Safe, The End

I passed the alcove the other day, the one I had seen her resting in from time to time, and was surprised to see a single candle burning there.  Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised.  Life on the streets is not easy and life, regardless of where it is lived, only ever ends one way.  We will all have a candle lit in our memory at some point.  Still, I was surprised.

She was the inspiration for this series, these “Safe” posts.  I had seen her sitting in the alcove, smiling out at the warming day, as the princes and I passed along on our way to the park.  She wasn’t always there but she was there enough that it made me start to think about why she would be there and where she would go when she wasn’t there.  Each of these posts has been about my thoughts working through the life she had.  And now that life has come to an end so these posts will as well.

I will never know why she was on the streets in the first place and what caused her death.  I could speculate based on appearance, based on the observations I made on her behavior, but what purpose would that serve.  If I truly cared, I could have done more.  I could have done more than say “Hello” and offer the occasional donut or bottle of water or spare dollar from my pocket.  I could have asked her name.  I could have asked what she really needed rather than falling on what was easy for me to offer at the time.  My opportunities to do so, with her, have been missed.

If someone else claims the alcove once her candle has burned out and been swept away, will I do more?

Only time will tell.

Thank you for going on this journey with me.  When I wrote the first post I had no idea what it would become.  Without some encouragement from my readers it likely would have ended there.  I’m glad it didn’t.  I’m glad I forced my eyes to open a little more and to see the parts of my community that I most often ignored.  I wish it could have had a happier ending.  Though, in truth, I’m not sure what that would have looked like…  speculative fiction at best…  The real world rarely provides happy endings.  Death is inevitable.  And a candle will be lit if we are lucky enough to have people who care to light them.

That is something we should hope for.  That is something we should more than hope for.  We should work for it.  We should care about others and prove that we care through words and actions and thoughts and prayers and whatever it takes.  If we care, they will.  Then when it is our turn, the candles will be lit and those who strike the match and touch it to the wick will have happy memories to hold onto.  And there is the best happy ending any of us could hope for.

Safe 6

She’d been standing most of the day and the few times she had sat down to give her legs a break the cold, hard cement had not provided much relief.  It had needed to be done, though.  She had run low on funds again and the gnawing low in her belly had forced her to go out and stand on the corner while also giving her the fire to stay long after she would have otherwise.  She was exhausted all the same.  Despite the chill in the air, the sun had taken its normal toll.  Her feet ached.  Her joints ached.  Her back ached.  Her eyelids seemed to weigh more than the rest of her head and as they closed in slow blinks her whole head tilted down with them.

Perhaps it was ill-timed to attempt crossing the street during one such blink but she was tired and thoughtfulness of decisions decrease as exhaustion increases.  Wind whistled past her as one car after another careened too close for comfort.  She hadn’t seen them coming.  Had she even looked?  She was certain she had?  Certain and yet uncertain.  Of all the streets she crossed in a day in her normal wanderings and collections, who could tell if she was remembering this most recent one or any of the ones that came before.

Stumbling backwards, away from the road and buffeting wind of the passing cars, she tripped over the curb and fell painfully to her butt.  Tendrils of agony arced up her back and arms.  She sat there until the pain subsided.  Then she continued to sit there, unsure where the strength would come from to regain her feet.  The fire that had driven her earlier had disappeared with the first rush of air that had pressed her away from the traffic.  She had nothing left in her.  She needed to move, though.  She couldn’t curl up where she was to sleep.  She still needed food.  She needed to eat and then find her way to one her safe spots before night fell.

Where had all those cars come from?  Did they really think they needed to honk?  What purpose did that serve, she was already off the road?  Was a single one of them going the speed limit?  Had a single one of them ever spent the night away from the shelter of their roofs and walls?

She couldn’t answer.  She wasn’t them.

She tried to stay upbeat and usually succeeded.  For the most part she understood that her situation was of her own making and there means by which she could return to a normal life.  She chose not to.  That didn’t mean, however, that those who did fall into societal norms should make things harder on her, couldn’t at least have some empathy for her.  She didn’t want their pity.  Pity and empathy are not the same.  She accepted money from those who felt like giving.  She didn’t beg.  She stood on corners or in front of stores and people gave when they felt like it for whatever reason compelled them to.  She never asked.  Those who gave just did.  Perhaps they did so out of pity sometimes but that was beyond her control.

