Yesterday, as I gathered my water bottle and purse to make my way to The Salvation Army community center in north Omaha, eight words on the back of my notebook caught my eye.
“Move at the pace of what is real.”
I’d scrawled the sentence at a stoplight when I’d heard it on a podcast a few days before. I hadn’t been sure at the time what it meant exactly, but it somehow seemed important, something to pay attention to. I read the words a second time as I fished out my keys and slipped into my winter coat.
As I turned down Pratt Street, I saw that the line of people waiting wrapped around the outside of the low-slung brick building and down the sidewalk. The gym, when I walked in, smelled like sneakers and cooked vegetables. I settled into a metal chair at the tables in front, straightened my pile of forms and reviewed the instructions. The hundreds of folding chairs in rows across the length and width of the basketball court filled quickly. Each person held a slip of paper with a number penned in black Sharpie.
I signaled to the organizer that I was ready to see the first Christmas assistance applicant.
I held up her child’s Social Security card. “Girl or boy?” I asked, pointing to the name on the card.
“A girl – nina,” Florencia said, smiling. “In Spanish, girls’ names end in ‘a,’ boys’ names end in ‘o,’” she explained, her accent thick, her voice kind.
“I should know that,” I said, laughing sheepishly. “I’m sorry my Spanish is so terrible.”
“No, no,” she assured me. “You are fine. You are good.”
“Your name is beautiful,” I said, as Florencia gathered her paperwork. “And now I know you are a girl because your name ends in ‘a.’”
She smiled. “You are learning,” she said.
“I thought I was going to have to tell you that you didn’t qualify for senior assistance,” I replied to Ernestina when she told me she was 77. “You don’t look a day over 60!”
“People tell me that all the time,” she said, the skin around her eyes crinkling into a smile. “I believe it, Ernestina,” I replied.
“Call me Ernie,” she said, as I handed her back her Social Security card.
“How are you two this afternoon?” I asked the couple slumped in the folding chairs across from me. “I’ve been better,” Billy said. “It’s gotten cold too early this year.”
Lana said nothing as she pushed their Social Security cards toward me. Billy’s card was worn soft as flannel, the nine-digit number faded to a blur.
“Looks like this one has gotten some use over the years,” I said, holding up the card. “Yup,” Billy said, nodding. “It’s the original. I carry it with me everywhere.”
“Try to stay warm today,” I said, as they stood to leave.
They came and sat across from me – some old, some young; some stooped and slow with canes, others with babies on their hips, stuffed diaper bags hanging from their shoulders.
Some spoke perfect English; others labored over their few words. Some were put together, hair flat-ironed, makeup perfectly applied. Many more were disheveled, in mismatched clothes and layers.
I completed the proper paperwork – checking boxes, confirming addresses and telephone numbers, verifying documents, asking names and ages and shoe sizes and toy suggestions for their children and grandchildren. The line was long, and the chairs in the gym kept filling one after the other, but it seemed important not to rush. We made small talk and eye contact, and sometimes we laughed before we got down to business.
We sat across from one another in metal folding chairs in a gym that smelled like sneakers and cooked vegetables, and we moved at the pace of what was real.