I go to this place just to clean the bathrooms. The woman who normally does this job is in the hospital and my friend, who invited me, says there is a need. With cleaning supplies in hand, I step over the dirty, sleeping man to enter the building. I don’t want to admit my fear, but it’s right up front. It stays there until the moment I step into the warm room, which smells of bacon and feels like love. There are only women there at this time sharing a meal, many of them smiling. The line is blurry between who is giving and who is receiving.
Introductions are made as I watch each woman. I see the brokenness intertwined with the beauty. It’s a small little place on a dirty highway where the deeds done right outside its doors are ugly. But inside, music plays, food is served, and women are given the love, respect, and dignity that’s been lost out on those streets.
I make my way to the back where the two bathrooms are. They’re both occupied, leaving me standing uncomfortably looking out the locked back door. A man sits with a woman, half-dressed, sitting on his lap. She looks tired and worn, marks on her body, as she struggles to hold up her head. Maybe she’s drunk, or high, or sick. Or maybe she’s so beaten down she doesn’t know what to do. Maybe it’s all of these things. It’s no matter to the man who pulls her closer, kissing her pale face and neck. I look away, nervous to make eye contact.
I talk with more of the women who regularly volunteer here while I wait to clean. As uncomfortable as I am, I love this place and I know I want to come back. Finally, I see the women come out of each of the bathrooms, dressed to go back to their work on the streets. They both look exhausted and annoyed that my friend and I are waiting to clean. It’s closing time and they can’t stay in this safe place forever. I don’t talk to them. I don’t know what to say. I’m just here to clean the bathrooms.
We go to work, picking up the trash, the press-on nails, the remnants of the women getting ready. It’s filthy and gross, but I’m not disgusted. I feel a sense of happiness that I can help in this small way. I think about what I’ve seen so far and I’m glad I’m here. With the two of us working together, it doesn’t take long to finish. I talk to a few of the women that work there and ask questions. They introduce me to a couple of the “regulars”. All of these women thank me for cleaning their bathrooms.
I leave to walk back to my car, nervous of all the men lingering around the building. I climb in and lock my doors. I don’t like it that I’m so untrusting of everyone I see outside. I have no idea of their stories, what they do, who they really are. I drive away feeling the satisfaction of filling a need for such a great cause, mixed with my shame of feeling like I’m somehow better than these people. I know I’m not.
I return every week, cleaning supplies in hand, less nervous each time. I talk with new women and listen to a little bit of their stories. I look them in the eyes and I smile. I see their beauty and their thankfulness in the middle of sadness. I am here for much more than just to clean the bathrooms.