Her name is Rose.
She sits across the street from the building where I work, in a small clearing with patchy grass, some scrub pines, and a few shrubs. She has a chair, a rolling cart, and a length of fabric that she stretches across the chair and shrubs to form a flimsy shelter when it rains.
She doesn’t hold a sign or speak to passing pedestrians. In fact, she often sits with her back to traffic. In the mornings, I often see her with both hands raised skyward.
Some of the women in the office across the hall took her some food once, which she politely declined.
A few weeks ago, I crossed the street. I was thinking about my friend, who is as full of action as I am of talk. My friend was telling me how she often just visits with people who seem in need.
I introduced myself, saying that I worked across the street. I asked her name. Rose.
I could have asked her other questions, like my friend would have. She didn’t curse at me or tell me to go away. But I felt awkward. (Small talk has never been my thing, in any social setting.) I feared my presence was patronizing, my cheery tone insulting. I mumbled something about feeling free to ask us if she ever needed anything and told her to have a good day. She responded in kind, throwing in a God bless you that caught me off-guard, mid-retreat.
Her name is Suzanne.
I was walking back from the lunchtime pizza place when one of her two dogs barked at me from the church entrance alcove where she was lying on the concrete. She took my hastily fetched offering of toothpaste and granola bars without embarrassment while telling me about the roommate who’d just moved away, leaving her unable to afford rent. She introduced herself first.
A few days later, I returned with two cans of dog food. Suzanne seemed neither surprised nor overly happy to see me, treating my reappearance as an expected event. She commented that she didn’t have a can opener. I pointed out the cans were pull-tops as I noticed the bag beside her, holding some dry dog food, snacks, and a bottle of Yellowtail.
Had I spent all day sitting in the rain, I would have probably enjoyed some wine myself, I thought. I fought my immediate, base instinct to be offended that she was apparently not as destitute as I’d thought. Do you want her to grovel in gratitude? I berated myself.
She told me about using the computer at the library to look for jobs and asked if I wanted her phone number. I took it because saying no seemed rude, thinking I could look for area job postings.
When a coworker told me a few days later that she’d seen Suzy in the parking lot and she’d asked for me, saying I had her number, I didn’t call. When I saw her sitting on the building’s steps with her back to the front door, I kept walking.
I have not looked for any jobs.
Today I gave Suzanne another bag of snacks and toiletries and told her Merry Christmas. Her face and feet were dirtier, and she didn’t have as much to say.
I don’t know his name.
One morning last week, I stopped to crumble up a granola bar for an old stray dog that was standing in the middle of the street. Minutes later, I drove by a man sleeping in the middle of a busy public sidewalk, ratty blanket concealing his face as people stepped around him.
There was no convenient place to pull over. People can be more dangerous than dogs. The excuses are instantaneous and bullshit, more numerous than the blank, weary faces at the bus stop.
Tomorrow morning, our last day at work before the holiday break, my boss and I will try to give Rose a gift card we’ve all gotten her to a store where she can buy food or just get a cup of coffee and sit inside when it rains. I don’t know if she’ll accept it.
I’m not sure if she’ll be there. This afternoon, the chair and the cart and the covering were gone.
You feel compassion, chased by uncertainty. You want to help, but fear being played. You don’t know if you’re helping, or if you can.
Jesus was homeless and often dependent on the kindness of strangers. He said as you have done unto the least of these, you have done unto me.
Some days, I feel pretty good, remembering that.
Others, I feel ashamed.