on the street

where i live in west palm beach, i walk to & from work, the grocery store and the local shopping area as much as possible, so it is not uncommon for me to be approached for money on the street. most of the people i meet are not interested in the help or meal i always offer. sad but true, when they realize i am not going to give money, they walk off, desperately looking to feed their addiction. i have been left more times than i can count standing on the sidewalk wishing the trap of addiction would loosen its noose.

yesterday i was carrying a box of gumballs home from work which is really kind of just funny but so me. it was a typical steamy early evening. i was having a friend over for dinner & i was thinking how i should run to the market & grab a baguette for the stew i had prepared. i was lost in thought. i generally skip to my own beat, but more than ever, i feel a deep sense of freedom of knowing who i am. peace is not a condition of circumstance, but a solace of the soul. we have such little time to say & do the things we really mean. calculated risk fosters the true & deep work of the heart. i want to live with that kind of audacity.

enter deborah.

the woman is tattered as she comes up to me on her bike & i can tell she has been exposed to the elements when she asks me if i will help her get what is on her list. initially she was quite scattered in her approach, so i was unsure exactly what she wanted. after talking with her a while, i realized her scattered pleas for help was just desperation. i wondered how many other people she had already asked that day.

her eyes was worn yet lucid & i made a judgment call that she was not on drugs. she finally articulated that she needed food & had no money for groceries. i told her that i did not have cash on me, but that i would take her to the grocery store. she stood there for a few seconds & just stared at me processing if i was really serious. it felt like a long time that we went back & forth. i told her i had to put my box down, but that i lived close. she offered to put my box in the little basket she had makeshift tied to the back of her bike that held her belongings. i do not think she believed i was going to really come back to meet her. i looked her in the eye & said i would take her to the grocery store but that i just needed to set this down. i pointed to the street corner next to my apartment & told her i would meet her there. she said, “really”? i said, “yes”.

when i came back to the street corner she grinned in a way that i can hardly describe. i walked briskly next to her & she peddled slowly. we talked about florida & pennsylvania. she is originally from a town a few hours from where i grew up. in different generations, we went to the same amusement park as kids. she said her grandparents took her. she started to brighten a bit & i was thankful that our chat was humanizing her. she is incredibly soft spoken. we walked through the local shopping plaza towards the grocery store. she tied up her bike & i got us a cart. once inside, she would ask me over & over if she could get something. regardless of what happened that got her here, she had tiny sparks of life in her eyes which made me hopeful that these small touches of kindness would brighten that spark.

after a bit, she began pushing the cart. it all unfolded very naturally. she said she was really thirsty for a bottle of water so we got her one. i chatted with her about cooking & she started to smile more & more. i started to get concerned that she felt this was the only food she would have for a while because she chose multiples of many of the items. i told her that we could come back. she paused but did not say anything. she said she would be able to fit it on her bike. she said it was a 15 minute bike ride to where she was staying.

she smelled rather sullied & i asked her if she needed any new personal items. i could tell she felt disbelief & gratefulness. we picked out a toothbrush.

i chatted with paula the checkout lady & gene the bagger, whose wild jamacian persona made her giggle as we teased. deborah & i got out to her bike with a pile of bags. i did not push back in the store as she added more & more items to the cart even though i wondered how on earth all these cans of tuna & bags of fruit were going to fit in the tiny crate on her bike. we shoved food together like a puzzle & as i giggled tying bags to the makeshift basket, i told her i felt like i was at camp again. she laughed hard & then looked at me & stilled herself. very quietly she said, “you are a delight”. i hung my head and smiled.

she held out a bag full of saltine crackers & an orange crush. she said it was given to her but she cannot have the sugar in soda. i took them from her & left them on the bench.

i gave her my phone number & told her i would help her if she wanted it. we made a plan to meet a week from then. i have made that kind of arrangement with a number of people & it has been the exception that she/he will show up again. so we’ll see.

she peddled off after we chatted some about life & hope. i called my friend who was about to arrive to my apartment & said i was on my way. as i was ending the call i looked up and saw this tattered woman raising her head to me driving her bike through the intersection with bags tied to every part of her bike. she was about 100 yards away & she beamed at me. i smiled widely at her and i waved my arm high & quickly as the cars buzzed between us. i stood there at the corner & watched her cycle away.

i hope that she shares her story with me. i hope she is brave enough to reach out for help. i think we all have a deeply breathtaking redemption story. the question for all of us is if we will go to the honest place to heal our broken hearts..

in the midst of her pain i do know that she has the spark of hope. and hope often truly begins in the dark. whether or not i am just a meal ticket, grace can be scarce... and in a broken world, i am convinced it is unconditional love that truly changes us.