The drivers still careening down the street could move ever so slightly away from the curb.  They could see her sitting there and adjust their wheels to move the car a few inches further away.  It cost them nothing to do so and made a world of difference for her.  It would be less effort than those who chose to remove a hand from the wheel and honk their horns.  Those few inches kept the wind from buffeting her fiercely.  Some did move but most did not.  She wondered if they would move if it was their wife, their daughter, their grandmother sitting on the curb or if they were so self-absorbed that they wouldn’t notice anyone regardless of who it was.  That couldn’t have been all of it, though, for she was being noticed.  The honks were proof of that.

A fire, small but still burning, returned and she pushed herself to her feet.  Her eyes, clearer now, scanned the traffic for an opening and then she strode across the road with confidence.  The coins and bills in her pockets jangled as she moved.  Soon she would trade those funds in for food and then she would have even more strength to make the journey to where she would spend the night.  While she slept her anger would subside and she would be fresh again in the morning, hopeful for what the new day may bring.

safe 5

Here is the fifth installment in the safe series.  I know it’s been a bit since the last post about our homeless heroine.  Inspiration can be funny like that sometimes. This LINK will take you to the first post.

…..

He walked by, glancing her way only long enough to smile.  She knew what it meant, of course.  He wasn’t sure what to make of her so he smiled to let her know that he saw her and wasn’t going to make trouble for her.  That was good.  Most people who lived in these types of associations weren’t interested in causing trouble but every once in a while she would come across somebody who liked to make a scene.  They would call the cops and yell at her until the officers arrived.

She watched the man walk away.  It looked like he was headed for a different dumpster.  She would check it next to see if there was anything worthwhile in there as well but first she needed to finish the one she was at.  Carefully, she lowered herself into the messy depths and began to pick through the spoiled bags for the items of value.  Plastic, glass, and aluminum all held worth.

They would only bring her cents when traded in.  That was still cents she didn’t have, cents that would add up to a meal, cents that were worth more to her than the people who tossed them rather than trade them in.  She wasn’t complaining, though.  These recyclables that most considered trash, gave her the means for a bit more security.

She slung her bag full of bottles and cans over and out and then pulled herself out after it.  The young man who had walked by before was nowhere to be seen.  She looked towards the dumpster he had walked to and then down to her own lengthening shadow.  She didn’t have much more time before the plant would close and she wanted to turn in her haul today.  She had worked hard and didn’t want to worry about losing anything during the night.  Things had a way of wandering off in the dark even from her most secluded locations.

Her mind made up, she shouldered her bags and left the complex.  It was more important that she get the funds for what she had already gathered than risk losing it all for the little bit more she might find in the next trash can.  Besides, the afternoon breeze was bringing a chill in from the coast and she wanted to make the long trek while the sun was still warm on her back.  The seasons were changing and the warm nights were coming but, for now, it still wouldn’t be smart to head into the night already cold.

She left the association behind and made her way through the alleys and quiet streets she had come to know in recent years.  They were as familiar to her now as her home had once been.  The bags were heavy and she grinned at the thought of the food she would buy to fill her belly that night.  She would head to bed full and warm.  It wasn’t often she got to do that.

safe 4

Well, what do you know, I found some more to write in this safe series.  I’d say “enjoy” but I’m not sure that’s really the point…

…..

She had seen the patrol car pull into the parking lot and knew they were coming for her so she had already begun to walk away when the officer called out to her.  She was loath to talk to them.  Sometimes, most of the time, they just wanted to make sure she was okay but that didn’t make up for the few times where they hassled her, threatened her, and treated her like less than human.  Those interactions always left her worse off and she didn’t need that at the moment.  It had already been a rough week.

They called out a second time and she didn’t feel like she could ignore them anymore.  She hoped that the edge she heard in their voice was from nerves and compassion rather than nerves and frustration.  She turned towards them and smiled.  “Good afternoon, officer.”

