No Place Left
I made a wrong turn, or maybe two. That’s how I ended up seeing her and not being able to miss her—as if I would have anyway. She was riveting. I found myself wondering if everyone else passing noticed her too, or if she blended in with all the other homeless of the area.
She held a sign that said only “Need Bus Ticket”, in red. The way she held it was different, nothing complacent there, nothing passive. She was not resigned to her lot, whether choice brought her there or not. She was fighting.
Standing near an onramp, and also an off ramp, she turned, looked each passing driver in the eye, and turned her sign for their viewing. With each of their glazed looks, she turned it in a different direction, each time with a little push almost. Her eyes were direct, desperate even, while somehow not dramatic in that studied way I have seen. She turned her whole body with her sign, as if to say “See me.”
I was on my way to pick up lunch for a crew of workers. McDonalds, which they requested. Having passed her twice in going the wrong way, I was not eager to take even more time negotiating the no brain in and out of the shopping area [courtesy of the transportation powers that be—for our own safety]. But I kept thinking about her.
I returned to her anyway, honked and called out as there was no way to stop safely. When she saw me pull into the truck stop parking lot, she ran to my truck, then hesitated, unsure of whether to come close.
I held out my hand; three dollars and a gob of change. “It’s all I have.” I said.
She fumbled with her sign, thanking me. “It really helps.” She said.
I asked her if she was hungry and she looked down. “Yes.” The only thing she said.
I had bought an extra meal; cheeseburger, fries, coke. I handed them over.
She was on her way to Tennessee. I don’t know why, there’s no one there. I only know she is leaving something here. A black eye and a badly swollen cheek bruised fading to an ugly green told me parts of her story. I asked her her name, and she smiled then and told me. I wondered if anyone had asked her name in a while.
She was clean, not the kind of clean like someone who just got that way, but of someone who wants to be that way. Too old for how old she must have been, she had lived hard, I knew. The lines in her face told it and her teeth were worn out. There was something fierce yet gentle there, some flame burning that spoke of a life not yet given up.
“Is there something you need? I mean besides a bus ticket?” I asked, knowing it for the stupid question it was. And “Prayers” is what she said. She looked into my eyes, silent.
And in the moment it took me to contemplate saying a prayer for her that night I knew I’d forget just BECAUSE I deemed it something that could wait. I asked her “Do you want me to pray with you now?”
And she said simply “Yes.”
I am not a great prayer. By that I mean I don’t generally pray out loud, nor do I know all the right words and ways some do; those “prayer warriors” I’ve encountered who pray over the suffering at the drop of a hat. It’s not my way. But it was what she told me she wanted and needed.
From my shiny black truck, I joined hands with her, and prayed to God for her protection, for her path to be clear, for her to be provided a way to where she needed to be, for her to know herself for the precious person I saw, for her to find what she needed. I heard her crying, and then heard my own voice shaking, felt my face wet. And I prayed until I ran out of words. We were still holding hands.
I stroked the nubby sleeve of her sweater and wished her well, glad that at least her belly would be full for a while.
I had not thought her pretty, but used up looking. Yet as we held on I saw the softness hiding there in her face, and a kind of dignity she wore, telling me that for the moment at least, she felt some kind of peace. And I saw a plain beauty.
The average life expectancy for a woman on the streets is something like 30% less than the general population. Many statistics say dying by 45 yrs old is common. Many women do not live 2 years once homeless.
Jackie has probably been beating the odds for a while.
I will send those prayers up once again, and hope that this one finds her place, her safe place.
Good luck, Jackie.