On a bitterly cold Sunday last February, I was out for a stroll in the small city where I live when I passed a young woman sitting on the steps of an upscale restaurant that was closed for the afternoon. Next to her on the sidewalk was a stroller with a small child in it. The young woman and the child were both bundled up against the weather, but still their presence outdoors on this dangerously cold day struck me as odd.
I walked hesitantly by them on the way to my regular walking route, wondering if I should stop to talk. When they were still there on my return 20 minutes later, I cautiously approached the young woman and said, in what I hoped was a kind, non-judgmental voice, “Are you OK?”
“I’m fine,” she said. “I’m just waiting for a friend.” She paused, regarding me with undisguised hostility, and added in a tone as icy as the weather, “I don’t know why you would presume to think I was not OK.”
I was immediately embarrassed; I was also taken aback by her angry response. I murmured, “I just wondered, because it’s so cold and you’re out here with a child.” She softened ever so slightly and said, as she looked at the little girl and adjusted the blanket under her chin, “Yeah, she’s awesome.”
Knowing that my presence was unwelcome, I nonetheless felt obliged to provide an explanation for the behavior that she regarded as so intrusive.
“Well, I was just checking,” I said, trying to sound as apologetic as possible. “Sometimes people aren’t OK.” She glanced at me briefly as I spoke and then turned back to her daughter, signaling that our conversation was over. Even though I sensed there was more to the situation than she was disclosing, I left, knowing there was nothing else I could do.
Three weeks ago, on a fiercely hot late-summer morning, I was reminded of my awkward mid-winter encounter with that young mother and her daughter. I was walking briskly along a paved path by the broad river that borders my city, forcing myself to trek my usual 40 minutes for exercise even though it was a searing 95 degrees and not yet 10 o'clock.
As I headed north on the path, I passed a bench that faced the river and saw a young woman sitting there with her back to the walking path. To her left on the bench was a large, overstuffed green plastic trash bag; to her right was a backpack in a gray camouflage print.
She was wearing a sleeveless blue cotton shirt and looked—at least from my perspective—as if she were not in any acute physical distress. But still I had a hunch that she was surrounded by many, if not all, of her worldly possessions.
I speed-walked to my turning point about a quarter mile north, telling myself that if she was there when I walked past on the way south, I would stop to talk to her.
When I came within sight of the bench again, I could see that she was still sitting nearly motionless, gazing out at the placid river. I left the path and walked slowly toward her. “Are you all right?” I asked as I approached.
She turned to look at me. Unlike the young mother I had met in February, this woman didn’t seem hostile. Instead, she looked worried and even scared.
“Not really,” she said. She answered swiftly, and I could tell that she was glad I had stopped. She was small and slender, with dark blond hair pulled back from her face in a ponytail. In addition to her blue shirt, she was wearing black bike shorts and black exercise shoes. Except for the ominous presence of the garbage bag and the backpack, she could have been just another city dweller taking a break after her morning walk.
Usually when I walk for exercise, I have just a few dollars with me. But before my walk that morning, I discovered I had no singles, and I put a $20 bill in my fanny pack. Impulsively, I asked, “Would having some money help?”
“It would, actually,” she said, reaching into the small waistband pocket of her shorts. “All I have is a quarter.”
I took out my $20 bill and handed it to her. As I did so, I said, “Do you need a place to stay?” My plan was to direct her to the YWCA in my city, which has a vigorous outreach program for women and children in domestic crisis.
She shook her head. “No, I’m waiting for a friend to come and pick me up.” Her friend lived in a city about 35 miles away and was driving up from there, she explained. The young woman was from that city, and she had found a place to stay that was closer to her family.
Not wanting to walk off and leave her stranded on the bench, I volunteered to wait with her until her friend came. And then I gave her the name of the local YWCA again, and I helped her locate the organization’s website on her phone.
“Just give them a call when you get where you are going,” I suggested. “They might have contacts in that city who can help you there, too.”
