Of Carts and Bags – A tale of Christmas

It was a cool, somewhat gloomy morning with a light snow falling but not accumulating.  Just a few things to be done including a quick trip into town to pick up some things to complete a project I was finishing up.  The large home improvement store, in town, wasn’t crowded, surprisingly, especially for a weekend and so close to Christmas.  I suspect the dreariness of the day was the reason so few were out and about.

I made my purchases, exited the store and began making my way across the parking lot to my car when I noticed out of the corner of my eye an older, disheveled woman, running in the direction of my car and on a trajectory that would intercept me just about the time I reached the car myself.  I didn’t give it much thought until she raised her hand and started calling out, “sir, sir, oh sir can you help me out?”  I looked up without really considering that my car was alone in that section of the parking lot and while I acknowledged her call to me for help I assumed she was going to ask me to assist her in loading something in her car.  I was only too happy to be of assistance but looking around the parking lot there were no cars nearby that I thought might be hers.

As she approached me she surprised me by asking if I could drive her to meet a friend exactly seven point two miles up the highway.  I quickly thought how odd it was that she knew the exact mileage to her destination but before I could say a word she told me her car had broken down and she really needed to meet her friend just up the road.  She offered to pay me for gas if I could just help her out in this small but important way.   There was an urgency in her plea that overwhelmed any sense of concern in me and I simply agreed to take her to meet her friend.  She was so grateful and thanked me profusely while I opened the car door to let her into my car.  As she passed in front of me to get into the car I noticed the foulest smell.  It was the smell of dirty wet dog with a hint of urine and rotting milk.

I got into the car, started the engine and quickly opened my window as the smell was so disturbing.  I put the car into gear and began moving when she asked if I could go up to the other end of the parking lot so she could get some things from her car to take with her.  I agreed and slowly moved across the lot expecting her to point out her car so I could stop and she could gather the things she needed.  As we neared the edge of the building she instructed me to stop but there were only a few cars nearby parked in the employee parking area.  I asked her which car was hers and she just instructed me to stop.  I stopped and as she stepped out of the car she told me to just stay here and I’ll be right back.

I looked around to see which car she was going to get into but she slipped in between two cars and began pushing a shopping cart that was full of boxes and plastic grocery bags.  I stepped out of the car and she called out, “oh no you don’t need to help, I can get this.”  I walked back to the rear of my car and opened the rear gate and began to remove items from the cart and place them into the car.   It dawned me that there really wasn’t a broken down car and that the items I was loading into my car were her possessions.  Worn out clothing, worn out shoes and a dirty sleeping bag along with some odds and ends that I knew must be important to her.  Her story about her broken down car now seemed a ploy to tug on my heartstrings to get me to help her out.  MY demeanor changed from cheery helper to guarded dupe who had just been taken by a homeless, bag lady.

We got everything into the car, stepped into the car ourselves and headed for the interstate on ramp heading north.   She reiterated that the destination was only seven point two miles up the highway and that she truly appreciated me helping her out. I didn’t say anything because I was now put out.  She began to speak of how she had fallen on hard times, that her mother had fallen very ill and lost her house while her father died suddenly just about the time she lost her own job.   It was a tale of hardship and loss but she never really lost her perkiness as she told it.  She seemed very happy to be alive even amidst the hardships she had encountered.   She thanked me over and over even as I tried to tell her it was no big deal and not to worry.

I kept a close eye on the odometer because I didn’t want to overrun her exit but we drove far beyond the seven point two miles she said we were going and I began to wonder just how far the drive would be.  It was about fifteen miles.  I was stewing.  She pointed out the exit we were to take and I made the turn off the freeway when she asked me, “you know, speaking of hard luck if you wanted to help me out with a few dollars I would really appreciate it. “This was the proverbial straw.

I blurted back abruptly, “wait a minute, you mean you’re asking me for money when you offered to pay me for gas to drive you to where you are going?”  She responded, “oh yes that’s right I did offer to pay for gas.  How much would you like for your gas.”  I was flabbergasted.  I wasn’t about to take any money from her but I asked, “do you even have a car?”  She said that she did have one about seven years ago.  Very sternly I began to lecture her about her lack of honesty and how if she was up front and honest that she might get a better response from people and more would be likely to help her out.  She agreed with everything I said and began apologizing and promised that she would take to heart all the things I told her would make her a better panhandler.

She became very quiet other than to point out a Target store down the road that was where she would be getting out.  I was feeling smug as could be that I had exerted my two cents and had successfully given her useful instruction on being a better homeless person.  I drove her to a place where excess shopping carts had been lined up along the outer wall of the building and stopped, got out of the car while she did the same. Without speaking she walked over got a cart and wheeled it back to the car and I began helping her load.  She placed each bag in a particular order and meticulously positioned them as if she knew exactly where each one belonged in that particular cart.  She didn’t have much but she loved what she had.  My heart tugged.

When she finished loading she looked up at me and thanked me again not only for the ride but the instruction as well.  She offered to pay again and I told her there is no way I will take any money from you.  I then reached into my pocket and removed my wallet, took out every bill I had and handed it to her.  It wasn’t more than seventy dollars and she pleaded with me that she would not take it while reaching over as fast as she could and snatching from my hands.  It didn’t matter. I would have given her more if I had it.  I was feeling a bit like a heal but her graciousness poured out again and she thanked me over and over. I smiled at her and told her she should have a nice meal with her friend.

The encounter was over.  I got into my car, drove out of the parking lot and about the time I was entering the main road when I suddenly burst into laughter.  Not ordinary laughter but debilitating, full on, belly laughter. You know the kind that takes your breath away and creates tears that stream down your face.  I had to pull over to the side of the road because I had no bodily control and was not able to see the road through the tears.  I roared like never before and the convulsive heaves of laughter poured from my mouth in huge waves.  I was hysterical; absolutely hysterical.  This lasted for several minutes before I could see through my tear soaked eyes and I began to breathe deeply and methodically so I could regain enough composure to make the drive back home.

As I was sitting there the thoughts began to pour in.  I had just lectured this lady, who carried all her possessions in a shopping cart, on the virtues of honesty in the performance of living an effective “homeless” life while at the same time realizing that not only had she secured the ride to her next place of temporary residence but she got all my money as well and by doing it exactly the way she had always done it!   I began to laugh again, only this time at the smugness of my offering her a better way while sitting on the side of the road, roughly thirty miles from home and not a penny in my pocket.

There is no lesson here or profound meaning.  This is nothing more than a chance encounter with a fellow soul whose trajectory in life happened upon mine at this unique time and place in the eternities.  I judged her and who knows but perhaps she judged me, as well, but even still it was the connection of two souls living the life they were living and without the judgments each life was perfectly fine.  We find a way, don’t we?

I smile, still, when I think of this intersection of our paths and often wonder how she is doing and really how special my encounter with her was.  A lecture, a laugh and smiles for the memories. Looking back and then returning to the present there is no one I would have rather given my money and a ride too.  Merry Christmas.

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