Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Lackadaisical Pedestrian Carelessly Misplaces Entire Job

Normally I carry around ten one-dollar bills and give one to just about anyone who asks for money. When I lost my job, I assumed I would give this practice up, and the next time I was asked for money—fifty cents, to be precise—by a small Asian woman with grey hair and red lipstick, I said, “I’m sorry, I can’t. I’ve lost my job.”

“Where did you lose it?” she asked, as if I might have absent-mindedly let it fall from my backpack as I walked.

I told her the intersection where it had last been seen, in an office building near MOMA, and she offered such sincere condolences that I walked away feeling kind of like a heel. I could easily have given her 50 cents or a dollar. Refusing her, however politely, made me feel steeped in lack, and I decided that, at a time when it's necessary to plant as many positive seeds as possible (is it ever not?), I can’t afford not to give away these small bits of money.

Not long after, taking a constitutional up 18th St., I saw a woman to whom I’d given a dollar or two in the past, someone I think is strikingly attractive. As I unzipped the pocket of my backpack, I asked, “Would you mind if I asked you a question?” After she said it would be all right, I said, “Forgive me for commenting on your appearance, but how does someone as beautiful as you are—how did you end up here?”

Well, she said, everything happened at once: she got cancer and she got thrown off Social Security because one of these days, she will be receiving an inheritance of $200,000 and somehow that information ended up in the system. She said the thing that keeps her going is her dog, Buddy, who was cradled in her lap. She is due to move into housing in three weeks; in the meantime, it costs $10 a night for her to sleep indoors, plus $5 for Buddy.

Having already been terribly nosy and overly personal, I went ahead and asked what kind of cancer she has. This could have been a prelude to telling her I have cancer, which might have partly excused my asking. We didn’t get that far in the conversation, but she didn’t seem to mind the question. It started out as Hodgkin’s disease and now is wrapped around her spine and has reached into her brain. It’s painful; it even causes her feet to hurt at this point.

I asked if she will make it until she gets her inheritance. She said she will not. Her cancer is stage four. All I could do was say, “I’m sorry,” and mean it, and give her $20 so she and her dog could sleep inside that night. I said, “I won’t be able to do this every day, but I can do it today.”

She reached up an extraordinarily filthy hand, a hand that proved to be sticky with grime, and shook mine, and told me her name. I couldn’t exactly not shake her hand, though I’m not always crazy about being touched regardless of the cleanliness of the other party. I wasn’t asleep the day they covered cooties in second grade, which, come to think of it, was every day.

With relief, I remembered that the hospice where I volunteer was close at hand and I could go there and wash up. I’m not proud of it, but, amid the rash of opinions and exaggerations presented here, I do also try to tell the truth, and the truth is I went and washed my hands.

That woman must be worried sick about what will happen to her dog after she’s gone. I’m a little worried about it myself.
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