She nodded and then, as we waited in the hot morning sun for her friend to arrive, she gradually shared her story.
It was one that I almost could have foretold by looking at the overstuffed garbage bag and the backpack on the bench. She had been living with her boyfriend; he had opened joint accounts in his and her name and run up debts; he told her he was paying the rent but he was not; and now they were facing eviction. That morning, while he was gone, she had packed up what she could carry and left.
She planned to go back to the apartment another time with her brother and get the rest of her things. “He’s a big guy,” she said of her brother, which reassured me. I felt even more reassured when she told me she had a steady job.
As I listened, she berated herself for having made the bad decisions that brought her and her belongings to this park bench. “I’m 41 years old,” she said, implying that at that age she should have known better. And later: “I had great credit.”
Having made a number of less than stellar decisions myself in my 30s, I felt compelled to respond vigorously to her self-reproach—even though, when I started talking, I was not certain exactly what I would say.
“Life doesn’t come with a manual,” I said, somewhat surprised to hear that comforting sentence coming from my mouth. “We make decisions that seem right at the time. You can’t blame yourself.”
My words seem to calm her a bit, but before I could continue with my theme her phone rang; her friend was calling from the highway for directions to the place where we were waiting. After I provided the directions and her friend hung up, the young woman and I lapsed into silence for a few seconds before I decided to offer a neutral topic of conversation: I commented on how unseasonably hot the weather had been that week.
She seemed grateful for the chance to talk about something other than her circumstances, and we traded observations about the weather for a few minutes before she again began scolding herself for her poor choices. But before I had a chance to assure her again that everyone makes bad decisions sometimes, she saw her friend’s car coming down the street toward us, and she stood up and waved to her.
After pointing to the place where her friend should park, the young woman turned and hefted her backpack onto her shoulder. As she prepared to lift the garbage bag by its neck, I moved toward the bench and said, “I’ll take that.” She looked doubtful; she shook her head, as if to indicate that I had done enough already and that carrying the bag would be too much.
“It’s heavy,” she said.
“Well, then I’ll help you carry it,” I said, as I grabbed a handful of slippery plastic on the side of the bag while she gripped the neck. Holding the bag awkwardly between us, we set off on the short walk across the street to her friend’s car.
Knowing that I had only a few seconds to make my last points, I started speaking quickly, in short, staccato sentences.
“You can rebuild your credit,” I said earnestly. “You’re alive, and you’re safe. You got up the courage to leave. That’s huge. Don’t go back.”
By this time we were at the car, and I was surprised to see that the driver was a gray-haired woman closer to my age than to the age of the young woman. I guessed that she might be a friend of the young woman’s mother. The driver seemed equally startled to see me—this stranger in black leggings, jogging shoes, sunglasses and a bright blue baseball cap who was clutching the side of a huge green garbage bag.
As I helped to shove the bag in the back seat, I smiled at the driver and said a quick hello. Then I turned to the young woman, who had moved to the curb by the passenger door.
“What is your first name?” I asked her. When she told me, I said, “I will be sending good thoughts your way.” To my surprise and hers, I found myself adding, “May God bless you.”
I gave her a brief hug, noticing as I did so how small and fragile she seemed. But I also sensed in her a sturdiness and a determination that I hoped would carry her through this hard time. I watched her get into the passenger seat and close the door, and I waved goodbye as she and her friend drove south down the road by the river.
I don’t make a habit of looking for people in distress whenever I go out for a walk. But if I see someone who needs help, I hope I will continue to have the courage to step forward. I might get an angry rebuff. I might, however, be able to lend an ear, lift a burden or change a perspective. I still hope that some Higher Power rains down blessings on the young woman I met earlier this month. But I would be more than satisfied if those blessings turn out to be the helping hands of other humans who encounter her along the way.
Copyright © 2016 by Susan Hooper
Photograph of Tree, Bench and River Copyright © 2016 by Susan Hooper