Weeks have gone by, and still, I can’t get her out of my mind.
Because I am invited to inflict my blatherings upon WAMC’s Northeast Public Radio listeners every few weeks, I was able to wangle seats for my wife and me on the station’s bus caravan to the big Jon Stewart- Stephen Colbert rally in Washington, D.C.
After a snappy 6-hour or so overnight journey from Albany, we were decanted onto Constitution Avenue at 7 a.m., fully five hours before the scheduled start of the rally.
We could have proceeded right then to the National Mall, but instead stumbled upon a McDonald’s that provided a welcome shelter from the morning chill _ and facilities several cuts above the port-apotties at the rally.
We settled in at a table, and that’s when I saw her sitting across the aisle.
I suppose she would be called a bag lady, or perhaps a kinder term would be street person. I’m terrible at guessing people’s ages. She could have been anywhere from her late 60s to early 80s.
What did not appear to be in doubt was that everything she owned in this world was next to her in three parcels tightly stacked one on top of the other on what was once a shopping cart.
Her face was weather-worn and craggy, her hair utterly gray and poking out from under a soiled knit hat. She wore two light jackets over her shirt, and I hoped that somewhere in her bundles she had a heavier coat to fend off the coming winter’s cruelty.
I wasn’t sure why I was so taken with her. I was born in New York City, and I’ve seen plenty of people like her before.
You don’t see them, though, in Oneonta or other towns in our area. It’s not that we don’t have homeless folks around here, it’s just that you don’t see them sleeping on warm-air grates or living under bridges.
There was just something about this woman.
She drank from a large McDonald’s paper cup, the purchase of which was probably why the management didn’t hassle her.
She was eating a hard, dark roll, obviously not purchased under the golden arches.
You could tell that what teeth she had must bother her, because of the way she maneuvered the bread to bite off a piece.
Then, it hit me. Most of us eat casually, our minds often on conversation or a book or a television program, with nourishment almost an afterthought.
This woman was eating with a sense of purpose. This woman was eating to survive. Despite her straitened circumstances, she had long ago decided to live.
On her face was a determination I found myself not only admiring, but envying. She had a dignity that said without words that she had paid for her coffee and had every bit as much right to be in that restaurant as anybody else.
After a while, she slowly rose and limped gingerly to the ladies room, leaving everything she owned unguarded in the cart. It was still there several minutes later when she returned.
She winced twice as she settled back down in her seat _ who knows how long it has been since she’s seen a doctor _ and began to read from a newspaper magazine section that someone had left behind. She didn’t seem to be in a rush to go anywhere.
I thought about walking over and giving her a few dollars, but somehow that would have been an intrusion, a tacit insult to her self-esteem. What I really wanted to do but didn’t was give her a hug … and ask a million questions.
Who had taught her to read? Had she been Daddy’s little girl? Had she ever giggled with a brother or sister on a see-saw? Had she been married? Does she have adult children somewhere?
How did her life come to this? Did some man _ or men _ treat her badly? Had she done drugs or fallen prey to alcohol? Why was she in D.C. when there are far warmer places with winter on the way? Does she have a safe place to sleep? Where does she get her McDonald’s coffee money?
And where does she find the immense willpower to get up each day and deal with the cold, the aches, the poverty … the loneliness? She was still reading the magazine when we left and made our way to join the 200,000 or so people at the rally. After it was over, we got back on the bus, then came home to a warm bed and a life of privilege I take for granted far too often.
The weeks have passed. It’s getting colder, and it’s almost Thanksgiving. My mind goes back to an old woman with bad teeth eating a hard, dark roll at a McDonald’s with the express purpose of wanting to live another day. And I wonder _ and doubt _ whether I could ever be that strong.
SAM POLLAK is the editor of The Daily Star. He can be contacted at email@example.com or at (607) 432-1000, ext. 208.
Weeks have gone by, and still, I can’t get her out of my mind.
- Big Chuck D'Imperio
There was just no telling about snow days
Winters get harder as we get older. Things change. It snows more. It snows less. It gets colder. It's a lot milder. It all changes as our knees start to creak and the thought of shoveling a foot of snow seems positively daunting.Continued ...
