Monday, February 25, 2013

The good people of DC



She had all the “crazy bag lady” hallmarks. The ill-fitting, mismatched clothes (a rainbow-striped skirt that looked more like a bath towel wrapped around her waist, a zany-colored Peruvian knit hat with the pompoms swinging below her ears). Baggage, although she didn’t look like she was traveling. Sweat socks with “slides,” the kind of shoes I wore to take a shower in my college dorms. She stood at the end of the Starbucks line, but apart from it somehow. She turned to me and I knew she would ask me for something.

“Could you buy me a cup of coffee?”

Of course. I mean, god.

She started to step to the side, out of the way of the line, and I asked her what kind. She smiled at me graciously, thankful that I’d ask her that, and requested “a red-eye.”

So I bought her a cup of coffee, and felt bad that I couldn’t find one of those cardboard rings you put around the cup when it’s hot. I told her I was sorry about that. "Oh, that's OK!"

She shuffled over to the wide platform-style bench that I always sit on in the mornings, reading until it’s time to walk the two blocks to where I work for now. She saw a homeless-seeming man she appeared to know, a big sad lump of a guy in a North Face jacket that looked like it was spiked with white cat fur. He was sitting on our bench, too. Her maternal instinct kicked in; she asked him if he wanted to share the coffee, then she went and got him a cup. I saw her pour at least half of it into his cup.

I was kicking myself for not buying him a cup of coffee, too, but I assured myself with asshole-ish thoughts like, “Yes, but where does it stop?”

All up and down the domed marble hall with its soaring ceilings and sunlight trickling in there were more of them. I have to turn down five, ten of them a day. The guy with half a body, smoking in his wheelchair. The woman with the Canada maple-leaf jacket who talks to herself and holds a cardboard sign that says she needs money for "Traveling," although she's always right there. The man who tells God to bless everyone who walks past him, whether they give him money or not (usually not).

In the ladies’ room at Union Station I put on my make-up while a woman next to me cycled through her grooming rituals and sang without shame. It sounded like a lullaby, sweet and reverberating among the empty stalls.

On the Blue Line coming home, two men with mild mental deficiencies sat in the backward-facing seats behind me. One was young and loud, the other was old and had the toothless slur of some hobo from a movie.

They talked about how here in the city you’re away from nature, how “at least at Imperial House you could go out every night and see the stars.” They didn't like the NoVA townhouses our train zoomed past, how you're "all crammed together" with your neighbors. The young one kept talking about the “mercury retrograde.” A friend of theirs called on a cell phone, and the young guy attributed something mentioned on the phone to this celestial phenomenon. He said, “The spirits want you to do good things for everyone. Well, not everyone, you can’t do that. But they want you to do good things for people when you can.”

I looked out and up at the pale blue sky through a window filmed over with old brown dirt.

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