Angels on Urban Streets

SIX months ago I lost my home. I left behind four walls and a roof; I left behind a small city, friends, and the sense of who I am. It wasn't my choice to leave, and Boston was the last place that I would have chosen to settle. But for six months now, I've been struggling to find some sort of connection to the nameless people who pass me by each day.

Ithaca, N.Y., was where I had begun my career and established a feeling of family. My neighbors, students, even the janitors who cleaned my classroom knew me. I was so much more than "the lady with the face of an angel," as some of them called me. Now I'm half an hour away from relatives who've never known me or with whom I long ago lost contact.

Perhaps it was my own sense of homelessness that impelled me several weeks ago. At the time I didn't understand what I was doing. It started on a rainy day, when I went out to lunch with an acquaintance from the office.

As we moved along Huntington Avenue, we passed several homeless men, each with an empty mug. Dripping with water, we skirted around them, guarding our change. One man caught my eye and said sarcastically, "Thank you, lady!"

We finished the walk and ordered a trayful: four burgers, four fries, and two drinks. The manager eyed us, two cherubic faces who looked a bit out of place.

When my friend was halfway through her meal and I was rearranging my pile, a man more than twice my size placed his hands on our table. He was holding gift certificates for this restaurant. "I'll sell you these for only $3," he said.

My friend said no, and the man tightened his grip on the table. "You don't know how hard it is to live in Boston," he said, and once again he held out the certificates. I knew that they had expired.

My friend suggested that he use them to buy a meal. He began slowly to rock the table. He bent over me, and rain streaked down his cap to my cheeks. "How about you, miss?" he said to me, "You got a dollar?" There was something almost frightening about the fact that someone so large and powerful had to beg a small woman for money.

Wishing I could do more, I gave him my last 50 cents, and then I watched him be escorted back out to the street by a member of the Guardian Angels. I felt guilty for being privileged, and it bothered me that an "angel" had to lead the man out. I caught a glimpse of my face in the window, and I wrapped up my second sandwich for the man with the cup on the corner.

"Bless you, lady," he said this time. "Thank you so much!" His smile was wide and genuine.

On the way back to work I thought about the faces I see every day in the city, and the face that I present to people who don't know me. It's easy to walk along without expression, blaming others for not seeing beyond your appearance when you see them as just part of the scenery.

Two weeks later I went back to Huntington Avenue, past the crowds coming out of the symphony. In my wallet was money for two complete lunches. But the man with the cup wasn't there. It was bitter cold and the sidewalks were icy. Without thinking, I made my way over to a shivering woman. The change in her cup made a strange kind of music.

"Hi," I said. "Have you had lunch?" The woman's eyes grew large and her cup stopped shaking. She shook her head. "No."

I took a step closer and rubbed my fingers together. "Well, if you like hamburgers and french fries, let me treat you to lunch."

"What's your name?" I asked, wanting to make a good impression.

"Sandy," she answered. She smiled as if in need of recognition. "What's yours?"

"I'm Elizabeth. Nice to meet you."

Inside the restaurant, the counter help looked bored, there wasn't much business. Sandy glanced shyly at the menu. I wondered what the manager thought of us. He asked me where I worked, as if I were the one who needed looking after.

Sandy asked me, very quickly, "Can I get a Whopper?" I told her to get what she wanted.

"Can I get a fish sandwich?" she gasped, as if overwhelmed by the choices.

I ordered a Whopper and large fries for Sandy, plus a chocolate milkshake. I got my usual fries and two burgers, knowing I couldn't eat them.

At the table, we talked about Sandy's son who'd been adopted by Sandy's sister. He lived across town from me, in the same suburb I did. His father was in jail.

"You got any children?" she asked.

Her question shocked me, and I almost felt guilty when I answered "No." She was trying so hard to find common ground. So I told her I have a sister.

Sandy, I learned, was 30; I was four years younger. We'd both liked school. She wanted her GED; I had taught college-level writing. My hair was dirty blond; hers was straight black. We both wore it short.

I thought about the cold outside, and I couldn't eat more than half of a burger and one small order of fries. Some of the people sitting near us looked over. Sandy had spilled ketchup all over in her haste to gulp down her Whopper. She wrapped up what was left of her fries and everything else on the tray.

"Should I wait for you?" she asked after she stood up and backed away from the table. She wanted cigarettes, and that was something I couldn't give her. So I told her I was all finished, and I felt a bit silly.

Sandy had been grateful for what I'd done, but by that evening, she might be in another city, probably looking for another hot meal. Our time together hadn't changed much at all: Both of us were still looking for some kind of permanence.

But what strikes me now is the fact that feeding another person is the way to begin. The meal itself - the food and the setting - really doesn't matter. There may not even be a meal. What starts out as a shared common need becomes an opportunity to see the energy and the spark that animates another human. The next time I see a homeless person or a red-jacketed Guardian Angel, I'll remember that for a few moments Sandy and I were each guardian angels, one in blue, one in black, one on each side of the tab le.

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