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Brenda McKinstry: my day as a StreetWise Vendor

Tue, Jun 17, 2014

Mikey was one of the first to welcome me. I have suggested to his family - a husband, wife and baby - that he become a true therapy dog.

Mikey was one of the first to welcome me. I have suggested to his family – a husband, wife and baby – that he become a true therapy dog.

4:30 a.m. The alarm rings. I wake up exhausted, hit the “off” button, make some coffee, and go downstairs to heat it up. I live in a nursing home where life is regulated and staff has ignored the memo on how to do room checks, med calls, and anything else resembling common sense.

It’s been another night “interrupted.” My roommate has had another “accident” during the night around 3 a.m. and upon observing that I was also awake she suggested that I stay that way since I have to get up so soon anyway. I briefly considered the idea and went back to sleep.

My body aches from fibromyalgia. The familiar argument with myself on whether to participate in life or just give up and quit begins. I decide to keep on living. I have work and somewhere to go to escape from myself. I’ve worked hard to pull myself out of the black pit of despair and complete isolation resulting from homelessness, unemployment, poverty, and untreated mental and physical illnesses. Today I have somewhere to go where people expect me to be and seem happy to see me. This is priceless to me and makes me want to show up and do better simply because people have believed in me.

I make some cereal while I watch the news (I won’t be here for the breakfast and lunch feedings). I thank God for the day and go down to get my medication.

5 a.m. I’m in the med room congratulating myself for finally being on time, the morning going smoothly, just to pick up my meds and go.

“Are you in the book? I didn’t see you in the book!” says the night nurse.

“I didn’t sign the book, because they’re already packed.” I tell her.

“I can’t go through this with you. Every time I have to go through this with you. This just isn’t how it works. You have to sign the book.”

I inform her that I saw the day nurse yesterday put them away and she informs me that I was hallucinating. I’ve never come close to hallucinating, not even as a teenager when I experimented with LSD. I briefly consider telling her this but decide it’s a waste of breath. I wait patiently, finally get my meds and am out the door.

5:40 a.m. The bus driver sees me coming and speeds away. I feel like “The Little Engine That Could.”

7:15 a.m. Finally I make it to work: a coffee shop in Lincoln Park. Already I feel calmer. I have something to do, other people to focus on instead of my endlessly repetitive and boring self. I say a prayer of gratitude that I’m a contributing member of society again and becoming more “self –supporting through my own contributions” every day.

I go into my spiel. “StreetWise. Get your StreetWise. Get here, get it now. From me. Brenda McKinstry.” A couple of people stop and buy a magazine.

I introduce Angel, a Welsh Corgi, as my “partner,” when her owner goes inside the coffee shop.

I introduce Angel, a Welsh Corgi, as my “partner,” when her owner goes inside the coffee shop.

I hear some little paws behind me before I see her and there she is, a slightly plump, very soft, very beautiful Welsh Corgi. She’s looking at me with limpid brown eyes waiting for her lovin’. Her owner hands me her leash and goes in to get her coffee while I keep Angel company and introduce her as my partner. People always smile at this, which makes me laugh, and I sell a few more magazines while Angel glances worriedly inside the coffee shop, sure that she’s been abandoned forever. I reassure that her owner is indeed coming back and… here she comes now. A petite thin, blonde in her 40s, she hands me a couple of bucks, collects my partner and leaves.

As she’s leaving I see Harold. A wonderfully kind man who he comes up to my chin, he is 75, white haired and balding. Harold approaches me with a $5 in his hand.

“How about we get you off to a good start. You come inside and get something whatever you want. I’ll get it.”

“All right, thanks Harold,” I say. I’ve learned that it’s useless to protest his generosity because he just gets insulted. We go inside and he hands me a few more dollars while we stand in line. I get a blueberry muffin, (heated) and coffee. He gets coffee in a mug and two chocolate brownies.

Harold still grieves for his identical twin brother who died a decade ago. I listen. He talks about the Korean War and what a life-changing experience that was.

“Cold as Hell, living in a hole, and people trying to kill you.” He was in the war with his brother and that is why neither of them married. I listen. When I told him I was taking notes about my day for a story, he talked with me for over an hour. I’ve given him my number and asked him to call me if anything happens to him because I worry when I don’t see my regulars.

“Now, don’t forget to talk about the ‘tall, dark, and handsome man that helps you out’ ” he says, and hands me another $5 as I’m leaving.

“I won’t,” I assure him and go back outside.

“Hi, Brenda,” I hear a sultry Kirsty Allen voice. The voice belongs to a beautiful young woman named Valerie. Long and lean with luxurious chestnut hair, her thick black eyelashes fringe remarkably clear and compassionate grey eyes. Valerie doesn’t grace the cover of Vogue. Rather, she teaches first grade and loves it.

“I forgot my money for a magazine but, how about a coffee?”

“I’d love it.”