“We received some complaints that you were harassing the customers here.”

That was a common accusation and she had learned of all the ways she could respond that silence was the best.  If she denied it, the officers would scoff.  If she admitted to it, they would scoff.  If she said nothing, they would usually take a minute to study her and then she would see what kind of officer they were.  The good ones would see she wasn’t a threat to anyone, including herself, and then would ask if she was okay.  The rest would threaten her with jail, put her in handcuffs, search her, or worse.  She didn’t like to think about the worst of the worst.

“You have someplace warm to get to?”

She breathed a sigh a relief, “Yes, officer.  I’m headed there now.”

“You want a ride?”

“No, thank you.  I like getting my steps in.”

The officer chuckled a little, seemed to study her for a moment longer and then shrugged their shoulders.  “Stay safe.”

“Thank you, officer.”

She turned away and carried on, not yet sure where she was headed.  She had options, of course, that was the only way to survive long term on the streets.  But, that didn’t mean any of them were good options.  That depended on the day and who else found their way to the various spots that offered shelter from the cold and the rain.  Sometimes the streets were safer because the people you didn’t want to meet found their way to the shelters when the weather turned sour.  She was cold, though, and would risk it for a couple hours just to get warmed back up.

Which one to head to, though, was the question.  She stopped on the corner of the grocery store parking lot and looked up and down the street, gauging her options.  The rain picked up and lashed against her face, driven by a brisk wind coming in from the coast.  Each dropped pricked at her exposed flesh like the tiny sharp icicles they were.  Still, things could have been worse.  The officer could have been one of the bad ones.

safe 3

This is the third installment in the safe series of posts.

…..

The coins were strangely warm against her cold flesh.  She continued to smile and said, “Thank you.”  The man wasn’t listening.  He had already walked away after dropping the change into her cupped hands.  She gave thanks anyway.  She always did.  Her gratefulness was not contingent on him.  She didn’t need to know why they gave and she didn’t need them to know that she was thankful.

She moved the coins to her pocket and went back to rubbing her hands together.  The cold wind bit harshly that morning.  Even standing in the sun she was having trouble staying warm.  Soon she would need to seek shelter but she didn’t want to go in too soon.  She didn’t like hiding so early in the day.  It might set a precedent.  She didn’t need any more excuses to stay separated from society.  The further she got the harder it would be to return one day.  Though, she already wasn’t sure if she even wanted to return.

She’d lived on the streets for so long they had become the only home she remembered.  In the back of her mind, in thoughts she kept pushed away for several reasons, she had a vague notion of roofs and tables, refrigerators and heaters, warm sunlight filtering through glass panes and wind kept at bay behind shutters.  These were abstracts, though.  She didn’t know if she actually missed any of those things or if they would just be nice from time to time.  She could find the equivalent when they were absolutely needed.

Another patron left the store, pushing a cart overloaded with groceries, food she could live on for months.  She smiled and the woman avoided eye contact but then stopped and turned around.  After fishing through her purse the woman came up with some coins.  She cupped her hands and said “Thank you.”  The woman said, “You’re welcome,” but had already turned and the words were nearly lost on the wind.  A moment later, the woman and her stuffed cart were lost from view among the sea of giant cars.

A howl erupted from the parking lot, the wind whipping around tires in gusts and gales.  She shivered as the blast tore at her hands.  Not yet.  Not yet time to slip away.  Soon, though.  She would need to get out of the wind and cold soon or she would risk getting sick and all the money she had gathered that day would be spent on medicine instead of a meal.

She added the coins to her meagre collection and let her hands stay hidden.  The thin fabric of her worn pants did little to protect her hands from the cold but shivering tended to turn more people away.  That was a lesson she had learned her first winter on the streets.  If she looked miserable people avoided her more.  It seemed counter intuitive but people so often are.

The wind eased back and the sun returned to full strength for a moment.  The doors slid open and another customer pushed their cart out.  She smiled at them but they pretended not to see her standing there.  She kept right on smiling.  Their disinterest had no bearing on her hope.