Wind cut corners on 7th street racing us every step towards Pennsylvania. Trash funneled into tiny tornadoes at our feet as Nani and I walked arm in arm laughing, talking and enjoying our new home...then, I felt her presence commanding me to stop.
A deeply hued, heavily robed silhouette sat on the wide side-ledge of the towering hotel on 7th Street near Gallery Place; completely undisturbed by the wind, the trash, the dark of night or, even the precarious nature of her circumstances. Two adjacent suitcases on either side, quilts wrapped tightly around her; she sat queen-esque. Never raising her gaze from the Black and White composition journal open on her lap. The swirl from her cigarette punctuated her thoughtful recline. She wrote.
Two White women walked up to the Sistuh on the ledge. "This is my friend," introducing the Sistuh to her friend. "Can I sit down next to you?" forcing the Sistuh to scoot over. "Aren't her journals beautiful?" one asked the other. The Sistuh appeared baffled by their oohs and aahs.
My body moved past her but, I might as well have been on a treadmill. I did not put any distance between us. I stopped and looked in my wallet. I saw a 20 dollar bill; it was all the cash I had on me. I took it out and balled it up in my hand.
I quietly walked up to the Sistuh. Bowing down to meet her eyes I softly asked "Excuse me Sis, may I share this with you?" extending my hand. I knew what I was giving her could never equal what in the speed of light, she gave me. Without words or warning, her spirit reinforced mine. The fearlessness she emanated reignited my courage; her undisturbed focus, emphasized my complacency.
"Thank you," she replied, surprising me with the sweet, sing-song of an endearing grandmother. She smiled and I saw myself in the onyx of her eyes.
"No Sis, thank you," I replied.
One of the women looked away pulling on a cigarette through her thin lips; the other spoke in a slow, loud high pitch the way kindergarten teachers speak to their students.
"We are in town for the Women's march," she announced proudly wearing an "I had an abortion and I've asked forgiveness for my sin" button.
"I just wanted to tell you that I respect you," I said squatting down to be eye-level. The woman's chatter disappeared into the background.
"Why are you thanking me?" the Sistuh asked me.
"Because, you are not a quitter; because you are here on this street, in this cold and, you are not asking for anything. You are courageous and strong and you are living - not surviving. " I confessed.
|Ms. Lorraine Sparks displaced woman, mother and artist, January 2017.|
Her eyes softened. "I have also struggled. I have never actually slept on the street but, I was an emancipated minor in NYC. I know what it is to be alone; not have a real home. To not have family to take care of you." We had never physically met but, her eyes changed; she suddenly recognized me.
"I also write. You held me accountable to myself tonight. And, for that, I thank you."
Slowly, she nodded her head in acknowledgement.
|Ms. Sparks beautiful Journals, Jan. 2017.|
"What is your name?" I asked the Sistuh.
"Lorraine," she said. My face lit up in a smile to hear her say such a beautiful name; it fit her perfectly.
"I'm Viviana," I said.
"Oh? You write?" asked the chatty lady sitting next to Lorraine.
"Yes, I do a blog," I said.
"Oh, what's it called?" she asked taking out a pen to write with.
"Breakin' The Afro-Boricua Yoke," I said while she tried to write it down.
Oblivious to her intrusion she stuck out her hand "I'm Mary."
"Viviana." I replied. Mary and I shook hands; her smile seemed genuine. Her friend looked away in honest disinterest.
Feeling intrusive, I bidd Ms. Lorraine good night and continued down 7th Street.
Nani and I walked down 7th toward Pennsylvania, quietly. The Street grew still as we walked back up 7th towards H Street. The hussle and bussle of the tourist, pedestrians and even traffic subsided.
And, then I saw her again, she was still sitting on the ledge. This time, her posture was different; sad. I just couldn't walk past her.
"Hello again," I said softly causing her to raise her gaze. I didn't know why but, I needed to understand why this obviously brilliant woman was alone; on the street; with nowhere to go and no one to go home to.
Treading lightly, I asked "Why are you out here all alone?" She could have snapped "None of your business". She could have ignored me; the same way people ignore her. But, she didn't.
"I don't want to be here. I got sick." she said pensively looking inwards.
"I used to have a job. I've always worked and I raised my child; I even put her through college," she reminisced with a heaviness.
Most don't bother to ask people on the street "Why?" There is a fear of being attacked, lied to or our kindness taken for weakness. People often warn "Be careful talking to the homeless. Some of them are mentally-ill, desperate, on drugs or diseased."
Standing there in the Sistuh's presence I did not feel any fear, of anything. I felt her beauty, her strength of character, her wisdom, her loneliness, her sorrow and the lack of rest in her eyes. I felt an overwhelming responsibility to an elder in the community.
"You have a child?" I asked relieved but appalled that they would allow their mother to be alone on the street.
"Yes, my daughter is married. I don't like her husband" intimating her daughter's choice was a rejection of her. Immediately, I understood more...more than medical issues or financial instability; family brokenness was at the root.
"You know, sometimes family don't want to take you in because of substance abuse. People who use will lie to you, steal from you and even harm or, kill you for drugs. But, I don't use. I just got sick and, one day my doctor told me " You can't work."
I understood her doctor's words must have sounded like a death sentence; she must have been terrified.
"So, where do you stay when it's very cold?" Sometimes I can go to the shelter but, it's not safe there. Sometimes I sleep in the entryway of a hotel or, when I have enough I get a room. I am working with an agency; they are helping me to get my own place."
"Oh, good which agency?" I asked.
"Pathways," she said.
"Pathways?" I asked grateful there was an organization dedicated to helping her.
"Yes, they are working with me to help me get my own place; they said it shouldn't be long now."
I felt so powerless knowing I could not be of more help. Then as if she had read my thoughts...
"Most people don't speak; they pretend not to see us. We are all human beings and, I try to remember that they are human just like me. A simple smile or, "Good morning, how are you today?" makes a huge difference."
I knew that I had done so much more. I showed Ms. Lorraine respect, concern and she shared her beautiful smile and life story with me. I learned she is a 58 year old mother of one and, an artist. Ms. Lorraine is a wood carver and a writer. This seemingly vulnerable stranger helped me; Ms. Lorraine held me accountable to myself.
Lorraine's presence held me captive and, asked "I see you, do you?"
In acknowledging her I said "I see you" to her but, also to me. Growing stronger and rooted, I understood our acquaintance was not about me helping her.
We [all] need each other regardless of our circumstances. We all pour into each other.