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Enough with the Sandwich Already

August 19, 2009

I was 6 or 7 years old the first time I met a homeless woman.

My best friend and I were playing in the park while our mothers’ visited their friend Mary Catherine’s newest apartment. Mary Catherine moved a lot. Now that I’m an adult I wonder was all the moving because homelessness was chasing her? Hummmm? I wonder.

Of course my playmate and I didn’t know the woman was homeless. We had no concept of homelessness. We were kids in 1970something. Our lives were effortless – then.

All we knew was that the silver haired white woman resting beneath the shady tree was friendly, she had a cat and she didn’t mind us talking with her. Kids know when adults don’t want to be bothered with them. Remember, we were in the park while the grown folks were upstairs. Wow. Remember when you could safely leave your kids across the street in the park? I think that day was the beginning of the end of that.

The memory is nearly 40 years old and the details are sketchy, but somehow I recall my best friend and I rushing upstairs to ask for a sandwich. We were going to give it to our new friend. Maybe she asked for one. Maybe we offered one. Not sure which.

No sandwich for us. We were going out to dinner soon, we were told.

We persisted. Persisting only went so far with our 1970something black mothers before their raised voices smacked us across the ears with something like, “ENOUGH WITH THE SANDWICH ALREADY! WE TOLD YOU WE ARE GOING TO DINNER SOON!”

We confessed. The sandwich wasn’t for us. It was for a lady in the park.

“What lady?”

“Out there, by the tree. Look!” Pointing out of the window.

“What did we tell you two about talking to strangers? Huh?”

We answered silently by looking at our shoes, and that was that.

When we all finally left for dinner we had to pass the park to get to our car. My friend and I waved to the lady, “the sorry we tried” wave with shrugged shoulders. Our mothers just stared at her. Then whispered to each other things like, “Has she been out here all this time? … Was she here when we pulled up? … You think she lives in that park? … Could be. …Naw…”

Overhearing this I wondered who would live in the park? At 6 or 7 years old I wanted to stay in the park longer than my playtime, but eventually I wanted to go home. Watch TV. Eat supper. Play with my toys. Who would live in the park? Where do you use the bathroom? Where do you put your clothes? What if it rains? I remember first being disturbed by those thoughts nearly 40 years ago.

40 years later, in the same trendy, campus neighborhood, by the lakefront I have befriended another homeless lady. Carrie Beth.

I noticed her a half a dozen times before I realized she was homeless. She didn’t fit the stereotype. She appeared clean and groomed. She wore colorful rubber rain boots similar to a pair I wear. She sat under a viaduct (as many do while waiting for the bus) reading from a file folder. She had 2 portable file boxes on wheels full of other neatly stacked files and books, by her side. She was pretty.

Weeks later, as the weather changed, her boots did not, except the toes had been cut out.
This was my 1st clue.

After it became apparent this woman was living on the street, one afternoon I purchased a fast food lunch to offer her.

She asked me my name. I told her and asked her hers’. I told her I hope you like what I chose to eat, but if you’d like something different there are a few dollars in the bag too.
She thanked me and fixed her gaze on my eyes. Not knowing what to do or say next, I turned to walk home. I wanted to glance back. I didn’t. I wanted to ask her what happened to you? How did you get here? Where is your family? I didn’t.

It’s a touchy subject. What can you really do? Especially if you are a rent check away from the same streets yourself.

I didn’t see Carrie Beth after that until months later on a cold snowy wind chill factor night. She was laid out on top of cardboard, covered with a blanket, beneath a different viaduct – not waiting for a bus.

I got a hot chocolate, a sandwich, some fruit and the picnic blanket I keep in my trunk.

“Hi Carrie Beth. These are for you.”

She pushed the blanket away.
She took the hot chocolate and the food.
I was a little offended she didn’t want my blanket.
Then I was embarrassed that I was offended.
Then I was confused.
Then I went home.
I cranked my thermostat up to 80 degrees and I watched the snow, fall outside my window.

My monkey mind began swinging from tree to tree.

Maybe I could rent her a room for the night at the hotel down the street…
What help would one night be? …
What if she trashes the place? …
Why would I think that? …
Why wouldn’t I think that? …
I can barely afford the cost of a hotel room on my credit card…
I need to be trying to keep this roof over my own head…
If she wouldn’t take the blanket what makes you think she’s going to take the room? …
Just like I don’t know her, she doesn’t know me either …what would I do if I was her and some woman in the middle of the night said, “I rented you a room?” … Shit. What if that was me? … Maybe she’s not really homeless… Maybe she’s a tactical officer working deep cover…

I couldn’t let it go.
Homelessness is my biggest and quietest fear.
It’s the thing that happens to other people – not to you, or to people you know.
It happens to crazy people or lazy people or drunks or drug addicts, but not to you or to the people you know even it they happen to fit any or all of those descriptions. Then there was Carrie Beth. She looked like me, or you, not crazy or lazy or drunk.

I continued to wonder, only now I wondered how did this particular patch of karma become mine? How does any?

I wondered why did I happen to befriend that lady and her cat, in the park 40 years ago?
What if it had been raining that day and my friend and I couldn’t have gone to the park? Would the lady still have been there? Would I have met her on another visit? Of all my forgotten childhood memories, why do I remember that one? Can my present struggles be traced back to a sandwich?

Enough with the sandwich already!

I saw Carrie Beth sitting in the park a couple of evenings ago, just as it was starting to get dark. The park is right outside my window. Last night around 11 O’clock I heard the police announce over a bullhorn, “The Park will be closing in 10 minutes.” I’ve lived on the outskirts of the park for 15 years. I’ve never heard that announcement before last night.

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