Homeless woman on my porch. Should I call the cops?
The first time I saw her, I wanted to call the cops. I didn’t like her sitting on the bottom of the stairs that lead to the front door of my apartment. I was living in a 2 story house that had been converted into 2 or 3 apartments. 2 if you didn’t count the room directly to the left of the front door that the landlord was using for storage. He was always saying he was going to rent it out but never did.
I had come downstairs and was making sure the front door locked behind me when I saw her sitting there. She was stooped over and there were 2 large bags stuffed with God only knows what. She had a filthy hoodie pulled over her head. She had on a long skirt that covered her dirty sneakers.
I stood behind her, uncertain of what to do. Should I ignore her and walk to my car? Should I say something? Should l tell her to leave? She wasn’t hurting anyone but she made me uncomfortable sitting on the step. She was in the front yard on private property and didn’t belong here.
Her posture was atrocious. I could see that she wasn’t just leaning over; her back had a gigantic hump that forced her head down to her chest. It was as if her neck and shoulder were fused into one piece. She was bent from the waist down as if her back was frozen that way. She was deformed and it looked painful.
I stepped to her right and walked past. Halfway to my car, I turned around and looked back at her.
She was staring at the ground and I realized that was probably as far up as she could move her head. Her face was covered with dirt and her hands were black with filth. Her nails were crusted over with dirt.
I walked a few paces towards her.
“Are you OK? Do you need anything?”
Her eyes looked up at me. They were a brilliant blue, clear and sharp. She smiled. Most of her teeth were gone but the few that remained were rotten.
“I’ll get out of your way,” she said and began to gather her bags.
“No! That’s OK. You can sit there,” I said. “I just wanted to make sure you’re OK,” I said. I felt like a shit for wanting to call the cops on her. I also hoped the landlord didn’t show up. He’d berate her, throw her off his property and call the cops, just to be sure.
He really was an asshole.
She smiled slightly, shrugged her shoulders and said “I’m fine.”
I nodded and walked over to my car, started it up and put it in reverse. As I pulled away, I looked back at her. She was sitting quietly, staring at the ground.
As I drove away, I felt as if I had just left a toddler alone in my apartment and telling myself that they would be alright.
I didn’t see her again until 3 weeks later. This time she was sitting on the bench in front of my house at the bus stop. Stooped over with her 2 bags and wearing the same clothes. She still sat at that horrible angle. There was no way she wasn’t in pain, yet she sat, as she had done before on the porch, quietly, patiently, and not moving. Just looking at her feet.
I thought about going over and talking to her after I changed my clothes but when I looked out my window a few minutes later, she was gone. I doubted she had taken the bus and had probably been resting for a few minutes.
I would see her every so often over the next few months, walking down the street with her bags and stooped back. Her head was lower than her shoulders and I wondered if she could even see where she was going. She had to stare at the ground while she walked. She always had on the same clothes and she shuffled. It seemed she couldn’t pick up her feet very far up off the ground. Or maybe she could but since she couldn’t see in front of her, she had to walk slowly and carefully lest she walk into something or someone.
I began to worry about her when the weather turned cold. This wasn’t usually a concern of mine since the weather in Silicon Valley was mild compared to most of the United States, but we had our cold snaps and it wasn’t uncommon for the winter temperature get into the 30’s. The Bay Area, smack in the middle of the most liberal state in the Union, was known to have the largest and least cared for population of homeless people. Silicon Valley was booming with new millionaires almost daily due to the abundance of high tech companies we claimed to love and adore, but you were only as good as your last million, the last app you created or the last program you coded.
Why was I worrying about this woman who seemed to wander the few blocks around my apartment? She wasn’t dangerous by any means, so why should I wonder where she was or more importantly, who she was?
I began to imagine what happened to her. She had to have been someone’s child, but was she also someone’s mother or sister or wife? Where was her family? Had she been born deformed or did something happen to her? Was she hurt at some point and was unable to receive medical care and now was cursed to pull her dirty and hurt body around the streets until she dropped dead?
“Who is she?” was a question I would ask myself on my couch while binge watching Netflix. I’d get up and look outside my second story apartment window to see if she was walking by. I never knew if I was disappointed that I didn’t see her or afraid that I would see her shuffling down the street again.
One day while standing in line at Walgreen’s to buy my weekly supply of nicotine gum, of which I was still using 2 years after quitting smoking, I saw her walk in. She came through the automatic doors, her chin forced down to her chest and walked past me. A few people jumped back as she went by. My eyes followed her as she turned down an aisle and disappeared. I didn’t mean to stare but I couldn’t help it.
She was here. She walked into a store just like a normal person. I wanted to go find her but felt that was getting into the territory of stalking. Plus it would just be creepy to follow this poor woman around the store as if she were a freak or treat her as if I thought she would steal.
I paid for my purchase and walked to my car. I unlocked it and threw my gum onto the passenger seat, got in and closed the door. I didn’t start my car. Instead I sat there and stared at the entrance to the store and waited. I didn’t know exactly what I was waiting for except to watch her as she came out. That’s all I knew. I just wanted to watch her and maybe talk to her.
