Wednesday, October 21, 2009

What We Assume

Almost from the minute I spotted her... I assumed she was homeless.


I'm not sure.

She was sitting in Starbucks, she had a cup of coffee, she was listening to an iPod. She had a suitcase next to her.

She could have been from out of town. She could have been a retired person who was going into the city for a day and stopped at Starbucks before her train. She could have figured out at her age that the only people that benefit from carrying a heavy purse are Louis Vuitton and your chiropractor. Any number of possibilities, but my first thought was "homeless person."

Normally, I might have been sure to navigate the kids to a seat on the other side of the shop so we wouldn't have to interact with a "person like that." But on this day, at 10AM on a Monday morning, Starbucks is PACKED.

I'm sure I'm just paranoid, but I know the other customers were eyeballing me and making some judgments of their own: Lady... with kids... three kids... loud kids... why aren't those kids in school?... please don't sit by me with your kids...can't you take them to McDonald's instead of Starbucks? ... Starbucks is for "adults"... OK, whatever, I'm paranoid but I'm getting better.

So, we're expecting to meet up with three or four other moms (and their noisy kids) and the tables with the most available seats are right near the woman. So we go over and sit down.

Right away she makes eye contact and starts talking about what is playing on her iPod. She is complimentary of my children. She has no front teeth. She has long gray hair. Her eyes are happy and she seems full of joy. I still assume she's homeless. Why?

She says, "Oh, it's 'Love Story' my favorite song!" I make a comment about how my 8 year old loves that song too. My 8 year old agrees, reluctantly drawn into a conversation with this "stranger".

My inner radar flips on... "Don't let your kids get friendly and talk with her! She's homeless! She could be dangerous!"

Characteristically, my kids are a bit shy and reserved around complete strangers. Not that I've taught them "stranger danger" but I have always tried to respect their inner compass and I've never forced them to be polite if they don't seem like they want to. I'm not forcing now, just being polite and somewhat uncharacteristically engaged with this person... who is "obviously homeless" but also "obviously harmless"... but...

Then she's gone. Where did she go? I got distracted by my little, not quite two year old, tornado and didn't notice her leave. One, two, three... all my kids are still with me. Whew... safe.

A friend comes in and parks her baby by us and goes to get a drink with her 3 year old. Another friend comes in and takes the seat next to the lady's. Sees the suitcase and asks, "Is someone sitting there?"

I say, "Yes, but I'm not sure where she went. The bathroom maybe?" Her suitcase is there. Her coffee cup is there. And again, a string of judgments run through my mind... she went out for a smoke... she saw someone outside who looked like they'd give her money... she's in the bathroom... why? She smiled, she was polite, she was clean... teeth or no teeth, her clothes were clean... she could afford a $4 coffee... so why was I so judgmental?

She came back. Any other customer would have been miffed that we had invaded her space so completely. She smiled at the baby and said "No problem" when I apologized for the stroller blocking the way. She took her seat and asked my 8 year old about another song. She cooed at the baby and commented on how quiet she was. She talked to the tornado.

She listened to her iPod more... then she confirmed it....

"My son is in Afghanistan. That's why I'm at PADS. I go from church to church. I'm waiting for Section 8 to come through. My son has a lawyer working on it for me. They have that for military families - "family law benefits." But, he can't get any other benefits for me because 'I'm just his mother'. Twelve hours in labor with that boy! And 'I'm JUST his mother' and he can't get any benefits for me." This (confession?) all delivered with a smile... without malice... or victimization or JUDGMENT... just acceptance of where she was at in her life right now.

Maybe living with one suitcase, when your children are grown and you have a son who can be sure you have an iPod and some pocket change for Starbucks is freeing at that age. No house to clean, no chores to attend to, nothing to worry about. Just go from place to place. Watch the world go by in Starbucks or at the library until PADS opens in the evening.

I thought of the book 'The Glass Castle' but I didn't detect any of the desperation or derangement that seemed to keep those people in their situations.

I should mention that DD became very animated and engaged when she heard, "Afghanistan". Though she claimed to not "get" 'Three Cups of Tea', she did connect it to the mention of that place.

Later, I asked her what she thought of that woman we met at the coffee shop. She shrugged. All she remembered was that her son was in "Pakistan" ...Me: "No, Afghanistan" but they are near each other. Then I said, "It's not often we have a conversation with a homeless person."

A look of confusion... "She was homeless?"
"Yes, remember, she said she was living at PADS. Did you notice her suitcase?"

All of a sudden you could just feel my daughter being hit by the enormity of the situation. "Everything she owned was in that one suitcase! And she doesn't even have a roof over her head or anything? And she lives at PADS."


Then... she seemed to pull the balance of the conversation out of the recess of her seemingly inexhaustible, yet very selective memory (selective as in: "I remember you said we could go for ice cream if it was over 90 in July" but, "I FORGOT you asked me to pick up my clothes.")

"She gave birth to her son, but he can't get an help to get her a place to live. Why not?"

"Well, you can only get benefits for your dependents. Your wife, your children."

"But not your PARENTS!?"

"Why not?"

My inadequate and muttered response was drowned out by the hustle and bustle of getting dinner on the table and attending to the tornado that is my toddler.

DD was distracted and didn't press for clarification or details. But, I'm sure a seed was planted. And maybe someday, that seed will grow into something more so that when I walk in to Starbucks and see an older woman with long hair, no teeth and a suitcase, I can assume something other than "homeless".

And hopefully, my daughter will be just as caring and attentive to me at that age... even if I am JUST her mother. After all, I was in labor for THIRTY HOURS with her!

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