Greyhound Bus depot, or, ‘go with the flow Joe’ and allow ourselves to be rescued by the ‘Montana Mission for Homeless Women and Children. We chose the latter, and were allocated a warm cot space in the ‘Bozeman Room’ at their Lincoln Inn refuge. (Read full details in previous story, no.14)
Experiencing America by Greyhound Bus 
     It seemed we had hardly closed our eyes, when the shrill sound of a tannoy system just outside our door awoke us:
     ‘It’s 6.30 a.m. Please rise, and git yuh rooms cleaned and ready for inspection. Breakfast will be served in forty-five minutes. Check your name on the chore list at the front desk,’ shrilled the tannoy.
     I peered over the bedcover into the early morning gloom, and saw a chipped washbasin, thin floral curtains, and a threadbare carpet.
     What a dump! I thought. What an awful time to be woken up! What a... what a cozy bed! Weren't we lucky not to have slept at the Greyhound bus depot?
Breakfast time
     We peeled the bed from our backs, tidied the room, and went self-consciously down to the dining room. It was heaving with eighty homeless families busy helping themselves from large buckets of cereals, crates of milk cartons, and trays of huge blueberry muffins; all donated by local businesses. Jean and I shared a muffin, but were too embarrassed to put our names down for the lunch and dinner, which was included in the $6 charge for board and lodging.
Service before self
   The Mission had arranged for us to visit the rodeo that evening, so we were committed to staying another night. We checked the chore list and were listed to help serve lunch the next day. We had a free day ahead of us.
     Billings proved to be a remarkable place. We enquired at a local store for directions to catch a bus to an out-of-town shopping mall.
     ‘Yuh mean yuh ain’t got no car! I ain’t never met no one who ain’t got no car. Here take my keys, but be back before 5 p.m. when I close up shop.’
We thanked the owner for his kindness, but politely declined.
Always a helping hand
     Later in the day, we met the manager of the mall who was a Rotarian. We were so busy chatting over coffee that we forgot that our status was ‘Homeless in Billings’. It was only when he insisted on driving us back to our hotel that we had to confess to staying at a mission for the homeless. Why is it that the earth never opens up to swallow you when you most want it?
     Waiting at the refuge were our homeless compatriots anxious to take six chubby waifs and us to the rodeo in a beat-up, over-loaded Buick.
     What a wonderful evening! We sat next to a retired rodeo rider who gave a running commentary on the finer points of bull wrestling, calf branding and bucking broncos’ horsemanship – Billings was indeed a remarkable place. But it was the following morning when the best and most remarkable incidents were to occur: I had left Jean in reception with our bags whilst I went to pay our bill and apologise that we would not be around at lunchtime to do our chores, but would gladly pay a full hotel rate.    
     ‘Nah! Yuh can’t do that, Ah guess yuh’ll just have to pay yuh $6,’ the supervisor said casually.
Our $6 receipt
     I stayed in ‘character’ and offered a $20 bill to pay for two nights, but found they didn't have any change. Apparently, no one ever paid; therefore, no money was kept on the premises.
     ‘Don't worry, keep the $8 change,’ I said.
     ‘Its $14 change you need, cos your first night is free,’ came the reply.
     I could not believe it. I remained in my ‘homeless’ guise, found some smaller notes and paid up – the donation we had planned to make needed reviewing.   
     Just as I turned to leave, a phone call came from Richard, the mall manager, to say that his wife Maggie was insisting that we become their house guests for a few days and that he was already on his way to pick us up.
     Was there no end to Montana hospitality?
All Heart, but No Home
     I explained the situation to Jean, and as I did so, an elderly, but stooped and disheveled man with glazed eyes, sidled up to me, took one look at my bags and said: ‘Are ya goin’ ta Arabia?’
     ‘No, I don’t think so,’ I replied affably.
     ‘Ya oughta go to Arabia, Ah’m goin’. D'ya wanna come with me?’ he continued.
     ‘When are you going?’ I asked good-humouredly.
     ‘Ah’m goin’ this afternoon. If ya wanna come, Ah can go fix it for yuh.’
     Seeing my opportunity to escape, I said: ‘Yes, please.’
     ‘OK, you wait right here,’ he said and shuffled off.
Stop! Help the Homeless
     Within a few minutes, Richard's car pulled up outside.
     Not a moment too soon, I thought, as I started to quickly load our bags into his car. But I was not quick enough, for our newfound friend came scurrying out and grabbed hold of my arm:
     ‘There, Ah said Ah'd fix it fur yuh,’ and with that he held out his hand with two complimentary tickets for the film, Lawrence of Arabia. I felt very small and humble, and died inwardly from a thousand lashes of shame. How well the poor look after each other.
A Big Montana Welcome
     I wanted to scoop him up and take him home with me; I hugged him unashamedly and explained that we couldn't go as we were leaving with Richard. 
     How could we ever adequately repay all this Montana kindness? None of the gifts or monetary donations we have since given, will ever suffice for what had been the most memorable of American experiences. 
     Billings epitomizes the true ‘Heart of America’.
CLICK HERE to read another tale of when they were homeless in Morocco

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