Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Jesus walks among the something

I've seen her here before. A lot of people have. She's almost like an architectural detail, like the Roman Centurion soldiers with their "modesty shields" in a row staring impassively ahead above the revolving doors to Massachusetts Avenue. Except that she's a human being, and I'm not an asshole, so of course she's not like that. 

She's a little old bag lady who hangs out at Union Station. She wears a pink scarf wrapped around her neck and then her waist, so that from the front the scarf formation is shaped like a Z. She's short; maybe the scarf is too long so she has to wrap it around herself a bunch of times to keep it from dragging on the ground. Or maybe her mind has invented some more interesting reason why it has to be that way. She wears a camouflage jacket and gray sweatpants with the cuffs rolled up a couple of times because they don't fit her at all. None of her clothes fit her. 

I see an old lady, with coarse, gray, seemingly unwashed hair, shuffling aimlessly through a train station and carrying around a bunch of crappy plastic bags (the thin kind that you can see everything through) and muttering to herself -- I just assume. Oh right, she's homeless. Oh right, she's crazy. Oh right, she has no family or loved ones who care about her or she wouldn't be here right now. 

I feel good about myself for taking the time to think the obvious thing: "I wonder what her story is. She's somebody's daughter, even if she's nobody's anything else. At the very least, she was somebody's baby." I feel special for wondering what it's like inside her mind. 

Me and everybody else. 

I sit beside her on the big flat bench -- by accident, not as a voyeur. I set down my pricey frappuccino and open my book and suddenly I'm a stereotype. I'm some damn yuppie bitch. I'm some liberal who pays a lot of lip service to caring about the plight of "the homeless" but is frequently afraid of "them" in real life. 

She's muttering; I strain to make out words. I think of how I almost majored in psychology, and how I did minor in sociology, and all of this is somehow supposed to mean I'm not a bad person, that I care about humanity. Besides, I'm not a tourist. I'm here every day, too. 

She's staring ahead at the extra-long line at the Starbucks. "...too many people..." I think that I make out racial slurs -- something about "...Japanese..." and something about how something or someone "...stinks..." -- but that could just be my own brain being crazy. 

Sometimes her quiet words sound sane, sensible even, rational, like a parent, like someone from a generation in which people my age were adults. Echoes of a past life. " might be, but I can't guarantee it." 

She gets up and gets into the line. I wonder how she can afford to order something there, and then I wonder if maybe she'll do something crazy when she gets to the front. (What did I expect her to do? Shout "Vive la Resistance!", frantically topple the straw containers and the nutmeg and cocoa shakers then go running off into the Metro station and hurdle a turnstile?) I see her get a cup, but not pay, and at first I think, "Aw, that's nice -- they must know her and give her free coffee." 

But then she sits down beside me again, and rustles a wrinkly plastic bag until she finds a small plastic jar, and she shakes it and shakes it, and I see that it was just hot water. She has her own coffee. 

Also out of a wrinkly plastic bag she pulls a small pamphlet that I hear her say is "...sticky..." As she drinks her coffee, she intently reads one page of what looks like Guideposts, that little Christian magazine that my grannies read with their breakfasts. Sure enough, I hear her read aloud: "...Jesus walked among the" something. The passage, whatever it is, whatever Jesus was walking among, delights her. Or maybe it's that plus the caffeine. She claps, and she even sings a little. 

She leaves. The whole time, I was sitting there, jotting these notes on a piece of paper that I use for a bookmark.   

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