I was also afraid of her. I wasn’t afraid of her because of how she looked or that I thought she would hurt me or curse at me. I was afraid of her because I didn’t want to end up like her. If I didn’t get my shit together soon, I could be her in a decade or two or even sooner. Seeing homeless people scared me or made me nervous because even though I didn’t know their story, I knew they had one. We all do.
I didn’t know what I was going to say but I knew I had to talk to her. She had me worried during the cold weather. I wondered if she had a place to stay and food to eat.
I wondered if she was someone who was completely alone in the world, someone whom everyone tried not to see, someone who we all wanted to disappear and not ever have to think about, someone that we were all terrified of becoming since so many of us lived from one paycheck to the next.
I saw her come out and turn right. Without thinking, I got out of my car and walked towards her. She stopped by a trash can, rummaged through one of her bags, and threw something away.
I cleared my throat and quietly walked up to her. I didn’t want to scare her.
“Hi,’ I said. That was all I could think of.
She raised her head as best as she could and looked at me.
“Hello,” she said.
I stood there, staring at her and realized I was about to be incredibly rude, but I didn’t know what to say, so I said what had been on my mind for months.
“Are you OK?” I asked. “Do you need help with anything?”
She smiled. Her eyes were still blue and her few remaining teeth were still rotten.
“The porch steps,” she said.
I blinked. I didn’t know what she was talking about for a moment and then I realized she remembered me from months ago.
I chuckled “Yes, the porch steps. That’s me.”
She was lucid and calm. Her smile was genuine. I couldn’t quite tell her age. Her skin was like leather, brown from the sun, and wrinkled. She could have been anywhere from the age of 45 to 85. I didn’t know what I expected, but this wasn’t it. I thought someone in her condition, who wandered the streets all day, would be crazy and scary.
“No, I’m fine,” she said and stared to walk away.
“Wait!” I said and followed her. “Are you sure you don’t need anything? I’m sorry, but you look like you could use some help.”
She stopped and turned around. I worried that I had insulted or offended her even though that wasn’t my intent. I found myself, for the first time in a very long time, reaching out to someone.
I hadn’t realized it until that moment, and even then I wouldn’t be able to articulate it for some time, but it had been months since I had really talked to someone. I had the usual conversations at work, which were social and necessary, but I couldn’t remember the last time I had seen any of my friends or done anything other than go to work, worry about money, cry myself to sleep from the loneliness and get up the next morning and do it again.
She looked at me for a moment. “I don’t need any help. Do you?”
I didn’t know how to respond to her. I started to stutter because her words penetrated what social veneer I had left. This was not the conversation I had envisioned. I was prepared to give her money or take her across the street to McDonald’s and buy her a meal. I wasn’t prepared for an actual conversation beyond that.
I wasn’t counting on having her be anything other than grateful for my charity and me feeling like I had done some wonderful and selfless and contributed to mankind, something that would get her out of my head when it was cold.
I was talking to her to help MY conscience. That fact struck me in the face and I felt ashamed.
No, a conversation wasn’t what I wanted but I didn’t know what it was that I did want.
“I’m OK. Could be better but can’t complain….” I said and felt my words fall flat.
She snorted and for some reason, that made me chuckle.
“Look, I’m sorry if I’m bothering you and I don’t mean to offend, but honestly, you look like you’re having a rough time and I was worried about you. I know that sounds strange, and it IS strange, but I keep seeing you around the neighborhood and…well…I just wanted to know if you had a place to sleep…and I’m making a fool of myself, aren’t I?”
“Would you like to treat me to a cup of coffee?” she asked and motioned to the coffee shop a few doors down.
So we went and had coffee. She told me her name was Bernie and she lived in the neighborhood. I didn’t ask where. We chatted about the weather and I never once asked her any questions. I figured she would tell me whatever she wanted.
I glared at the people who stared at her and made them turn away out of shame for staring. I had a look that could turn a person to stone if I was pissed off enough.
She told me about the recent book she had read and recommended it to me. Reading was her hobby and passion. The bags she carried had some clothes but mostly she carried books. She would find the little free libraries throughout the neighborhood and take a book and then put it back when she was done and take another one.
When it was time to leave, I stood up and helped her with her chair and bags. I wasn’t sure if I felt better or worse. I had a million questions for her but even with the way she looked, she had a air of dignity about her.
“Well, good-bye Bernie. I’m sure I’ll see you around, yes?”
“Most likely. Thank you for the coffee, Susan. I enjoyed your company,” she said. She reached into one of her bags, rummaged around and pulled out a book. She handed it to me.
“I think you’ll like this one,” she said and walked away.
“Thank you!” I said and looked down at the book. It was used, which is just the way I like them, but it was in excellent condition. It was “The Black Ice” and it made me smile. I had mentioned during our conversation how much I liked the series by Michael Connelly.
I watched her shuffle down the sidewalk until she was out of sight. I got in my car and drove home. I wasn’t sure what I thought or felt, but there was a part of me that changed. I had reached out to a stranger and nothing bad happened. I talked to a person that may or may not have been homeless and realized it wasn’t money or food she wanted; it was the company of another person who sat with them and listened. She wasn’t that different from me. We were both lonely and for a moment, we weren’t.
After that, I’d look for her on my porch every morning when I’d leave for work and I always felt disappointed when she wasn’t there. I still have some used books in my car to give her, if I should ever see her again.