When I woke up that morning I felt better than I had in several days. A cloud of fatigue and deep body tired finally lifting. Life had been heavy these last few weeks. Little did I know of the great disruption lurking for me at the most unlikely place.
She was there as I walked into my grocery's Starbucks. Me texting away on my phone, capturing a pithy thought to share with my sister in law who had just joined me for yoga. The mantra in yoga being one of listening to and trusting your gut. I didn't see her at first, so focused on my correspondence. I looked up from my phone and there she was, eyes darting, downcast and afraid to meet my own, but walking right at me. I knew what was coming and mentally went over the contents of my purse. No cash. I braced myself.
"Ma'am, will you give me a ride?"
Her voice was quiet, childlike. Her request knocked me sideways.
"What?" I said. Then recovered. "Where do you need to go?"
"5 Below?" She said it like a question, then repeated herself in a whisper. "5 Below."
In one of those weird moments where an hours worth of thoughts fly through your head instantly, I calculated the time in the car and back, analyzed the risk to my safety, and picked up and discarded one hundred more questions. The woman was dressed in canvas shoes, no socks. I took in her thin cotton pants and baggy short sleeve shirt. It was 40" outside and the temperature was dropping. Her skin was red and chapped from exposure.
"Sure." I said. "Let's go" I held out my hand and said "My name is Lauren." She took three of my fingers in a pressure-less grip and answered, "I am Sh...Ashely."
We got in my car still warm from the drive. I shrugged off my coat and put it over her lap. She just sat there. Murmured thank you. She still had goose bumps all over her bare arms. I cranked up the heat.
As I drove her to the 5 Below in my town, I asked her a few questions: Where did she live? Did she live outdoors? Was she safe? Did she need help? Her mumbled responses were hard to follow.
I offered help. Gave her my number and the numbers of two places in our affluent community that could help her come off the street. I told her she was loved, that there was help, that she wasn't alone. She sat in my passenger seat, her hair matted, grasping at fingers that were cracked and yellow, saying very little. What little she did say was barely comprehensible. We got to 5 Below, and I offered to buy her something to eat. In the line to buy her some coffee she told me she needed to go to the next town over, another 10 miles down the road...
When I asked about having children she gave a little laugh. It was twitchy, unhinged. She wouldn’t look at me, much less meet my eyes. I asked her if that was funny. Her response was the twitchy chuckle but no words.
In that thirty minute drive I tried more questions. I found out she was from Tennessee. She walked to Georgia. She had a grandmother who was dead. It would be too much trouble to call someone. She lived in a camp. She was meeting Mike at 5 Below and oh yes, Mike was very nice. She gave the twitchy laugh, flashing teeth grey with rot. I saw her wipe her eyes.
Looking at her I realized with a sinking heart that sometimes we cannot let go of the thing that’s killing us. It may be the darkest part of the human condition to be unable to distance ourselves from our greatest corruptor.
When she got out of the car I told her to take the coat. Now, lest someone try to deify me as an angel or label me an attention grabbing humble bragger, I have three more coats at home. This was a coat I bought on clearance for a very specific purpose. Yes, I didn’t have to give her my coat, but I can go into any store I want and buy a coat. Most people I know can. It was literally the very least I could do for her. And there was absolutely no satisfaction in it.
I watched her for a few minutes as she walked to the sidewalk and rearrange herself. She shrugged into my coat, pulled the hood up and walked away. The only thing I felt was sad.
I knew "Ashley" for 30 minutes and she left me with hard questions. What do we do in the face of such disparity? How do we as a people, as a culture, as a first world country address the triple threat that is mental illness, drug addiction and homelessness? How do we help others who do not want to be helped? Tonight it would be 35'. Ashley would sleep in a camp. Dirty. With Mike. Because that is what she chose.
I wrapped my sweater around me and drove away.