For a dollar
We had just parked our car on 6th street. We were going to dinner in, as they say, an up-and-coming part of town. Where restaurants with one-word names take over laundromats and quick-marts. Where twenty-somethings move in to shabby wood-slat homes. Hang a few strings of bistro lights.
When a woman passed us on the sidewalk going the opposite direction. My eyes passed over her, but then something made me turn. She didn't fit a mold I recognized: she was neither dressed out for braised elk in an organic huckleberry cream sauce, nor grungy and homeless-looking. Her face was bright, her smile polite—but maybe in what she was wearing? Was she homeless?
Something must have made her turn back, too, because she paused at the same moment I did. Her body was half facing us and she looked up at me.
"Do you have a dollar?" she said.
Sean glanced at me, then reached for his wallet. I looked at my feet. Then back up at her face.
What struck me the most was her blue eyes, bold and clear against a pale and youthful face. It must have been the hat that gave her away. A shabby knit thing that might have once been pale pink. And maybe her clothes, oversized and nondescript; tidy, but perhaps not washed exactly yesterday. But nothing about her suggested shame or surliness; if anything, perhaps a shy apology for the inconvenience to us in having to stop.
"What's your story?" I wanted to blurt out. "Why are you here begging?" But I didn't.
The other thing that struck me was her mannerisms. She'd obviously been conditioned, at one time in her life, to all the nuances of polite non-interaction among strangers at, say, the lunch deli on the first floor of a corporate office building. So I was embarrassed at having even thought such an impertinent question.
Does someone asking you for a dollar entitle you to their personal story? I've never been made to think about that before. But it seems cheap.
At dinner, Sean and I couldn't shake the image of her face. "How does someone end up like that?" he said. "Do you think we should have done more? Like maybe we could have offered up our guest room, just until she gets on her feet again."
"I know what you mean," I said.
Several weeks have gone by since that night, but I still can't shake her face. This is not a story about how I met one homeless person and it changed my life and now I volunteer in soup kitchens and all of that. I didn't and I don't. I'm aware the homelessness problem—ok, crisis—and I'm also completely content to support, politically, progressive candidates and leave it at that.
But I did connect, for a moment, with her. With this one person.
And I do regret that I didn't say something. Not like I was entitled to her story for a dollar, but maybe I could have said something to her just like I was talking to another person? Like, "Hey, I totally respect if you want to walk away right now, but I'm just really curious and I wonder if you might stay and talk to me for a moment?" I don't know, what does Emily Post say about polite conversation with the homeless?
But under the stays of polite society, I said nothing, and we all walked away from each other.