Night had fallen, bringing with it a chill wind that cut at my face. From where I stood waiting for the bus, I could see her begin her walk again. She walked with an air of indifference, although I knew the cold must be reaching her through her thin blue coat. In many ways she looked like any other girl her age. A thin girl, not at all bad looking, dressed in jeans, an orange messenger bag, and a hooded sweatshirt framing her face. I would have guessed her to be a student if not for the cardboard sign she carried which proclaimed “Homeless, Hungry, Sober, anything helps” in thick black marker. She looked too clean and put together to be homeless. I briefly wondered if this was the result of her being a newcomer to the world of the downtrodden, or a youthful dedication to preserving hope and a semblance of normalcy in her existence.
She walked the same route, again and again. She would start at the traffic light when it turned red and walk between the lines of waiting cars holding up her sign. Her walk was quick and purposeful, yet had an inherent mark of shame. Her gaze was kept straight ahead, avoiding eye contact with the drivers of the vehicles. Their motions did not escape her hungry eyes, and when a driver would bend as if to retrieve something from the front of the car she would slow in anticipation. On some of these runs a driver would roll down the window and pass her a bill or some change. She would mumble something, presumably a word of gratitude, and hurry on.
When the light turned green she waited for an opening in traffic and walked over to the sidewalk where she would pass right by me on her way back to the corner, and wait for the light to change to green. On each of these passes I was tempted to stop her and ask her the questions that were burning in my mind. What happened that relegated her to this fate? What is her story? Why does she not have any other options? Does she have any hope for the future, and can she even think about what may be tomorrow? But I kept silent, both because of the unspoken rule against talking to strangers and because I was afraid of how she would react to my inquiries. Those questions bothered me, but knowing that I would be unable to affect the outcome prevented me from asking. After all, what makes me so superior that I am entitled to question someone about personal aspects of her life to satisfy my own personal curiosity?
As she passed by me on her way to begin another run through the gauntlet of waiting automobiles, I wondered if maybe she would welcome such questions. Maybe she would appreciate a fellow human being taking some interest in her, if only to inquire into matters that were none of his business. After all, everyone wants to be something more than “the woman begging for change at the stoplight.” Would the brief moment I spent validating her existence as a person help her feel some hope? Would it maybe give her confidence to attempt some effort at improving her life?
So I stood there in silence, another nameless commuter on his way to a warm cozy house somewhere, and did what society has trained me to do. I kept quiet, avoiding all risk. The bus came and I boarded it, like I do every night. Meanwhile, she began another run between the cars. As the bus pulled away I wondered whether she would have enough money to get some food soon, and where she was sleeping that night. Most of all I wondered if the training we are given as members of society to ignore and avoid everything unsightly is really necessary for our survival. Would I have been in danger at 7:00 p.m. at a crowded bus stop if I had spoken to a thin young homeless girl? Well, I may have embarrassed myself if I spoke up, and apparently my pride was worth more to me than the possibility of empathizing with a fellow human being. Somewhere, the founders of etiquette must be smiling down at me, proud that I chose the path our society deems appropriate. But at what expense?
DK is a 1L who lives with his lovely wife and two kids in Brookline, MA.