David Weiss, May 8, 2019
She was not the interruption I wanted in my afternoon. But I suppose I asked for it.
After a brutal winter had chased us well into April, I was eager to work outside at the table on the front porch. Spring temperatures and warm sunshine blurred the line between typing and basking. We live on a quieter residential street in St. Paul’s Midway. When I work outside like this I know, at least by sight, most of the people who wander by over an afternoon—they’re my neighbors. She was not a neighbor.
Walking—well, shuffling down the sidewalk in her flip-flops and engaged in an animated conversation with someone who was clearly not beside her, she drew my cautious attention. Cautious, because as a devoted introvert I count on keeping my social interactions on a short leash. Cheery hellos to my neighbors are plenty for me. Chit-chat—even with people I know—tuckers me out. This woman’s energy combined with her mildly disheveled wardrobe of yoga pants, tank top, and sweatshirt looked … dangerous to my inner calm. Thankfully, she was in her own inner world.
Until the clink of an ice cube invited her into mine. She’d already passed our porch immersed in conversation with someone she called “Little boy,” when I took a sip of water from my stainless steel thermos. Hearing the ice cube clink, she whirled around, as if on edge. Turns out she was.
She wanted to talk. I just wanted not to be rude. But eventually I talked, too. It was a rambling exchange. She was anxious because her dope dealer was pressing her for payment. She “always” used on a cash and carry basis, but her dealer had fronted her some meth because she needed it, and now he was out looking for her, and she was at least two weeks from her next paycheck. It probably took five minutes to get that much of a coherent narrative from her. Not that she was incoherent, but every sentence had side streets to it. And her world was so different from mine even our English was barely a shared language.
She lived in a tent down in Mounds Park. I recalled last summer hiking on sunny days through parts of the wooded park where you could see people lived. Her eyes brightened when she described cooking her food over a Coleman stove. She was 43, but looked a decade or more older. Had three grown children; said she was a grandma, too. She had a social worker trying to get her into treatment, and someone else helping her to find housing—she told me their names with a measure of pride. She was going to “turn all this around.” She’d just started a 30-hour/week job at a gas station. Now, anxious over her outstanding meth bill, she was on her way to get her laundry at a nearby laundromat where her son had washed clothes for her. Then she’d take the train and the bus back to her campsite.
Like any of us, she had hopes … and demons. Opportunities and impulses. Hers were just … right out there, a bit more on public display. Her anxiety was palpable, although she was also just hungry—and grateful—for human interaction. We were ten minutes into conversation and she still hadn’t asked for money. I finally asked how much her dope debt was. $40. I’d feared worse, but as an out-of-work religion professor, my wallet was hardly brimming with cash. I explained this, wondering how much I dared give her.
By now we’d exchanged names. And as I pulled a $20, two $10s, and a pairs of $5 from my wallet (cleaning out the rest of our grocery money for the week) Chrissy’s eyes widened in disbelieving joy. I said, “I’m giving you the $40 to clear your debt, so you don’t need to be afraid. The $10 is for the train and a bit of food.”
Her arms and legs—and everything else—was just bouncing with glee. “Can I hug you?” she asked, barely waiting for my Yes, before leaning in to give me a very perfumed and very heartfelt embrace. As she tucked the bills into her bra, she promised to pay me back as soon as she got paid. “You don’t owe me anything,” I said. “Pay it forward, when you can. And do your best to listen to those better notions inside you. There’s a lot of life ahead of you yet. Make it a story you feel good about.”
This was by now a long interruption and I needed to step back into my space, so I said, “Now I’m going to send you on your way with a blessing …” I simply meant, “it’s time to say good-bye,” but she assumed I was going to pray over her. Before I got any further, she’d bowed her head—and clasped my hands, hoping for a bit of holiness—and what could I do except invite the goodness of God into her life? So I did. And then she went on her way. Smiling with joy.
She pretty much danced the rest of the way down the block. Was I foolish to place $50 in her hands? Maybe. But I don’t think so. Even if she doesn’t turn her life around (hell, I’m not sure I’ve even turned my life around!), that afternoon she was walking on air. And I couldn’t believe I’d had the good fortune of being interrupted by Chrissy. Seemed like a good deal. For both of us.