Monthly Archives: December 2017

Her Name was Cindy

I slung two tote bags over each of my shoulders and grabbed another one to carry from my parked car.  It was dark as I crossed three lanes of traffic to Williams Park.  This park is home for those without one and a place typically avoided by those with homes, myself included.

This was Christmas and I was there to help feed people who were hungry.

After crossing the street, I walked quickly past small pockets of people sitting on a low wall and benches.  Some stood near an overflowing trash can.  I lowered my head a little, looked ahead and didn’t make eye contact.  I was ashamed.  Here I was to feed and interact with these same people in a few minutes, but I was uncomfortable.  What do I say to people that I often try to avoid on the streets?

The Food Not Bombs organizers quickly popped up folding tables and began placing pots of rice and vegetables, and trays of tomatoes with basil, plantains and other goods on the tables.  I set down my container of pre-made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and another container of spaghetti.  Opening tubs of hummus and a loaf of bread, I placed those in line on the buffet.  People quickly and quietly formed a line at the end of the tables.

One boy from our group leaned in to his mom and whispered, “I’m nervous.”  His eyes darted around.

“Why are you nervous?” She asked quietly.  “It’s okay.”

“I don’t know, I just am,” he replied.

We well-meaning and more fortunate folks stood together one on side of the tables as those who were hungry waited patiently on the other side for 6:30, when we would begin serving.

There was chatter from adults asking kids what their favorite Christmas present was. Feeling aware of and embarrassed about the glaring contrast of privilege between the two groups of people there, I slipped away from the conversation and walked down the line of people waiting simply for food on Christmas.

Not sure what to say or do but knowing I wanted to connect, even just a little, I stopped by a woman slightly hunched over her walker.  Her face with sunken and wrinkled.  Her eyes and cheeks were wet.

“Hi.  How are you?”  I asked simply, not knowing how else to start.

“Today’s been hard,” she began.  “It’s Christmas and I’ve been crying all day.”

I nodded and listened.  I dug my hands into the pockets of my sweatshirt and stood there, giving her space and time to share.

“My family is far away, where it’s cold,” she explained in a child-like way.   Many of her teeth were missing.  There was a big gap on her bottom row.

“Oh, I’m sorry to hear. This is a hard day when you’re not with family,” I agreed.  “Where up north is your family?”

“They live in a cold place, where it snows,” she continued.

“Who is in your family? Will you tell me about them?” I asked.

“My sisters and my parents. And my parents are old. They are in their seventies.”

At the sight of her wrinkled skin, I had thought she was nearly seventy.  Recalculating, I figured maybe she was in her sixties and her parents had her in their teens.

“I haven’t seen them since 1994.  I’ve been on and off the streets for 23 years.  And it’s hard.”  She leaned her head into her hand and her eyes welled up.  She sniffed.

Her walker moved a little as she leaned on it with her elbow.

“And this thing,” she gestured to her walker, “is missing a screw and I can’t get it fixed.”  I leaned down to examine both sides.  Three blankets were folded and stacked on her walker’s seat.  She moved them out of the way as she pointed out the part.

“If this breaks, I don’t know what I’ll do.  I can’t walk without it.  I have a fractured pelvis.  And they can’t help me.  It hurts when I sit.  It hurts when I stand,” she shifted her weight, sniffed again, and continued, “it hurts when I sleep.”

“And now it’s getting colder out.  I like to keep warm with a cup of coffee.  But you know if I go into a place they just look at me in disgust.  It’s awful.  And they won’t let me pay with pennies.”

I have no words other than, “Would you like a hug?”

She nodded tearfully and reached her arms out.  I leaned down and we embraced.  I wondered when she was hugged last.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“I’m Cindy,” she said.

“Hi Cindy, I’m Sara.”

“I need to get to the tables to help serve food.  I’ll see you over there,” I told her wishing I had better words, a cup of coffee, and the right screw for her walker.

A man who had been setting up tables stood in front of the line and welcomed everyone at precisely 6:30. The line began to move, and I stood in front of the containers of hummus and bread.

“Would you like hummus?” I asked the first man.

“Oh, yes. I love hummus!”

“Would you like garlic or pine nut?”

“Garlic, please.  It’s so good for you!” He replied.

I scooped the hummus onto a slice of bread and topped it with another.

The line of folks continued, and the majority requested garlic hummus.

Cindy came up.

“Hi Cindy, would you like hummus?”

“No thank you, but I would like a tomato slice,” she told my friend.

“Sure thing.  Merry Christmas, Cindy,” I said.

“Thank you,” she replied.

After everyone had gone through the line, I realized the woman I met last week, Connie, was not there and I wondered how she was doing.

I packed up my containers and utensils and walked toward my car.  This time, I stopped and looked at the people sitting on the benches and around the trash can.  I asked cheerfully if anyone wanted a pb&j sandwich.  No one accepted, so I kept walking to my car, this time less nervous.

My walls and prejudices were chipped away a little more.  And along with Cindy’s hug and standing side by side with friends to serve others, those chips were the best Christmas present.

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My First Time Being Homeless

 

Last night, I spied her walking across the street with a bag hanging from each side of her walker as well as one tote bag on the seat.  I hesitated offering her a sandwich because she looked more put together than I’d expect a homeless person to look and I wasn’t sure if she really was.

As she reached the corner of Central and 3rd St, right near the Lucky Dill and Ruby’s Cigar Bar, I approached her.  Her long blonde hair was swept up into a loose ponytail.  Her skin and eyes looked bright.  She had a little mascara rubbed off under her lower lid.  She wore a blue fleece zip-up jacket with a white shirt under it.

