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.