On a bright January day I was making my way home from a doctor’s appointment. I’d had to fast the day before, so I decided to stop at a ratty-assed coffee shop and treat myself to a greasy breakfast. I loitered a bit over my eggs and coffee, avoiding the glare of the shop’s two giant televisions (this was not a yuppie café). Finally I figured I’d wasted all the time I could—there was plenty of work piling up at home. As I was getting into my car for the long trek up the hill, a woman signaled to me on the sidewalk.
She was very slight, about my age, with dyed hair and a face streaked from crying. “Ma’am, can you give me a light?” I thought I heard her say in a small voice. I said “sure” and fumbled around in my appallingly disorganized purse to retrieve a green Bic. “No, I’m sorry,” she said, and stepped a few feet closer to me. “I need a ride, Ma’am.” The usual Voice of Mother went off in my head: don’t give rides to strangers. I asked, “where you headed?” Tears and words started gushing out of her.
“I spent the night at the bus stop. They took my car to the pound. I need to get to the pound to get my purse. I don’t know what I’m gonna do. I got no one to call. I just need to get to the pound.” She showed me a printout of a Google map with the route from the police station to the impound lot. It was about fifteen miles away. No way was she going to walk that far; she could hardly stand up. “Sure,” I said, “I’ll take you over there. It’s pretty far.” She started sobbing again.
“I spent a day in jail and then they kicked me out just when it got dark. My purse is in my car, but there’s no money in it anyway. I got my driver’s license. They pulled us over about three in the morning…” She stopped and gulped some air. “What for?” “These guys, my brother asked me to bring these guys over here and I argued with him but I did it. I told the cops, sure, search my car. I didn’t have nothin’ in it to hide. But sure they found something on the passenger’s side. Some kind of bottle—they were shakin’ it and lookin’ at me. Then they made me get out and those people took a bunch of my stuff and ran away and the cops put me in jail.”
“What was in the bottle?” I asked. “I don’t know. They kept shakin’ and shakin’ it. Then they booked me for possession. I said, you dumb heads—you think I’d have let you search my car if there was somethin’ in it? And it was on the passenger side. And you let those guys get away. Then they kick me out of there in a town I’ve never been in with no money just when it’s dark. Those guys at the bus stop were really scary. They kept comin’ and goin’ and givin’ me the eye. I was so cold. So cold.” I got her into the car and we set off to the impound. While we were driving, I asked her if she could call her brother for help. “He don’t charge his phone.”
All the while I’m trying to think what to do for this woman. She was in a pretty ugly spot. No money to get her car back, nobody to come and get her, a few hundred miles from her home in the Central Valley. I was astounded to think of the police putting a penniless woman out on the street at night knowing that she would be at risk. But they thought she was a criminal. I didn’t think she was. I thought she was poor and alone and let herself get talked into something.
“I live on social security widow benefits,” she told me. “My husband’s father killed him, shot him, tried to shoot me. The police got him away and took him to prison. So I get widow social security. I get a check every month. But I don’t have nothin’ to cover this. I’ll just borrow money from somebody and come back here and get my car when I have to talk to the judge. They said 30 days.”
We arrived at the impound lot and she gave her paperwork to the harried clerk behind the desk then went out to search through her old red Chevy. While she was outside I asked the clerk what she thought I could do. “You be careful, you know. Sometimes…well, you know.” I said, “Do you think I should try to take her to a women’s shelter?” “She’s not from around here,” the clerk answered, “so she’s not one of our homeless. They have waiting lists.” “Do you think I should put her on a bus?” “Well,” the clerk mused, “that might work.” So I started calling Greyhound to find out if I could get the woman home. I found a $40 fare one-way to the nearest large town to where she lived.
I wandered back to where my new friend was pulling stuff out of her car. “They took all the quarters out of my car,” she said in an anguished voice while she dug around in her ashtray for some butts big enough to smoke. She found her purse and a cotton blanket. “I found you a bus,” I told her. We drove to the Greyhound station and I gave her cash for the ticket and a meal. “Please call me when you get home,” I said. She expressed big gratitude and promised she’d call, and that she would pay me back.
The gratitude was mine. I felt she’d given me a view into a sort of life I knew nothing about. She game me an opportunity to help. She reminded me of our constant vulnerability, of the absence of a safety net for people, especially poor people in a jam. I remembered a few times when I had been a stranger, lost, but nothing like this, nothing like what she had gone through.
The next day I had a phone message from her. She hadn’t made it home yet, but she was still very grateful.