“Would you like a sandwich?” I asked as I held out a pb & j wrapped in a paper towel and held together with a sticky Christmas gift tag which read “To: You, From: Me” in children’s handwriting.  My family and friends had just finished making sandwiches at Williams Park and I had one left as I walked back to my car.

“What church are you from?” She asked me.

“I’m not with a church.  I was just helping out over there at Williams Park,” I explained.

“Oh, I was just there for dinner.  That was good,” she said.

“Would you like the sandwich?”

“Yes, thank you. I’ve been homeless for four days.  It’s my first time being homeless,” she told me.  “And it’s hell.”

She paused and her blue eyes locked mine.

“My money ran out and I have bone cancer, so here I am.”

My already heavy-heart sank a bit more as she told me this.  If I didn’t have family and friends to catch me, I’d have been damn-near homeless a few times.  It’s only a few missed paychecks away.  In fact, I suppose I have been homeless…it just didn’t look like me sleeping on a park bench.  It was me living in an RV with 6 family members.  It was me bunking in with friends for a few months.  It was me being on the edge of adventure and minimalism and poverty.

“The good thing is, you always have somewhere to eat in St. Pete.  Every night of the week there’s something.  Monday is Williams Park.  Tuesday and Wednesday is the “chicken man.”  Then on Thursday it’s three guys on motorcycles who bring burgers.  Friday is the “bologna man.” Saturday is the church….the elevator church the homeless call it…over there,” she pointed down the street, past Williams Park.

“There’s a breakfast feast on Saturday morning and another one Saturday night.  Sunday another church provides food.  There’s no reason to go hungry around here.  But let me tell you it’s still hell out here,” she continued.

“The men out here are pigs.  They only care about booze, drugs, and sex.  I’ve seen women giving oral sex to men right on the sidewalk,” she looked away in disgust.

“Are you Christian?” she asked me.

“Ummm, not really.  I don’t subscribe to any one religion.  I believe in a lot of things,” I explained.

“Well, when I had money, I’d buy cigarettes and Hershey chocolate bars.  The mini ones not the big ones.  And cigarettes are expensive.  I’d tape a message on it.  A Bible verse. And then I’d leave them out.”

She recited a verse about salvation.

“I wonder though….do you think it stuck?  Did people follow it?” she asked me.

“Well, I believe when someone is ready to hear a message they will hear it.  So, yes, I’m sure someone followed your message,” I said.

“Here I am now.  Homeless.  But only for a few more days.  Friday or Saturday I have another place to go.  Maybe Sunday.  But I’m getting out of here,” she told me.

“Where will you go next?” I asked.

“Well,” she paused, “I’ve got a place.  Yup, by Friday or Saturday I’ll be there.”

“That’s great!” I said.

“You know my doctor said I wouldn’t live to see Christmas.”

“Oh,” I said empathetically.

“Oh, it’s fine with me.  I’m ready to go home.  My son is already there.”

I processed this and realized that Christmas was Monday.  Where would she really be going on Sunday?  Oh, Lord….is she going “home” on Friday or Saturday?

“I really need potassium. My bones ache from the cancer.” She rubbed her leg and I nodded.

“You know, the homeless like it here.  They don’t want to go to the VA or anywhere else because they’d have to give up drugs and booze.  They get their checks.  They eat every night.  They don’t mind.”

I shook my head slightly.

“What is your name?” I asked her.

“Connie,” she smiled.

“Connie, I’m Sara,” I smiled back.

“Where do you sleep, Connie?”

“Huh, well…” she looked off.  “It’s hard.  I sit on the bench.  I can’t lay on it.  And I stay on it until the police officer tells me to move.  You know, the homeless here they loathe the cops.  And the cops loathe the homeless.”

I nodded again without a word.

“Well, I better keep going.  Thanks for the sandwich,” Connie said.

“You’re welcome.  Take care.”

I turned to walk to my car, my feet and heart heavy.

 

 

 

 

Today, I was shopping in Publix downtown on my way home from work.  I rounded the corner to head down the aisle for toilet paper and there was Connie pushing her walker.

“Hi, Connie!  I met you yesterday, I’m Sara.”
“I remember who you are.  Were you wearing that dress yesterday?” she asked.

“No, I wasn’t.”  She was in her white shirt and blue fleece.

“How are you today?” I asked.

“Hungry.  The chicken man is off until after Christmas.”

“Oh, that stinks. Well, what can I get for you?” I chirped.

“Oh.  I wasn’t…” she trailed off, shaking her head and looking down.  “I wasn’t trying to imply….”

“Connie, it’s okay!  What do you want to eat?” I asked.

“A sandwich.  A sub sandwich,” she looked up at me.  “I’m so hungry.”

“Well, let’s get one for you,” I walked with her to the long line at the Publix deli.

“I didn’t mean for you….I wasn’t trying to…” she started again.

“I know you didn’t.  It’s my pleasure Connie.  I’ll tell you what. Can I give you some money to buy the sandwich because I have to go?”  I counted out 10 singles and handed them to her.

She smiled and accepted.

“It was good to see you again Connie. God Bless.”  I never say “God Bless” but felt that she’d appreciate it somehow, being that she’s a Christian.

I rushed to the check-out line with a tote bag full of fresh produce hoping to make it to yoga in time.  My knee-high boots clicked across the parking lot as I strode to my Volvo and hopped in, allowing only some of the reality to sink in.

Yes, Connie, I thought, your message is being received.