Parallel universes exist. Only rarely do they collide. A mere razor's edge divides them. Feet firmly planted, I straddled that thin dividing line, almost by accident.
Standing at the downtown bus stop, feeling marooned, I faced a difficult choice. I had just missed my bus. Fighting a mild cold, a bitter lake breeze chilled me to the bone. I was tired, hungry, and had nowhere to turn. Then the fog parted, as if by enchantment, and I was beguiled by the taphouse across the street.
I had deliberately placed myself in this position — without a car or plan — as a small means of identifying with the people to whom I had come to write a cover story for the upcoming issue of Duluthian Magazine. In my current state of confusion, hunger and cold, and after a dynamic interview that introduced me to a world I never knew existed, I had entered into a small portion of their world.
Should I continue to "suffer" for the sake of the story? Another bus was due to arrive. This option, the noble choice, would require an additional two-mile walk home. This meant a relapsed cold, unabated hunger and greater opportunity to feel as "they" do.
The climate-controlled oasis, a bastion of abundance, had come into view as I considered my options. Should I wile away the next hour in sumptuous luxury or suffer instead?
Money is tight at our house. The federal government, with its guidelines, says we exist below the poverty line. Frivolously buying myself lunch and beverage is far from the norm. It feels like I'm robbing my own kids, so this was a real conundrum.
The dilemma persisted for all of five minutes. Briskly, in anticipation of the comfort that awaited me, I raced across the street.
As I stepped inside out of the biting wind, away from my predicament, I immediately noticed the restroom policy: "We do not provide restrooms to the public. Bathrooms are private, provided for the convenience of our patrons ... "
Upon crossing the threshold, I re-entered my world. No longer was I wandering the streets with nary a place to go. I reached into my wallet, employed my all-access pass and became a warmly welcomed patron.
Outstanding choices were placed before me, any of which were mine for the taking. Within 20 minutes, as I sipped from one of 52 beers on the menu, I was devouring a delicious, juicy burger. At 14 bucks, this was utter lavishness.
Frankly, at a moment of weakness, this was an unwise, impulse purchase. Having paid with a credit card, I'll worry about that later.
What's it like to be thrust out into the cold, having no credit whatsoever, completely unwelcome? Nowhere to turn. No prospects. No hope. No life experience to draw from.
I had just spent an entire morning at Life House, where the collective mission of 30 dedicated workers (20 percent of whom I spoke with) is "to reconnect homeless and street youth to their dreams."
I toured the facility, observed dozens of youth gregariously chatting and breaking bread together, and became enthralled by a history that proves one person can make a difference.
The origin of this organization, which wields a $2 million annual budget, is traced to an ordinary woman who allowed her teenage son to have a friend over for a sleepover.
Perhaps she granted permission begrudgingly, as I would have. The later discovery, that her son's friend — at around the age of 15 — had no home, changed her life forever. This simple event reverberates throughout our community to this day, the knowledge of which has stuck with me.
While my family might be considered "poor," we are rich in hope and love for one another. Additionally, we have full access to society's riches and benefits, consequences be damned.
Every day, the staff of Life House interacts with kids for whom this is unknown. They have endured, among other horrors, intensely degrading acts for the sole purpose of spending a single night sheltered from deadly subzero weather.
Contrary to popular belief, poor choices and homelessness are not in a direct cause and effect relationship. Particularly when it comes to kids. Sometimes, there simply is no choice.