Let me say first - I do not write this piece to “brag” or to point out a good deed – good deeds do not need to be broadcast to the world. I write this to remind you to LOOK AROUND and notice people.
I got home from a weeklong trip late last night. And I was cranky (“cranky” is probably putting it mildly…). I didn't get my preferred 8 hours of sleep before the alarm went off and I had to jump in the shower and get ready for re-entry to real life, a morning job. Luckily my husband rearranged his scheduled a bit so he could drop me off at the metro, and the day began.
The job was only one hour. I had several errands on my to do list, so when I was done I decided to metro around town to see what I could accomplish.
But in the back of my mind, I was still cranky. It was HOT. I was carrying a HEAVY BAG that kept getting heavier as I purchased more items and had to CARRY THEM because I didn’t have my car. My shoes were comfortable but HOT – why did I pick these shoes to tromp around in all day? I was worried about spending money – we have had several large expenses all come due at the same time and we are broke. And I was HUNGRY – all I had eaten was half a banana and a cup of coffee.
Around 1:30 PM I decided to sit myself down and eat. I went to a little place I really like and sometimes treat myself to – Pret a Manger (man – even WRITING it now sounds pretentious…). Because I am trying to watch what I spend, I only got half a sandwich and a drink. I sat myself down to fuel up, and a woman soon came and sat down on the adjoining bench.
I noticed her but I am not sure why. She was not dirty, not disheveled, and didn’t look very out of place. Maybe I noticed because she didn’t carry a sandwich to her table from the restaurant, but instead had a very small cup from McDonald’s. She also had several reusable shopping bags that she placed on the bench. She was wearing a t-shirt that said, “Help End Homelessness”. I have one that has a similar message from when we helped out with counting homeless people in our county.
As I ate, I wondered, was she homeless? She had the bags. She wasn’t eating… She looked very tired and a little bit sad. I didn’t want to embarrass her, but at the same time I saw a restaurant employee looking at her and I feared they would kick her out for not ordering but taking up a table. So I leaned over and said, “Have you had a sandwich yet?”. “No,” she replied sweetly. “Would you like one? I can get you one.” She replied calmly and so nicely, “Oh, I do not want to take advantage! No, no…”. But I insisted, and told her to please go look over the selection and pick one while I watched her things.
She looked at those sandwiches as if she was examining the menu in a 5 star restaurant. She looked them over slowly and carefully – each and every section. I saw the restaurant staff eyeballing her – I wonder if they know her? I was ready to jump to her defense if they tried to boot her out. She finally came back to my table with HALF A SANDWICH. Only half! And it was the same kind I had just eaten. I told her no, she needed a WHOLE SANDWICH and again she explained she didn’t want to impose on me. But I switched her half for a whole, and ordered her a blueberry muffin for dessert. She was SO THANKFUL.
But she didn’t dig into the meal as I expected she would. Instead she TALKED. She seemed to have so much pent up inside of her wanting to get out! So I listened. She talked of her mother – sounded like a rough childhood. She talked of her sister, who “got all the attention” while she was ignored. She talked of going to college. And as she talked, it became obvious that she is a very bright woman. Her language was impeccable. She used huge, beautiful words with no effort whatsoever.
She talked of so many things, so quickly and sincerely. She mentioned that professionals have labeled her as having manic depression and rapid thinking (both of which she disagrees with). I had never heard of rapid thinking, but her speech was extremely rapid and bounced from topic to topic, so it certainly seemed like a spot-on diagnosis to this lay person! She told me of getting an “A” on a paper she wrote in an on-line college class last year. Of a piece she wrote with Bob Woodward (who she later contacted by phone and she suspects he is writing an expose on Obama like the one he did on Nixon – and in her mind Woodward now wants NOTHING to do with her because she knows what he is working on…).
She told me about living in different shelters – how she didn’t sleep a wink last night because she was in a shelter and in a dangerous situation. She spoke by name about women in a shelter – the workers who were “after her” and abusive and the other residents… She spoke of almost getting raped in a shelter by a man (who she named, first and last) who snuck through a vent pipe to get to her…
What really struck me is when she explained the concept of “right to shelter”. In many places, including (I believe) my own liberal, diverse home town of Arlington, VA, only RESIDENTS can be housed in the shelter. Very few locations support the “right to shelter” – the concept that every human being has a right to sleep in a warm place with a roof over their heads. How can SLEEPING INDOORS not be a right in America??
I hope that my description of her does not make her sound like a “crazy person” – she was not. She was so calm and well spoken, so sweet. It just felt like she needed to talk – she needed a listener. I imagine she has a lot to express and no family or friends to talk with.
She asked what I do for a living and I told her. She explained that she now has a job with a company based out of Oklahoma and that she had some information for me if I would like to take it. She dug in one of her bags and pulled out a color brochure for a company called Harvard Risk Management. She even gave me her business card, which it is clear she printed on a printer herself. Her name is SUSAN – just like me. And she is only 2 years older than I am. I hope that the job is not some ponzi scheme that is going to take advantage of her (when I goggle it, it sure looks like a scam…).
I guess my point is – the woman is TRYING. She is educated. She has found a job. She is polite and intelligent. She really wants housing and is trying hard to work that out.
She is me. She is YOU. She is human – and deserves respect.
And the next time you are hot and cranky and don’t want to carry your “heavy bag” and walk – take a look around you. I bet that at least one person you see doesn’t have it as good as you. Someone went without breakfast. Someone is on the verge of getting evicted. Someone could just use a listening ear and a smile.
For all of my silent moaning and complaining – Susan reminded me how lucky I am. I fussed about ONE heavy bag – she had around 6. I was hot – I had an air conditioned home to come back to. My job was one hour today and I will get paid promptly and well – she printed her own business cards on an ink jet printer and has no one to hand them to to solicit clients. And my definition of being “broke” would be quite laughable I am sure if I explained it to her. When I finally left her at the table to continue my shopping, I cried a bit. I was sad for her, mad at the system, and embarrassed for my earlier attitude.
Look around. Pay attention. Smile. Be kind.