A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
She shuffles up to me on the sidewalk, paper cup in hand. She speaks so softly, I can’t understand what she’s saying. I ask her to repeat it.
“I’m homeless. Can you spare some change?”
This is an unusual scene on the streets of Saratoga Springs, New York, a refined city known for thoroughbred horse racing, mineral springs, and the arts. While there are homeless people, and a shelter to prove it, panhandlers aren’t typically encountered on the streets.
My arms are full, as I’m delivering my books to a local gallery. “I’ll be right back,” I promise. “I’ll help you then.” She knits her brow; she’s heard that before.
When I return ten minutes later, she’s nowhere in sight. I walk to the fair-trade coffee shop and order an egg sandwich and large chai latte with almond milk. As I wait for my carry-out, I spot her sitting at a table, eating a thick sandwich and drinking coffee.
Well, look at that, I say to myself. She can afford to eat in the same upscale coffee shop as I can. I’m glad I wasn’t hoodwinked into giving her any money.
I want her to see me, so she knows I’m wise to her. But she averts her eyes, as she nibbles on her sandwich. She shuffles to the bathroom and when she returns, she pushes the barely-eaten food away.
She leans forward. “Sir, would you like half a sandwich?”
Being so obsessed with her, I hadn’t noticed a man sitting alone at the next table.
He asks her to repeat what she said, and then responds, “No, thank you. I’ll find something later today.”
“You sure? I can share this with you.”
“Yes, I’m sure. Thank you, again.” There’s no food or drink in front of him. His hands are folded like a Catholic-school boy.
Her generosity piques my interest. I approach.
“Ma’am, I saw you outside a little while ago. You told me you were homeless. Are you living on the streets?”
“It’s so cold out. What do you do at night?”
“I have several layers of clothes on. See?”
She begins to peel them off, one at a time, as she gestures toward her plate. “I’d like to eat all of this sandwich, I’m so hungry. But I have to save the rest for later because it may be all I have today. So, I’m going to take it with me.”
“I heard you offer it to that man. That was very generous of you.”
“We have to help each other. Maybe someday, someone will have extra food and offer it to me when I don’t have any.”
She rises to get a carryout box but halts when I continue talking.
“Do you sleep on the sidewalk?”
I ask if she knows where the shelter is. She says she does, then asks where it is. The man at the next table tells her how to get there because I don’t know. I advise her to show up during the day, to not wait until dark.
I look into her faded blue eyes, framed by her white, straggly bangs. John Prine’s song Hello in There comes to mind, but I can’t think of anything else to say.
“You are a child of God,” comes out of my mouth. More to remind myself than to remind her.
“Thank you,” she says, meeting my gaze.
I slip some bills into her paper cup.
“Thank you,” she says again.
As I walk away, I wonder how I could have been so judgmental of her when I should know better. I taught in and then directed a Head Start program for many years. In that role, I was frequently accosted by those who questioned the legitimacy of poverty, and I became one of our clients’ fiercest advocates when challenged:
If they don’t have enough to eat, how come they’re overweight?
Because they don’t know about proper nutrition. They eat inexpensive processed foods.
If they’re so poor, how come their kids have name-brand sneakers?
Because they don’t want their kids to be ridiculed in school so they buy them what’s in fashion, sometimes at the expense of other necessities, like medication.
If they’re so poor, how come they have cable TV?
Because it’s a lot less expensive than going out to movies or concerts. They need diversion, too.
If they’re so poor, how come they have a car?
Because there’s limited public transportation. And too often, it’s where they end up living.
I know that the route to poverty takes many twists and turns. I’d interviewed Head Start parents and published their stories in a booklet titled Rich in Spirit. And yet, today, I’d stood in judgment at the coffee shop – a place willing to offer homeless people short-term respite from freezing temperatures.
I’m tempted to blame the raw political climate in our country for my rush to judgment of this homeless woman. Tempted to say I’m becoming desensitized to the issues of low-income families because the overall rhetoric has become so cruel and inhumane. And, anyway, how can we worry about poverty when nuclear annihilation hangs like the Sword of Damocles over our heads?
While that all may be true, I can’t blame external factors. I have only one person to blame: Me.
I’m the guardian of my own moral compass, responsible for my own sense of social justice. I must build a psychological fortress against those who would blame the victims rather than point to an unjust system – against those who would criminalize homelessness. Too bad if homeless people don’t square with the image this city has of itself – don’t tell me not to give them money because “it only encourages them to panhandle.” They don’t need encouragement – starvation and frostbite are motivation enough to forsake your pride and beg strangers for a pittance.
“Button up your overcoat tonight! We’re expecting 8 to 12 inches of snow,” the meteorologist on my car radio warns as I drive home on my heated seats. I eat half of my now-cold egg sandwich; I’ll save the rest for later, remembering, with shame, the woman whose name I never bothered to ask.
Copyright 2017 Patricia A. Nugent
Patricia A. Nugent is the author of the book, They Live On: Saying Goodbye to Mom and Dad, and the editor of the newly-released anthology, Before They Were Our Mothers: Voices of Women Born Before Rosie Started Riveting.