From a distance, a lady named Shaman see us coming and cries out, “It’s the Christians!” That’s not completely true as I am Jewish, but Homeless Outreach–the group with which I am volunteering–is a a Christian faith based group. We approach Shaman and the others, sitting on benches and on the ground around a stone “Martyr’s Memorial” in downtown Oxford, and pass around the sandwiches and hot drinks that we prepared back in college.
“Thank you,” says Shaman. She is dressed in colorful, patchy-baggy clothes, including a bright scarf. Her teeth are worn down but she smiles as she pets her dog, Bliss.
“How’s your week?” I ask.
“All right,” she says. “Bliss is going to have puppies.”
Our group spreads out and settles in to chat. Across the street, a group of students wearing gowns and suits watch us on their way to a fancy dinner. Dogs bound around looking for food or begging for affection. Shaman sets a half a sandwich aside for Bliss and takes a plastic cup of tea.
“Cheers,” she says. “It’s getting cold.”
“Right,” I say. “How shall we spend our ten hours of revelry?”
My friends and I advance through a thrall of gorgeously dressed people, and stop to take stock of the situation. The St. Catherine’s College Ball, which happens only once every three years and takes nearly that long to plan, is a veritable zoo of entertainment. There is strategy involved in the enjoyment: Which dance floor has the best bands at what hour? Is it worth waiting for laser tag when we could play the coconut shy right away? Which photo booth looks more fun? Which–out of zebra, kangaroo, and wild boar–sounds like the best burger meat?
Before arriving at Oxford, I expected the University to be both extravagant and austere. Libraries loomed large in my imagination, but I also conjured black tie dinners, galas and receptions–classy events in honor of distinguished guests or students who achieved high marks. And it’s true. People here study–a lot. Weekend entertainment (if there is any…) is mostly in the form of clubbing. But if you’re lucky, you might get the chance to attend a college ball. They happen only once in an Oxford student’s academic career and the students who plan them do not hold back.
For the first time, I am wearing a tuxedo.
A man sits aside, wrapped in blankets with a bandage around his head. He gives me a knowing smile so I approach to offer a drink, but he waves it away. He speaks quietly and I lean in to hear.
“What do you study?” the man asks. I tell him psychology. “Many speakers come to the University,” he says. “You know Malcolm Gladwell? You know Steven Pinker?” he asks. I say I do. “I’ve met them,” he tells me. It turns out that this man, Nigel, has met quite a few famous people. He has connections in an estate in Hong Kong, in the ministries of Paris, and in the business empires of the United States.
“You know Firestone Tires, in the United States?” he says. “I know Mr. Firestone.”
Nigel is smart enough that these stories could be true. He comes from a distinguished family, but fell on hard times. He recommends books to me, chats about the topics I’m studying in class. Then someone else pipes up encouraging Nigel to eat or drink. He’s been coughing up blood, they say, and hasn’t eaten for days. He refuses to go to the hospital. Someone offers a donut but he waves it off. The other man insists. “I’ll do a cartwheel in the street if you drink that coffee,” the man says. Nigel turns back to me to continue our discussion of the anthropology of England.
The other students stand or sit in groups chatting with people about their week, about ridiculous anecdotes they’ve heard, about the cold. Most of all, Homeless Outreach is about acknowledging people. And their stories…! I heard the tale of a man who was a landscape gardener for ten years, then worked at a dockyard, then even owned the dockyard at one point and who is now destitute. Another woman used to have significant savings before she married a gambling man. A third friendly guy with a twisting goatee gives me an explanation of why homeless people are better pet owners that people who work nine to five jobs.
“We take care of the animals all day,” he says. “Most people leave the dogs in the house, no fresh air, nowhere to go, and they get maybe, what, thirty minute walk at night. You think that’s enough?” I tell him I’d never thought of it that way.
“You want a sandwich?” I ask.
“Cheers. Haven’t eaten much today.”
Burritos. Noodles. Ice cream. Cocktails. Donuts. Popcorns. Wine. Pizza. Burgers. The Ball is a maze of gaudy tents and outdoor terraces, arranged so that I cannot tell where I am from the inside except relative to the other tents. The walls are decorated with tapestries and flowing fabrics, gently glowing lamps. There are three stages: the hippie-lovie-pillowy-karaoke stage, the cute-indie-guys-playing-surprisingly-good-guitar stage, and the this-is-what-i-expected-techno-slash-dj stage. We enjoy them all. We sway. The thrash. We jump. We hold hands and laugh. It’s only eleven thirty pm.
One tent is adorned with thousands of twinkling lights, which illuminate the glamorous masses of students dancing, flirting, chatting, sipping drinks, and generally letting down after three years of entertainment-less study. The men are dapper in black tie, the women luscious or sweet in flowing gowns. Within the first few minutes inside, when I congratulate most people I see on how good they look, it dawns on me how many students in college I actually know. This is a relief, because as a visiting student I used to feel isolated and apart from college life.
“Do you recognize where we are?” I ask a friend, but it’s no use. The quad that I walk around each morning (“Attention: Please Do Not Step on the Grass”) has been transformed. We grab some popcorn and hop inside the photo booth, then take a break in the fresh air before finding an all-you-can-eat-candy-bar. I almost expect Cinderella’s fairy godmother to pop along and tell me that I have forfeited my firstborn child in exchange for the party. I adjust my bow tie and quaff a cup of wine.
Two guys beg me for spare change.
“Come on, just give us thirty pence for a cider, yeah?” one man says.
“Can’t spare a few coins to help me get a bed tonight?” says another.
We are not supposed to give anyone money, just the coffee, tea, chocolate, and sandwiches which we carry in distinctive orange bags. I try to smile my way away but they are persistent.
“I don’t want a sandwich, I want thirty pence,” the first guy says.
Finally, another of the local bunch comes to my rescue. “Ah, lay off,” he says. They laugh and move along to another block. I wonder who I am to deny these guys thirty pence. The guy who came to my rescue claps me on the back.
“Don’t mind them,” he says. “They’re just being rude.”
It embarrasses me that I see people like the ones I hang out with at Homeless Outreach every day, and barely ever talk to them. Usually I feel I don’t have time, or am too ashamed or feel awkward starting a conversation. The first time I went to Homeless Outreach I was afraid that no one would want to talk to us–why would they? But the people we meet, like Nigel, are consistently polite, welcoming, and grateful. I walk home feeling warm.
This is not to downplay these peoples’ hardships. No one wants to be homeless. No one wants to be hungry and cold and ignored. Of course I have no idea what it is really like. It is very hard on them mentally and physically. Most of our Homeless Outreach friends are in and out of temporary housing. Some of them are alcoholics, some are really unlucky, and are depressed. But most–and it took a while for me to regard this as common sense–are simply nice people who simply have nowhere to go.
“The police hassle us if we go into the parking structures,” Nigel explains. That’s why his group is in this particular location tonight. They’ll move on later, once a heater attached to a nearby gym is switched off. The group’s battered coats look sad against the puffing winter wind. Nigel laughs a small gurgling chuckle. Someone mentions that he recently returned from prison.
“What is prison like?” I ask. Nigel considers. Finally he says, “Peaceful.”