“Black, right?” I nod and she goes inside returning minutes later with a steaming cup of coffee. I hand her a magazine, which she doesn’t want to take because “you need the money” but I insist so she takes it.

8:30 a.m.
I haven’t been feeling well for the last two months. I decide to leave early and go back to the nursing home and go to sleep until my afternoon shift. I’ve made about $17, which isn’t bad for an hour of fun and socializing (and I get to call this work). I’ve needed this contact with other human beings for a long time now and I say a quick prayer of gratitude while I wait for the bus.

I took a midday break to go back in my room at the nursing home, which I have decorated with books and an aquarium.

I took a midday break to go back in my room at the nursing home, which I have decorated with books and an aquarium.

9:15 a.m. As I walk back to the nursing home, I pass several residents panhandling for crack and weed. I know this because I see them doing it in the back yard. It is such a strange place, comprised of people from the lower end of the socioeconomic scale. They have suffered from horrifying abuse, paranoid schizophrenia, PTSD, Tourette’s Syndrome or autism. Others are mentally challenged. Some will never be able to function in society, some are just scamming.

I get to the building and thread my way through the morning crowd in the lobby. It’s with relief that I get to my corner of this peculiar place. At least my corner in our four-person room, separated by curtains is nice: neat, with pictures that I’ve managed to salvage from my home, my books, my aquarium, and my TV. I lie on the bed fully clothed and fall asleep…

12 p.m. I get up, wash my face, take my meds that I fortunately have so I don’t have to wait in line, and go to StreetWise for lunch. StreetWise has decent food and the atmosphere is much nicer. Nobody there begs you for your food. Nobody screams at people only they can see, no one threatens anyone else. No. The people at Streetwise are positive. They ask how you’re doing. I hear talk about how to sell better, how to do things, how to get and keep your life together (“get out and make that money, girl”). I’m so glad I found StreetWise. The support I find there is what has really made the difference in my life.

1:30 p.m. I’m the last one in line for the bus. The bus comes and I turn my back to gather my things and turn around just in time to watch the bus driver close the doors in my face and pull away. The bus right behind him doesn’t even bother to slow down. I pinch myself in amazement just to see if I’m invisible or not. That’s twice in one day with the damn bus and I think that has to be some kind of record. I wait another 20 minutes.

2:30 p.m. I have a short walk to my spot and I wave to the people at the Panera Bread co-op (one of five in the nation), and stop to talk to Leonard the security guard at the nearby bank. He is a kind man, deeply spiritual, who always has an encouraging remark. He is consistently supportive of me. It’s nice to see him every day and know that he expects to see me.

At my location, I pick up cigarette butts and garbage in the immediate vicinity. [I like to keep my work area clean, just as I would if I worked in an office].

I get a few customers. These are regulars, like the dignified black man around my age with a cane who says, “You’re always a breath of fresh air.”

Then, there is the tall and slim Jan, a petite horsewoman with kind blue eyes. These are the people who make it possible for me to earn a living and I’m so grateful to them.

I hear a van pull up, a door open and then I hear, “Is that Brenda?”

The voice belongs to Martha, a 70-something with a surprisingly young and pretty face that no one ever sees because she walks bent over her cane and soooo veeerrrryyy ssllloooooooowly.

Martha looks very frail, which prompts the transport driver to offer help. We chat about the weather. (“The sky is vomiting,” she says) what we’ll do when we hit the lottery (move to the Caribbean where we’ll “run naked and free”) and various other things.

Martha is wearing sandals again today despite snow on the ground. I say, “Really, Martha, sandals?”

She just smiles and hums. I can say this because we have become friends and I know that she was born in a snow bank in Alaska so the cold doesn’t bother her. At least this is what she has told me. The transport driver waits patiently.

It is so nice to see this elderly couple, obviously still happy with each other’s company

It is so nice to see this elderly couple, obviously still happy with each other’s company

A few more customers come by, including a lovely elderly couple. I tell them what a pleasure it is to see them and they smile. It’s nice to see people together for so long yet still happy and content with each other’s company.
I’m looking down the block when I see my favorite “regular:” a large golden ball of fluff, with floppy ears and a wagging tail, called a “fluff-a-doodle.” Mikey was one of the first to welcome me — with “open paws” shall we say, and he has been my personal therapy dog ever since. He owns a family made up of a husband, a wife and a baby.

What makes Mikey unique is that he takes his “work” seriously. He starts to pull on his leash when he sees me. Then presses up against my side. I hug him and tell him all my secrets. Then I say “okay, you’ve done a good job” and off he goes wagging that plume and checking back over his shoulder periodically to make sure I’m OK. I’ve encouraged his family to make a real therapy dog of him so we shall see what happens.

3 p.m. I notice Cynthia, a petite elegantly groomed blonde, standing alone at the entrance to the store. This alarms me somewhat as she is never without her “babies:” cute, fuzzy little moppets that she carts along everywhere in carts, baskets and strollers. I ask her where the little dogs are and am informed that “they are no longer.” This truly alarms me as she goes on to tell me how they became ill, their bills went up to $500 a month, they got sicker and she tried so hard but, they had to be put down.

