When a new client comes in to Taller de Jose for an initial intake, I first meet him or her in the waiting room. If there are multiple people in the waiting room, there is this brief moment of panic in which I frantically look around thinking, “Ok, now who exactly is my client?”. But without fail, Maria, our office manager, comes to my rescue by giving a little nod towards whomever I’m supposed to meet. The client and I shake hands, introduce ourselves, and we’re on our way.
Where it gets tricky is meeting a new client in public. Felipe has been a client of Taller’s for several years, but this was to be my first time meeting him. We were scheduled to convene at the bus stop, so I could accompany him to his court hearing at 51st and Wentworth. Felipe was homeless, and the bus stop was near the homeless shelter where he was staying. Of course, when I got to the bus stop, there was a large crowd of people waiting for me. I looked from person to person, trying to decide which face might belong to a Felipe, the moment of panic turning into a state of total worry. There was no Maria at the bus stop to point me in the right direction. Finally, one man noticed me.
“Jose!” he exclaimed.
One little quirk of being a male at Taller de Jose is that a statistically significant number of clients just sort of assume my name is Jose. I guess that’s what I get for not wearing my nametag. Anyways, the point I want to emphasize is that Felipe found me, and not the other way around. We said our hellos, and I swiped us both onto the bus.
The bus ride was a quick one, and we arrived at court a good twenty minutes early. Waiting for the court to open, we sat on the steps of the building, looking out across the abandoned train lot that lay in front of us. I wondered aloud if anything of interest had ever been around here. Felipe told me that there used to be a restaurant right across the street. He told me about several businesses that had existed in the area, and explained that this used to be the site of some of the old housing projects. As we sat out on the steps, he educated me, and not the other way around.
When the court finally opened, we waited for a while as several other people’s cases were seen. For the majority of these other people, their names were called, and then their cases were immediately dismissed. This is what we believed would happen with Felipe’s case. But when the judge called Felipe’s name, instead of dismissing the case, he ordered Felipe to come to the front of the courtroom. I was terrified; Felipe had no lawyer and no interpreter. Then I thought, “If I’m was scared, how frightened must Felipe be?”. I knew that I had to keep my cool if Felipe was to do the same. And so I put on a confident face as I led Felipe to the front of the room.
It turns out that as soon as we introduced ourselves to the judge, the case was dismissed and we were allowed to leave. Felipe and I both breathed huge sighs of relief, and hurried from the courtroom. We left the building, and went outside to take the return 51 bus. We waited at the bus stop for almost half an hour, before Felipe piped up and explained to me that there was a detour for the west-bound 51 bus, and it no longer came our way. He directed me a few blocks north, where we could catch the bus on its detour. He directed me, and not the other way around.
With all the little ways Felipe assisted me that day, it’s tempting to take it a bit further and say that on this particular accompaniment, it was really he who helped me, and not the other way around. But that is not the whole truth. I helped translate the security guard’s instructions for him. I helped pay his bus fair. I helped him stay confident in the face of confusion. And yet at the same time there remained all these things that he did for me.
I want to return for a moment to that nice hypothetical initial intake scenario, free of all the problems of public facial recognition. I left off at the part where the client and I had just finished shaking hands and introducing ourselves. At this point, we head up to my office, and after some weather related chit-chat and a routine exchange of personal information, it’s time to get down to brass tacks and discuss the client’s issue. This is a big shift in conversation that usually takes some prompting. In my first few weeks at Taller, I would instigate this shift by asking, “Como puedo ayudarle?” (how can I help you?). At the time, I was under the impression that “ayudar” was a transitive-only verb (one that requires an object. To be fair, WordReference.com lists it as such). Eventually, however, as my understanding of both the ministry of accompaniment and the Spanish language grew, I realized a couple of things: one – as I pointed out in the Felipe story, I am receiving just as much help as my client, and two – “ayudar” can be either transitive or intransitive (this is called an ambitransitive verb). And so I now simply ask, “Como puedo ayudar?”. How can I help? How can I help – you, me, anything. The lack of an object means that anyone or anything could be the recipient of help.
How can I help? The phrase isn’t perfect. It still leaves me as the sole subject; I am still the only one doing the helping, even if the object of that help is unspecified and as such hopefully all-inclusive. What I’d really love, is to be able to sit across from a client and instead ask, “How can we help each other?”. Or even better, the intransitive: “How can help happen?”. But I think I’d get some weird looks.