street stories:: two

On the streets next to my husband's office, the homeless have set up camp.   It's hard to walk along the south side of the building now, he says, between the tents and the sprawled bodies and the belligerence.  It's not a crowd that invites compassion.  From his window he watches fights over inches of concrete, scuffles with police, smells the stench of the gutter toilet.  Once a week the city comes through and clears everyone out, hoses down the sidewalk, cleans up the water bottles and food trash, returns the street to its semblance of order.  By the afternoon they are back, squabbled, dirty, wet, fiercely human.  I no longer ask him if he knows their names, if he leaves his spare change in open palms.  I can hear it in his voice when he talks, the tension he feels between compassion and frustration.  

On Saturday morning we go to breakfast across town.  Outside the restaurant a woman says, "Excuse me," and I feel in my pocket for the handful of dimes and quarters.  She is clean, wearing a jacket nicer than my own.  "I'm sleeping on the streets," she says and she doesn't put any misery on it, no facade to pretend it's true.  In the back of my mind the little intuition fires are sparking but I ignore them.  I put the coins in her hand, my daughter takes dollars from her purse.  Judith is her name and she smiles wide, pockets our offering and waves as she goes.

Later, in the restaurant, I watch through the window as she walks down the street, a Starbucks cup in hand, the smile still in place.  She moves easy, strong, like she's warm and fed and sleeping on a bed.  Like me. Maybe she is more resilient than I would be, maybe she is a liar.  In Lebanon they are gathering to mourn and in Paris they are gathering in streets to say "Not Afraid" and outside my husband's office they are gathering to survive the stench of one more day and when Judith tells me her story and holds out her hand I hear only one voice inside me and it says, now is the time to give, give, give.