Just because something doesn't do what you planned it to do doesn't mean it's useless.
-- Thomas A. Edison
My plan, such as it was, was sublime and simple. When I got into Norfolk, the first thing I would do was call the Dorothy Day House. For those not familiar with Dorothy Day or the Catholic Workers, that's what fucking Google is for. Seriously, though The Catholic Workers are rooted in Christian Anarchism, with a touch of liberation theology. They have done good work since The first Dorothy Day House opened in the 1930's. They also ran Joe Hill Houses of Hospitality.
These are names you should know about. Look them up. And after you read the inadequate blurbs on Wikipedia, go and read more about them. It's part of that history the school board, the government, and your parents didn't want you to know about.
But you know what the sage says about best laid plans.
The bus dumped me in a section of downtown, at the intersection of Virginia Beach Blvd and Monticello Ave. There was nothing. A huge parking lot -- on the other side of which was a hub for Hampton Road Transit. Some not too friendly store fronts, light industrial buildings, and the former location of the Union Mission -- which is now located on the exact opposite side of town. I had a general idea where the Dorothy Day House was in relation to Stella's house... it's about 7 miles away... but I had no idea where I was in relation to either of those things.
When I called the number, though, I was told there was no room. The guy I talked to was genuine, apologetic. He asked my name, and where I was coming in from. He recommended a few places to get in out of the cold, and told me where I could meet a bus and come to church if I wanted.
After I hung up with him, I immediately started thinking. I knew how much money I had; I knew it wouldn't stretch very far if I had to rent a hotel room. The Union Mission was an option; but I was dead set against Stella seeing me that way. I mean, she knows me well enough to know that I'm probably not above sleeping in a shelter. And it was bad enough that she would probably figure out -- I thought -- what was going on her Dad's (former) home front.
Spending my money on a motel -- even a cheap one -- would also mean cutting my visit short. I would need to make sure I could get out of Norfolk with enough money in my pocket not to starve, and not to get stuck.
My next move was to walk around, and see if I could get my bearings. The Norfolk of my memory is an unpleasant, ugly place with only one highlighting factor: the fact that my daughter lives here. Nothing about that had changed. I don't like Norfolk. I don't like that it's a military town. I don't like that my daughter attends a school that commonly makes the news because some kid brings a gun to school or because of some fight that gets out of control. I don't like that a significant number of things that I object to are glorified here: war, government, nationalism, popcorn patriotism, group think.
And I didn't like the fact that the guy from the Dorothy Day House understood very clearly, but tried not to tell me, that there was very little help for the down and out here. Other than the Union Mission, he said there was one other place where they opened up a gymnasium and let people sleep on the floor when the weather's cold.
As I walked around, trying to stretch out my legs and figure out what I was going to do, a black man in a long dark coat approached me. Well, more point of fact, he stumbled up to me. I don't know if the man was drunk, or high, or just... off. But I was familiar with the look. Long dark coat, the kind department stores donate to clothing barrels. Fresh pajama shirt. Khakis. Worn out gym shoes.
"Hey man," he said. "You gotta a dollar? I need a dollar to catch the bus to the mission."
"Sorry, man," I said. "I just got here myself."
"You got a cigarette?"
"No," I said. "Wish I did, though."
He hobbled off in the direction I had come from. I kept walking, waiting for inspiration, when I heard a voice. It was the man I had just talked to. He was motioning me back over.
"Hey," he said. "You want a cigarette?"
"Sure." He came out with a mostly fresh pack of Camel Menthols. "Here," he said. Then he reached into his pocket, pulled out some change. "You want a dollar?"
"Nah, man," I said. "You need that. For the bus. To the mission."
"Let me worry about that!"
"Listen," I said. "Thanks for the smoke."
"If you got a dollar," he said "and an I.D., the lady in their..." he motioned to the Exxon Station behind me. "they're running a special. A dollar and an ID, they'll give you a pack of cigarettes."
"Good to know," I said. "Thanks. Take care." I figured the "special" was some form of charity on the part of the cashier, so I didn't bother asking.
I walked around some more to get a better idea of the territory. I walked near the Chrysler Museum of Art; one particularly uncomfortable looking museum employee -- who's job it was, I suppose, man the door -- eyed me suspiciously. Maybe he was worried that I might want to see the art. Maybe he was worried I might offend the memory of Lee Iaccoca.
I knew I'd have to deal with accommodations, soon. It was early afternoon, but the day would pass quickly, and I didn't want to 1) be caught outdoors, or 2) be put in the position of having to ask Stella's mother for a spot on the couch. As far as I can tell, the last seven years or so has been the longest streak that her mother and I have actually managed to be civil with one another -- including our marriage. That civility, however, is based entirely on the fact that we never talk, rarely communicate, and try not to acknowledge one another's existence.
That meant an additional expenditure and a shorter visit.
Then I decided to get in touch with Stella.