Monday, January 22, 2007


I found this while dinking around in the recesses of my backup files. I wrote it back in 2000, when I was a Quality Assurance manager for a mid-sized software company. It's interesting to go back after all of these years, and re-read it. Sometimes, you don't know how much you've changed until you find an old picture of yourself.

As soon as I saw her, I remembered reading the Seattle Post-Intelligencer article on the state of heroin addiction in the Seattle area. Of course, at first glance, I didn't realize that it was a "her." She was just another obviously (Why obviously?) homeless person, sitting up against a sign by the side of the expressway off-ramp, hoping for handouts from the local commuters. She had a thin blanket pulled around her shoulders; it was patterned in a way that made me think "Indian." (The American variety.) I wondered to myself if she was just trying to bum money for a fix. I didn't really care if she was or not. The long-dormant Good Samaritan instinct in me awakened (perhaps in response to having read about all of those poor, heroin-addicted people), and threatened me with a bout of guilt if I didn't offer at least some minor comfort.
I felt the need to do something small for her, mainly to appease my own feelings of unworthiness, and so I fished a dollar out of my wallet. Only a dollar. I realize, of course, and I knew it then, that a dollar wasn't enough to really do anything for this woman. I could have pulled a gun, and shot her in the head, and I would have done more to ease her suffering than that single dollar. But I'm too materialistic a person to part with 10 or 15 dollars under such a circumstance. At least in cash.
Anyway, I folded the dollar bill in my hand, and slipped it into my front pocket. In case she was a junkie, I didn't want the embarrassment for having her reach for, or possibly grab, my wallet, which had substantially more than one dollar in it. I'm not a very good Good Samaritan, you see. I don't believe that my whole heart is really in it. Had she actually stolen my wallet, it would have been a windfall for her. She could have gotten a few good, hot meals with the money inside. For me, it would have been inconvenient, but not tragic. A couple hour's worth of work, and I would have made up the lost cash. Okay, losing the cards and ID in the wallet would have been a bummer, but still, nothing Earth-shattering. But I wasn't up to risking it. (But I was up to the possibility of being knifed, had the woman been violent. Go figure.)
I walked up to her. I was coming from behind her, on her right, and traffic was coming from her left. Her attention didn't have room for me, even as I walked around in front of her. A handwritten sign sat in her lap. (Of course it was handwritten. When was the last time YOU saw a homeless person whose sign was professionally printed?) I can't even remember what it said. I looked at it mainly out of habit, not because I cared what it said. She was dressed in dirty clothes (no surprise) and wore her dirty black hair short. She was dark complexioned, but clearly not black or Hispanic. I guessed that, as the blanket had suggested, she was Native American. She probably wasn't as old as her shabby condition made her look, but I would have guessed that she was in her forties, maybe fifties.
She didn't notice me at all until I said something to catch her attention. She was too busy being on the lookout for a motorist who might be kind enough to give her something. Even so, I didn't startle her. I wonder if she was too out of it to be surprised by my presence. Once she realized I was there, she looked over at me, and I handed her the dollar bill.
She said "Thanks." She had several teeth missing. I wouldn't have been surprised if more than half of them we gone. Suddenly the cavities that I had had racked up in avoiding going to the dentist for a decade just didn't seem very important anymore. Then she proceeded to tell me that it got cold at night around here, as if that alone would explain why she was out panhandling. I pretended to sympathize. Pretended, not because I couldn't sympathize with the idea of this poor woman having to sleep outdoors at night without heat, but because I still, even after three years, have difficulty with the idea that the Puget Sound region is ever really COLD. I'm from Chicago, born and raised. I have a coat, a nice long one, reversible black and green, that hasn't been out of my closet in over three years. I bought it about a month before moving out here, and I wore it perhaps half a dozen times, in January and February of 1997. It's been on a hanger in my bedroom closet every day since then. Most of the time, I don't even remember I have it. I've been out in weather so cold that when the wind blows your breath back into your face, your eyebrows ice over. Immediately. I know what it's like to loose the feeling in your fingers and toes, to be afraid that your extremities are becoming frostbitten. Compared to a Lake Effect wind chill of 80 below zero, it's hard to conceptualize Bellevue in April as being able to manage "cold." But I had been out in the freezing gale because I'd been too stupid to keep my butt inside, where it was warm. Not because I didn't have anywhere to go inside to. I realize (intellectually) how that makes a big difference. Just like I was out of doors now, on a day that was marginally chilly, and just starting to become wet, because I was avoiding having to eat the junk food that my company provides me for free, not because I didn't have anyplace to go.
It strikes me as only somewhat strange that I can understand more why she felt the need to tell me that. I’ve given explanations for things when they weren’t needed, out of nagging shame before in my life, and I saw nothing strange about this woman doing the same thing. But I couldn’t find any real reason to tell her that she didn’t need to justify her actions to me. So I didn’t.
Having done my Boy Scout Good Deed™ for the day, I went on to my destination - a local grocery store where I hoped to pick up some food that I could snack on that wouldn't pack on the pounds, or raise my blood pressure. I settled on a couple of packages of "homestyle" dinner rolls. They would fill me up, but not over do it on the calories (I hoped). I bought the rolls, then set out back to the office.
I was returning the same way that I had come, and so I looked to see if the Indian woman were still where I had last seen her. The idea to give her a package of the rolls had come to me. I figured that it would make up for the pittance that I'd given her at our chance meeting, although I don't pretend for a moment that it actually allows me to define myself as a "generous" man. I thought I caught a glimpse of her, but I couldn't actually see her anywhere. I was impressed by how thoroughly she'd managed to disappear.
It occurred to me that I know some people who are religious enough to say that I'd had some sort of Visitation. That the Case of the Vanishing Homeless Woman was actually a message from a God that I didn't believe in. But the reality turned out to be much more mundane.
I looked over my shoulder, and saw her, emerging from some bushes onto the walkway, with a gray haired Anglo man, also obviously homeless, who looked like the stereotypical homeless veteran. I guessed that he had been either resting, sleeping or hiding in the bushes while she panhandled. They saw me, and the man flashed me a Peace sign. Whether it was simply a greeting, or a sign that they were non-hostile, I don't know. I'm somewhat troubled with myself that I would wonder about it.
I beckoned the woman over with my hand. As she approached, I reached into the grocery bag. Perhaps I've become TOO suspicious a person, but I was struck by the fact that she seemed to have no hesitation in coming over to me. Had the simple act of giving her a dollar really created, in her mind, enough of a bond that she felt that she could trust me? More logically, I suppose, is the idea that she simply saw me as a potential repeat benefactor, and wasn't about to risk passing up whatever largess I would share with her this time. I don't claim to be a consistently rational person - not by a long shot. But, you probably guessed that by now.
Anyway, she came close enough for me to give her the bread, and I handed it to her, with a casualness that surprises me now. She thanked me, obviously glad for the food. Well, at least it was obvious to me. Then I simply turned, and resumed walking back to work, while she hurried back to show my gift to her partner.
"Thanks, man!" he called out, and when I turned to acknowledge him, he flashed me the Peace sign again. Somehow it was more satisfying than the "God Bless" that I had learned to expect to hear in such situations.
Then I turned my back on them for the last time, and resumed the 20-minute stroll back to my comfortable chair, in my warm office.

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