All was right with the world—and my body. “No cancer” the radiologist had just reported after aspirating a small breast lump. Sniffing the coffee in the air, I stopped at the hospital coffee kiosk for a treat. I deserved it after my ordeal.
Back in the car, I carefully set my steaming coffee cup in its cute little red holder and headed for my health club. Thinking good-humored thoughts, I almost missed her. She was walking west on Franklin Avenue, wearing a sky-blue, down coat and carrying several plump, white plastic bags. As I neared, she turned and stuck out her thumb.
I blinked. A woman hitchhiking? I looked up at her face. It was contorted in pain, as if she had walked just about as far as she could go. It was a look I knew well, having seen it in the mirror for weeks after a recent surgery. I drove on.
But as the blocks slid by, I felt more and more guilty. Once, I too had been desperate for a ride. I was 11 years old and walking to a dentist’s appointment on a very cold, blue-gray winter afternoon. My toes and fingers were frozen, my wool-scarfed head bent into the wind. Numbly, I stumbled along until a car stopped beside me. “Want a lift?” a man asked. Although wary of accepting a ride from a stranger, I nodded, for what could be worse than what I was suffering? I gingerly opened the car door and sat stiffly on the edge of the seat for the half-mile ride, hand on the door handle ready to leap out at the first hint of danger. The driver must have sensed my unease, for he said little. Safely deposited at the dentist’s office, tears of relief stung my eyes. How could I now pass up a woman who looked as if she were in as much pain as I had been on that bleak day?
And then I remembered that a ride was owed. Fifteen years ago on Christmas morning, out of fear, I had passed up a hitchhiker shaking in the sub-zero cold. After dropping my passengers, I had returned to the spot on Lowry Avenue where I had seen the hitchhiker, but by then he had disappeared—to my relief. But in the years following I could never shake off that dark picture of myself as someone who would drive past a person who could die of exposure because she hadn’t stopped. It was time to make amends. I turned the car around.
When I once again pulled abreast of the woman, I beckoned to her, turned the corner and stopped. Suddenly it occurred to me that she might be mentally ill. What would I do? I thought anxiously.
She opened the car door, stuck her head inside and said, “I want to get to 26th and Nicollet.”
“OK”, I answered, since she seemed sane.
She got into the car. “Thanks for stopping. I didn’t think anyone would.”
“You looked like you were carrying quite a load.”
I studied my passenger as we sat at a stoplight. Her blond hair was pulled back neatly and clipped into barrettes. Thick black mascara coated her eyelashes, and remnants of red lipstick clung to the outside of her lips. The gray of long use shaded the hem and sleeves of the sky-blue coat.
“Yeah. I’m homeless. This is all my stuff. They threw out most of my other things.”
“Where do you sleep at night?”
“I walk the streets mostly. But my feet and ankles really hurt.”
Unable to imagine a person walking all night, every night, I asked, “Don’t you use the shelters?”
“Sometimes, but they get all filled up.”
I felt like I was giving her the third degree in exchange for the ride, but she seemed as if she wanted to talk. “How did you end up homeless?
“My checks got stolen.”
Thinking in middle-class terms, I asked, “Your checking account was cleaned out?”
“My disability checks were stolen.”
“Couldn’t you straighten it out with Social Security?”
“Yeah, but the checks don’t come very often.
“How old are you?” I realized this wasn’t exactly a polite question, but I was curious. I had characterized the homeless as mostly male, and if female, elderly.
“Do you have any children?”
She brightened. “Yeah, I have four. The youngest is 15.”
“Where do they live?”
“They’re in foster care.”
“Do you get to see them?”
“Oh sure. Every weekend.”
By now we were driving south on Nicollet. “So what’s at 26th and Nicollet?” I asked.
“Butler Drug. I have to see if they have a check for me there.”
I was confused. Could it be that she used the drug store as a mailing address?
“You can just let me out at that corner,” she said, waving vaguely at the sidewalk.
“What’s your name?” I asked belatedly.
She nodded. I was feeling helpless, as if there was something more I should do for her, but whatever it was, it would be as nothing to someone with her burdens.
“Could I give you some money?”
She nodded again.
I reached back for my purse, examined my cash situation, and gave her a ten.
“Thanks a lot,” she said, struggling with her bundles as she opened the car door. But, as she stepped away from the car, she was pulled back. Her black purse straps had caught on the door handle. I unhooked her and she limped off.
I backtracked to the freeway, my cheeks slippery. Later, as I walked the brick red, rubberized and banked track at my health club, I had to wonder if Candy was out walking Franklin Avenue again. And if she was, did anyone care?