Sometimes I see women in my age group who look homeless or at least very poor, and I think, That could be me. Sometimes I see women in my age group pushing overflowing shopping carts or riding bikes upon which recyclables have been fastened, and I think, That could be me. Sometimes I see women in my age group walking down the street talking to themselves (or to someone I can’t see), and I think, That could be me. I sometimes see women (in my age group or otherwise) flying a sign, and I think, That could be me.
I’m poor and I live in a van now, but I’ve been 100% homeless and there have been days when I’ve had zero money to my name. I’ve never pushed a shopping cart or tied my money-making enterprise to a bike, but I’ve walked through towns with all my earthly possessions in a ridiculously large pack strapped to my back. Sometimes I do talk aloud when no one else is around, until I catch myself doing it and close my mouth before a stranger labels me crazy. I’ve flown signs, panhandled, asked strangers for what I needed to survive. I could be those women I see because I have been their sister in poverty, a sister of the streets.
During a recent visit to San Francisco, I saw a couple of women and thought, That could be me.
I was walking down the sidewalk next to Mission Street, near the 16th Street BART station. Two women about my age were walking in front of me. Between them they were hauling a huge, red plaid, thick plastic tote bag, something probably designed to transport laundry into and out of the washateria. I didn’t see what was in the bag. I really wasn’t paying much attention to the women, even though they were yelling at each other. Then I looked over and noticed the woman on the left was wearing socks but no shoes. It startled me more than if she’d been barefoot.
Walking on a dirty city sidewalk in socks with no shoes really said living on the margins to me. Had she lost her shoes? How? Had they been stolen? Did she not have the few bucks to go into one of the several thrift stores on Mission Street and get a pair of shoes? Did she own shoes but for some reason I can’t fathom chose to only wear socks?
I could have asked her; she was right in front of me, but I didn’t want to be nosy. Her footwear (or lack thereof) was none of my business after all. I didn’t want her to think I was judging her (although I guess I was). I didn’t want to offend her. And while all of those reason for not talking to her were true, I also didn’t want to admit publicly or to myself that her situation could be my situation.
I feel like I’m doing ok right now. I’ve got my van. my little comforts, my small saving to get me through to my next job, and my seven pairs of shoes (which I know is a ridiculous number for a person living in a van to own.) But I know I’m one road disaster or health crisis away from being back to having nothing. I know friends would help me if they could, but things are rough all over.
I look at these women in my age group, women living on the margins of society as I am, and I think, That could be me, not with disdain, but with a little fear. Maybe some of those women are happy, and it’s not my place to assume they’re not. If they are happy, More power to you, sisters! But when I see women who don’t seem to be doing very well holding their day-to-day living together, I remember to be grateful for the shoes on my feet (and the extras stored away), my narrow bed, the roof of my van over my head.
Thanks to Robert Hunter for the title, a line from “Here Comes Sunshine.”