- And the music goes round and round
- When did pranks turn into vandalism?
- Happy and sad memories of Jan. 7, 1966
- Lesser known greats that passed away in 2013
- There was just no telling about snow days
- Cary Brunswick
It's time for warmer relations with Cuba
It has been 55 years since Fidel Castro and his bands of nationalist fighters and supporters took over the government of Cuba. The United States immediately took issue with that regime change, and ever since has had serious problems with the tiny nation just south of the Florida Keys.Continued ...
- Unconventional events changed my outlook
- Keystone XL pipeline is still a terrible idea
- We shouldn't trade privacy for security
- I'm pleasantly surprised by Pope Francis
- It's time for warmer relations with Cuba
- Chuck Pinkey
- Guest Column
State's budget gimmick is hindering schools
Recently, the Margaretville and Roxbury boards of education joined their colleagues across the region and throughout the state in adopting a resolution calling on the state legislature to end the so-called "gap elimination adjustment."Continued ...
- The state Board of Regents deserves a shakeup
- It's no wonder businesses avoid us
- How to bridge a widening wealth gap
- Nimbys, shills and celebs: A morality play for our times
- State's budget gimmick is hindering schools
- Lisa Miller
A view from above
Fire towers in the Catskill Mountains have always been destination points, built to capture some of the region’s best views. These sentinel stations served an important role for the earliest possible sightings of forest fires in the remote mountain ranges. But the fire towers and those who manned them fulfilled a multitude of other roles as well.Continued ...
- Being a parent is a constant learning process
- Healthy doesn't have to mean expensive
- A family era ends with close of Potter series
- Independent stores make up for loss of Borders
- A view from above
- Mark Simonson
Beauty, grooming took center stage in Oneonta in March 1964
Good grooming, beauty and style seemed to be a recurring theme in the news around Oneonta during the month of March 1964.Continued ...
- Local news, opinion often mixed in 1889 newspapers
- Gasoline, demons and baseball were 'trending' locally in 1974
- Early efforts to halt Silver Creek were slow going
- Effort to establish Oneonta historic district began in 1970s
- Beauty, grooming took center stage in Oneonta in March 1964
- Rick Brockway
It's cold, but there's still plenty to do
This has been a tough winter. In fact, it has been one of the coldest winters on record. Now don't get me wrong, I love winter and I always have. I've always believed that people who don't like winter don't have anything to do when the snow flies and temperatures drop below freezing. But I've never had that problem.
- Animals' behavior a sign of wild winter
- Opossum is unique in many ways
- It can be too cold sometimes
- It's tough to say what you really did see
- It's cold, but there's still plenty to do
- Sam Pollak
Religion should be a comfort, not a weapon
Discuss politics or religion in any establishment that specializes in dispensing alcohol, and -- proprietors warn -- the discussion is highly likely to result in you waking up on the tavern floor and spitting out teeth, probably your own.Continued ...
- The world must think we're nuts
- Mistakes easy to take ... if they're not yours
- Celebrate 2013 with the annual 'Sammy Awards'
- The feds still aren't coming for your guns
- Religion should be a comfort, not a weapon
- William Masters
Schreibman tops Chris Gibson on women's issues
As the time to vote draws near, we need to remember how money can run politics more than we can. Raising funds is a prominent (if not the dominant) task of getting elected. Raising issues is also crucial, but those efforts are subject to distortion and fear-mongering.
Republicans feelentitled to allthey can garner
An entitlement is a legal benefit available from the government to individuals who are within a defined category of recipients, such as needing insurance for unemployment or health services.
Romney focuses on self; Obama emphasizes unity
Mitt Romney criticizes President Obama for saying a person's success is rooted in his community, and is not all his alone. Romney belittles this with his belief in individual initiative. He is better at the put-down than the push-up.
Romney shows little regard for common man
The Republicans in Congress have voted over and over, 33 times, redundantly and uselessly, to rescind what they call Obamacare.
Scouts' gay ban creates problem where none exists
The Boy Scouts of America's "emphatic reaffirmation" of its vow to exclude any and all homosexuals from its hallowed ranks is ill-considered and pathetic, especially in view of its having reviewed the matter for two years.
- Schreibman tops Chris Gibson on women's issues