"Excuse me miss, do you have any money?" This is not the first time I am singled out from hordes of people. Apparently I look like the sort of person who will give you money if you ask for it. I think people have this instinctive sense. Hmmm... this girl looks like a pushover, I bet she'll not have the heart to deny my request for money (money I will likely use on any number of unidentified activities).
"I'm homeless and I just want to get a sandwich for lunch and something to drink. I've tried calling the 800 numbers, going to the shelter, talking to the police... I'm just so hungry."
My heart leaps to this fellow human in need. Simultaneously I find it unlikely that none of these people would help her. And by the LOOK of her, she is getting enough to eat. Anyway, I don't even have any cash. But I cannot ignore her. Especially in the unlikely situation that she is telling the truth.
"Sorry I don't. But I can take you to the bagel shop there and get you something."
"Well... are you sure you don't have any money? See, I need to buy some socks too. My feet are real cold."
How quickly she changes her story! Inner cynic, doubter, struggle for the upper hand. I shush both, for now.
"No, I don't have any cash on me today, but come on, let's go to Finagle and I can get you some lunch with my credit card." The woman looks really reluctant, but finally agrees to the lunch proposal, under one condition.
"Actually can we go to Burger King?"
Are you kidding me? I almost laugh. And also, ewww. Burger King. Processed meat "product." Deep fried nastiness. Sugar water with chemicals and bubbles. Ick ick ick makes me cringe at every level. "Well..." I can't think of any way to describe these sentiments without being offensive. "Okay." Besides, if I am buying her lunch, it might as well be something she likes.
We dodge cars and snowbanks, making small talk on the way to Burger Ick. Very awkward small talk.
"So where are you from?"
"No part. I never had a home."
"Never? Even when you were a kid?"
"Oh... I am sorry."
Uncomfortably long pause as my puny mind struggles to imagine what this would be like. I actually cannot fully believe it, but I accept that she doesn't want to divulge the information to me. Although maybe it is as she says. Or maybe she thinks this story is more plausible. Or maybe the real one is just too painful to speak out loud to a total stranger.
"So what's your name?"
"I'm Katie." We get to Burger King. Even setting foot inside that place makes me feel gross. "Is it all right if I have a Value Meal?" Sandra asks me.
"Uhhh what is a 'Value Meal'? Nevermind... sure." Let's not drag this out. We go up to the counter and she orders. Number eleven. I hand the cashier my credit card.
"You're not going to get anything for yourself?"
"No. I think I'm actually going to eat someplace else. I don't really like Burger King." Because I am snobby and vegetarian and find this place disgusting. Or maybe I'm just really uncomfortable right now. Maybe I am just a horrible person, okay?
The cashier hands me back the receipt and the credit card.
"Well, you can go if you have other things to do."
"Okay, you'll just pick up the food here when it's ready then?"
I feel a strange blend of relief and concern. I catch her eye, hesitating suddenly, stalling, for some unknown reason. "Well, okay good luck Sandra. I hope you get things figured out." I really hope she does.
"Thank you. Give me a hug." She says and grabs me around the waist. Ahhh being touched by strangers!!! I hug her back, trying to act as though the whole situation is totally normal. I am surprisingly touched right now but also entirely embarrassed. I just want to escape. Outside, the world continues as usual. In the park, the tourists take pictures of each other in front of fountains and monuments, the ice skaters glide around to cheesey pop music.
I purchase a mozzarella-tomato pannini at a small cafe and mutter to myself.
Burger King! Gross! You bought her Burger King! Think of all of those empty calories. Is that really what she needs? And beef! What about your values?
"Give a man a fish," they say, "and he is full for a day --- teach a man to fish and he is full for a lifetime."
I just gave her a fish.
Anyway, how am I supposed to know what she needs? I don't even know what I need most of the time... If I can't solve my own problems, I certainly can't solve yours, woman. Money won't solve them. 'Value Meal' certainly won't solve them. I don't know what to do! I just go to my job and come home in the evenings. And get clobbered by giant directionless waves of compassion for friends and strangers.
Still walking, I pass by another of the city's homeless - a man this time - sitting with sign and cup on the steps across the street from the statehouse building. Agh homeless people everywhere. Like they were all placed directly in my path by a spiteful universe in an effort to point out my utter uselessness at ever accomplishing anything GOOD. Even if I give you twenty, a hundred, a thousand dollars, what difference would it make?
"Have a good day" he drawls. Despite myself I can feel a my mouth forming into a smile. How can you NOT smile when someone wishes you a good day?
"Hey--" he says. "Nice smile."
And I remember what somebody said one time about being homeless. Yes it sucks not having food or a place to stay. But worse is feeling like you do not exist, worse is being ignored by the world. I have felt this way even, awash in a cloud of strangers, stumbling towards what end, what destiny?
Nice smile, he says... yes. Something flickers inside of me.
True, I did not teach her to fish.
But in that moment, by asking her name, looking her in the eye, giving her a HUG for goodness sake! none of these things probably matter in the long run, but I guess in that moment, in my extensively awkward way, I allowed her to exist for me. I, too, am pitifully human. I can't solve everyone's problems or maybe anyones, especially my own. But I can acknowledge that, yes, she and I are both human. Sojourners we, both pitifully and both gracefully human.
Sandra, if that is even your real name, I do hope you find your way.