Pure Slush, Lifespan Vol 7, May 2023
I sit outside at the coffee shop most afternoons. Especially when it’s sunny. Cold, grey days I stay home. I have my usual seat facing the tiny park across the street. Vanilla latte, piled-high sandwich, laptop. I stay as long as like. Nobody will ask me to leave. I’m a regular.
Occasionally I take a break from writing. I admire a rusted fence, a ginkgo tree with bright yellow Autumn leaves, remarkably blue sky. Four flags on tall poles wave in the breeze. I recognize only one. I become aware of background music that’s been playing, unnoticed, the entire time. Right now, it’s “The House of the Rising Sun.”
An older woman sits in the back by the corner at a table in the shade. She wears a beige puffy coat, Nordic hat perched high on her head, irrespective of the weather. No drink in front of her. A few bags of belongings by her side. She, too, is a regular. At around noon a young woman will appear with a take-out container. She’ll say, Here’s lunch, Hazel and the old lady will say, Aww, you didn’t have to do that. The young one will say Take care of yourself, Hazel. See you tomorrow. So, she’s not the old lady who sits in the corner. She’s Hazel.
I look to the park across the street. I recognize other people there. There’s usually a thin man wearing a fluorescent-blue baseball jacket. Another man carries a blanket he stops to fold and refold, as if preparing to sit. He doesn’t sit. A woman in an oversized red-fleece jacket, matching red-and-black checked pajamas pushes her grocery cart.
Three police cars arrive. Alarming. I hadn’t noticed that today the man in the baseball jacket was sitting on the far side of the park surrounded by a veritable sea of white plastic grocery bags. The officers approach him, have a brief, calm conversation. They secure his arms behind his back at the wrist with zip-ties. Walk him to an idling car, one hand on a shoulder, another over his head, guiding him into the back seat. What also had escaped my notice is that today, under his jacket, he is wearing a hospital gown.
He fled the hospital? They were taking him back for his health? Officers wear blue rubber gloves. One grabs a pile of clothing, holds his arm out away from his body, lest anything brush up against him. What will he do with it all? The sea of white plastic bags? They pile it into large black garbage bags. Will he be reunited with his stuff, I wonder? Will they throw it away? I’ll never know.
Four days later I’m back. Hazel is inside today, puffy coat and hat, at a table chatting with a customer. I sit outside in my usual place, gaze at the park. He’s back, seated on a bench directly across from me. Bright blue baseball jacket. His hospital gown is gone, replaced with sweatpants. He looks good. Really good. I’m happy to see him. He has no idea of that. Has no idea I see him. Worry about him. Know that he exists.
I think about my sister. Wonder who noticed her? Did anyone bring her a sandwich for lunch? She had nowhere to live at age 74. She’d run out of friends and finances. Not family though. She had that, but on the opposite coast. We invited her to live with us. Urged her, begged, pleaded, demanded. She refused. What felt right to her was to remain in her car, shelter on wheels, in the city she’d loved since she fled over five decades earlier.
At first she slept in churches opened up at night for homeless women. A different church each night. Noisy, crowded, sad, she said. Awakened at dawn to vacate before normal church life resumed. She preferred her car.
After a bout of pneumonia followed by a broken hip, she was sent to a nursing home for rehab. She could live there. Stay forever. She met criteria. Her meager state benefits would pay. In a sense, she was a lucky one. Many others were too well for that. She refused. Moved back into her car.
My sister was smart, funny, extraordinarily kind. A chef, she frequently volunteered to cook at soup kitchens and shelters when she was younger. In another city, at another time, she might have cooked for Hazel, the man in the baseball jacket, the man who folds his blanket, the woman in red-checked pajamas.
My sister would return to the nursing home one last time after being hospitalized for the emphysema that finally caught up with her. The staff greeted her by her first name, welcomed her home. I visited, held her hand. She cried. She asked if she’d have to return to her car. Never, I assured her. Never again.
I’m reminded of a line from “Somebody’s Baby,” a song Christine Lavin wrote honoring people without homes she met on the streets of New York. “She once was somebody’s baby. Someone bounced her on his knee.” My sister absolutely was. Somebody’s baby. Older sister. Aunt. Friend. Loved one. We all were.