“I’m so sorry to hear that.” I tell her, truly sorry for this loss, devastating for anyone, but especially for someone her age living alone.

“How have you been?” Well, she got so sick she ended up in the hospital and almost died. What can one say to this kind of terrible news?

“I’m sorry,” I say.

“Thank you. Thank you for caring.”

I’m just getting back to work when another petite, older woman (brunette this time) whose face lights up every time she sees me, smiles and says. “Do you know why angels can fly?” I just look at her. “Because they wear life lightly,” she says as she pats me on the arm.

I think this is pretty good advice as I walk the few steps back to my spot.
“Hey, Queen.” It’s another “working” panhandler. I’ve listened to him kvetch about us StreetWise people and have threatened to call the police on him over my spot.

We ultimately came to a truce when I was waiting to cross the street at the bus stop and took the time to listen to him.

Turns out he is a paranoid schizophrenic who attends a community mental health center and who is helplessly addicted to crack. I suggested that this might not help his situation any. He agreed but nothing changed.

But he has given me the moniker “Queen.” I give him a cheap cigar every time he passes by.

Audrey, another neighborhood regular, pushes her little white poodle in her stroller. “Another busy night for her?” I ask as I thank her for the ham sandwiches she gave me the other day.

“Oh yes. She has a very active social life you know.” I nod as I tell her how much I liked the sandwich and she just beams. The story behind the ham sandwiches is why I like this neighborhood so much and why I still have hope for humanity.

It seems the other day when Audrey went into the Panera Bread co-op, she found an envelope that said “open me.” Inside she found $5 and a note asking whoever finds the envelope to do something nice with the money and to let them know what they did. It was signed by a group of young people.

So, Audrey bought some bread, some ham, lettuce, tomatoes, and cheese and made sandwiches, which she and her little dog passed around the neighborhood.
Then, Mary, a perfectly sweet, round-faced, elderly lady, her head covered with a scarf and pulling a shopping cart, comes out of a store and over to me. “Maybe you can help,” she says.

I look at her questioningly. She explains that she feels as if she’s falling behind: her children are unreliable, too spoiled. She offers to pay me $20 for 90 minutes of housework a week. I tell her to call me on Sunday, my day off, after church. We agree.

4:30 p.m.
I’m exhausted again. I leave early and go to bed. On my way I pass Sport Cuts to say Hi to Lyssa and to drop off my weekly donation of StreetWise: waiting room reading material.

Lyssa and I have become friends ever since I took advantage of the free haircut offer for their grand opening and we just started talking. This was the first time my hair had been washed and cut in years and I tried to explain how good that felt to her.

She understood. I gave her a copy of my StreetWise vendor profile to read and she burst into tears. I explained that it was a happy story because now I have hope, an ingredient missing before StreetWise. I say good night to the girls in the shop who all know me now, and cross the street to tell Leonard about my job offer.

Patrick has given me sales advice for my new selling spot at the Green Mill, Lawrence and Broadway.

Patrick has given me sales advice for my new selling spot at the Green Mill, Lawrence and Broadway.

“See,” he said, “you’re blessed when you do the next right thing.” I agree, and say a prayer in my head thanking God for today. I walk to the bus stop, so tired that I decide to just get on the bus for home.

6 p.m. The lobby is less crowded after 3 p.m. because the security guard shoos people out and keeps them moving. I go to the dining room and get in the dinner line, then wonder why there is a line at 6. Dinner starts at 5 and people start waiting at 4:30. There shouldn’t be a line at 6. I ‘m too tired to stand in this line and go upstairs to go to bed. I’ll just lie down for a minute and rest. I fall completely asleep and don’t wake up until the alarm goes off the next morning. Another day begins….
Note: all names have been changed.
To Patrick, my friend at the Green Mill, who gave me a sales script, along with his friends Kelly, Rachel and Joel who stood by me in those scary first weeks at this new spot. For “Mikey,” who has gone on to therapy school for dogs. For “Martha,” who was denied a new lease and forced into a nursing home. For my regulars and the “working” panhandlers. I’m moving on with Heartland Alliance and will shortly have my own apartment. For the future… I look forward to supporting myself, perhaps getting my master’s in science, or maybe writing a book.

Story and Photos by Brenda McKinstry
(StreetWise Vendor since Sept. ’13)


2 Responses to “Brenda McKinstry: my day as a StreetWise Vendor”

  1. Anya Ravitz says:

    Thank you for this glimpse into your day. You are a wonderful writer and I enjoyed the chance to “meet” you through this story. I wish you the best of luck in your future endeavors.


  2. Alfonso Directo says:

    Brenda, thank you for sharing the story of your day. You are a great writer with a true gift for communicating both the real and heartwarming facets of your day. Your story has also helped deepen my understanding of the Streetwise organization. Thank you and best of luck in all you do!


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