Sunday, March 7, 2010

A dog-eared novel

Here's a short piece I wrote several years ago that I came across today:

She had obviously come to the mall for the same reason I had: to escape the 100° heat. My apartment had become an oven about noon and I had a stack of research articles that I could read just as easily in the frigid air of the Food Court as at home all asweat.

She clearly had no such agenda. She carried two big white plastic garbage bags drooping with the weight of her possessions, a man’s winter parka, a big paper bag rolled over at the top, and a cup from Taco Time out of which she sipped from time to time. I could see that she wore a couple of sweaters over her men’s slacks—all of the clothing old, all of it poorly fitting except for the sturdy black tennis shoes on her feet.

She sat first at a table one row over and five down near the Orange Julius stand but just as she was getting settled, a large handsome Hispanic family spread to part of her table. She was immediately distraught, her eyes shifting between the now shrunken elbowroom and her bags. Without a word or even a real look at them, she gathered everything up and moved to a larger table where she spread her possessions in three chairs and sat in the fourth, closer to me now but with her back towards me.

For the next two hours, while I read about botanical therapies for hypertension, underlining quotable passages, and I ate teriyaki chicken and drank iced tea, she sat, occasionally mumbling to herself, shifting in her seat, wiping her nose, moving the bags around.

I was hyper-conscious of her there, wanting to offer her something, anything. But I couldn’t figure how to do it in a casual way that wouldn’t painfully point out the differences in our lives. I wondered, as I always do when confronted by a homeless person, how I would be on the street. Could I spend two hours at the mall with nothing to do, not even a dog-eared novel to read? How would I live my life without my structures, my purposes, my community? She was my age—and I felt such sorrow and guilt.

She left as I debated this for the 6th or 7th time, and I felt ashamed. The next day I gave $10 to a one-legged man begging in the still 100° heat at a freeway exit. I didn’t care if it was a scam. It was something to do and it was nothing.

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