(Paul Sableman)

Miss Faye’s shelters

‘It’s a long story how I come to clean them, these here bus shelters. God told me to do it, really.’


ATLANTA

Mostly it’s cigarette butts Miss Faye finds. Scraps of paper, too. Doesn’t matter what kind of trash. She sweeps it away all the same.

For at least six, seven years now, five days a week she has cleaned the four bus shelters near Adair Park in southwest Atlanta. Maybe more. A good while, anyway. She also cleans bus shelters in the West End and on Saturdays in Vine City.

It takes her about 15 minutes to clean a bus shelter. She says the city pays her $100 a month. She’s not sure about that, but it sounds right. Maybe it’s the shelter that gives her the money. Or the city gives the money to the shelter to giver to her. She doesn’t know. One of those. It’s hard to keep information straight. She knows she has her work to do. She knows that much, no questions. She mutters to herself responding to voices only she hears. She keeps a pair of rubber gloves in a back pocket and a broom by her side.

“It’s a long story how I come to clean them, these here bus shelters. God told me to do it, really.”

Miss Faye moves into slivers of shade offered by a small tree growing through a crack in the sidewalk beside a rusty, steel fence. Cars park behind her in a sprawling shopping center. Young men walk past and ignore her. A cool breeze blows through the drying leaves on the tree and she wipes her forehead and lets out a long breath. Despite the muggy 80-degree heat, she’d rather have it this hot than cold. She won’t clean the bus shelters in December and January, No, no, no, she says shaking her head. Too cold. She’d freeze. Yes, I would, she says.

Miss Faye leans against the fence and adjusts a cluster of stuffed plastic shopping bags at her feet. Clothes fill three of the bags almost to bursting. Folded newspapers cut through the seams of two other bags.

Yet another bag of newspapers hangs from the fence, drying in the sun. Someone spilled coffee on it this morning in the downtown shelter where Miss Faye has lived since 2014. Most the newspapers date back months.

The shelter staff wakes her at 6 in the morning. She volunteers by cleaning up loose trash — mostly cigarette butts again — outside the shelter and washing dishes. She then drinks a big old cup of coffee the staff gives her. Gives her, she emphasizes. Free. She likes that, starting her day without having to pay for nothing.

Shelter rules require Miss Faye and everyone else who stayed overnight to take their belongings with them when the shelter closes in the morning. Miss Faye carries her life’s possessions in her bags: Three in one hand and three in the other, shifting them from hand to hand when her arms get tired. Then she waits to catch a bus with a token the shelter staff gave her to Adair Park.

“Whew, it’s hot,” she says, slurring her words around missing teeth. “My legs is sore. I’m tired. I got to sit down.”

She adjusts a bag of clothes and sits on it, resting the back of her head against the fence, the bag beneath her deflating until it settles flattened and firm. Some boys stole two pairs of pants from her while she cleaned a bus shelter last week. Just snatched them, sure did.

A green scarf wrapped around her gray hair clings to the fence. Perspiration stains her blue blouse and gray slacks. She stretches thin her legs and wiggles her toes in frayed, gray slippers. Her careworn face leaves the impression a worn map, lined, faded and slack.

Miss Faye glances at a bank clock. Almost noon. She could use a sandwich. Something. She likes any kind of food and she has enough change for a sandwich from QuikTrip. But she’d have to take her bags with her. More lugging around. No, thank you, she says. She’s not that hungry. Not yet.

“Don’t do that! Don’t do that!” she shouts at a boy scratching the plastic glass walls of a bus shelter she just cleaned. He leers at her and begins punching it.

“Oh,” she says and turns away from the onslaught. She can’t do nothing about scratches.

Miss Faye guesses her age at 56, 57 maybe. She came to Atlanta from Fort Smith, Arkansas after a short stay in Kansas City, Missouri. Must’ve been around 1986. Maybe not that far back. Maybe more. She doesn’t know. She lived with a sister. She never married. She has no children.

Her sister moved to Los Angeles, but Miss Faye stayed in Atlanta and cleaned hotel rooms. She hasn’t worked since her thyroid operation some years back. For a time, she shared an apartment with a man. Shared with him, she emphasizes. She doesn’t sleep around, she says.

One morning, he threw all her stuff out in the hall and she spent the night in a homeless shelter where she has remained. She says she doesn’t know why he threw her out. The man drank and could have fits. She didn’t argue with him, just gathered up her clothes and walked on, a response to problems in her life that is now a lifelong habit. She’s eligible for some kind of state check but is unsure what kind. She asks social workers at the shelter about it but gets confused by the paper they tell her she must fill out. She wants to find an apartment but knows as little about doing that as she does applying for state aid.

“You staying cool, Miss Faye?” a woman asks.

“Trying.”

“I’ll be glad when you get you an apartment and have some place to live.”

“Me, too. These bags is too heavy.”

“Take care. I’m going to wait on this bus.”

“I will.”

“I don’t want you to have heat stroke or nothing, Miss Faye.”

“Me neither.”

Miss Faye sees the same bunch of people at the bust shelters almost every day. After 9 in the morning, they might have to wait as long as 45 minutes for a bus. Some of them cuss out the driver if the bus is late and the time on their transfer ticket has run out.

Not everyone she sees is waiting for a ride. They stop, sit, cool off, get up and walk on. Some of them have no place to go. Miss Faye recognizes them from the shelter. They ride a bus only for the air conditioning.

When she has completed her work, Miss Faye prefers to sit in what shade she can find and wait until a little after three in the afternoon or so when she catches a northbound bus for the shelter. Sometimes, if there’s no wind, lingering exhaust fumes bother her. But never too bad. She bides her time.

“I got to get me a drink of water or something,” she says.

She contemplates her bags but doesn’t move. She watches as the bus shelters fill with people and empty out. Fill, empty. Fill, empty. Cigarettes fall, gum is spit out, candy wrappers are tossed. Her work never ends.

She remains siting a moment longer, cooling beneath a cloud blocking the sun, her work here finished for now, the long day ahead just beginning. Time to get on and clean the bus shelters in West End. She lets out a breath, mutters to herself and nods appreciatively to some unspoken comment she alone hears. Then she stands and picks up her bags and begins walking.