Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Familiar Story

The sign was white cardboard with legible, if crowded, tall black mixed-case letters.

Family of 4
Please Help
She looked up at me, brightly, without a hint of suspicion. She was shorter "in person" than I would have guessed, with a round, freckled face, and long brown hair that streamed down to her hips in a long horsetail. She was just a bit too heavy to be considered average, yet not enough that she couldn't wear it well in a plain white t-shirt and nondescript blue jeans. For the past couple of months she'd been there, at the same corner between the Outback Steakhouse and the 76 station, perhaps two or three times a week, holding her sign and waving cheerfully to the passing cars that were headed for the expressway during the evening rush.

"So." I said. "What's your story?"

It turned out, it was one I'd heard before. For a time, I had even been a supporting character. Difficult home life, stint as a ward of the state, jailed father (she had put him there), and bitter mother leading to banishment to the streets at eighteen. In the intervening years she'd failed to find a steady job, but she had found a husband; now a disabled veteran; and had two children. It was for them that she panhandled on the corner. Child Protective Services took a dim view of children living in cars with their homeless parents, she told me. I already knew. Children and Family Services hadn't been much more understanding. Of course, the climate of Northern Illinois is less forgiving than the Puget Sound. She'd traveled the breadth of the country, from California to Florida, searching for a better life, before returning closer to home. Close being a relative term - the bus ride was nearly two hours each way. But this corner, she told me, was the only place she'd found where people cared for her.

Of course, caring was easy - a good number of the SUVs, sedans and sports cars that drove by bore the nameplates of Audi, Infiniti and Lincoln. She was on one major local thoroughfares, which in the evenings teemed with educated, well paid, knowledge workers - the sort who would never miss the amount of money that she needed to scrape together every day just to keep a roof over her head - and those of her husband and children. Still, getting enough to pay rent on a day-to-day basis was by no means a sure thing.

I gave her the collection of one-dollar bills from my wallet, built up over the course of the week so far.

She took them, gratefully.

"God bless you," she said. "I'll pray for you."

I'm not a believer, I didn't say. Instead, it was the little voice in the back of my head. If this deity of yours answers prayers and grants blessings, you should keep them for yourself. You are in greater need than I. I knew that it wanted me to repeat after it. I refused. I'd never given in to it before, and saw no reason to start then. She meant well, and I saw no reason to tell her that her benediction was for naught. She didn't need me to rain on her. The gathering clouds were preparing to take care of that, if only softly.

Instead, I smiled. "Take care of yourself, and stay safe," I instructed, my voice taking on the gently commanding tone that I'd spent years using in my past life as a child care worker. The youngest of the children I once worked with would now be her age.

I turned and left, and she resumed her cheerful waving at the drivers stopped at the light.

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