Being a stay-at-home parent, I rarely experience moments with nothing to do. “Free time” usually involves running errands, cleaning, writing, and on the rare occasion, getting some exercise. But last week, for the first time in a long time, I found myself walking around downtown Berkeley with no kids and no obligations.
Ah, the sweet ambrosia of non-thought.
I walked toward the farmers’ market, my mind tuned to the voices around me, the smell of the concrete sidewalk, the peaceful solitude that is an unhurried afternoon alone. On the way, I passed by a girl- no, a young woman- putting on her white sneakers. She looked up at me, smiled, and said hello. That’s when I spotted the blankets behind her, the suitcase, the doorway that was her makeshift sidewalk home.
She was homeless.
How strange, I thought. She didn’t look homeless. Pretending not to feel the guilt I always feel when passing someone who lacks the basic comforts I usually take for granted, I kept walking. Just keep going and don’t think about it too much. There was still time to hit the farmers’ market before it closed. Maybe the season’s first strawberries had arrived.
As I circled street vendors selling kabobs, oranges and crepes, an imaginary voice entered my mind. It was the voice of a homeless girl. “You’re not really homeless unless you look homeless,” the voice said. “At least, that’s what I keep telling myself.”
Jeesh. Not this. Not a story about a homeless girl. This was my free time, my not-a-care-in-the world time. It wasn’t time to think about a homeless girl’s story. Too painful. Too hard.
I passed right by the strawberries.
There is no such thing as downtime. Because it’s during downtime that your mind soaks everything in… and rearranges it. I don’t want to write about a girl on the street. I’d rather write about cats. Or about a boy who turns into a dragon whenever he eats broccoli. Or about pregnant fish, high school angst, fuzzy monsters, and uptight parents. Something simple. Something easy.
But you can’t always choose your stories. Stories sometimes choose you.
I turned around and began to retrace my steps, my feet leading me far far out of my comfort zone.
When I reached the doorway, the girl was no longer alone. Three homeless friends had joined her, so I turned back and returned to the farmers’ market to buy croissants- four of them.
I’m crazy. That’s what I am. Suburban housewife, mother of two, goes insane and hangs out with homeless people.
Standing over them, I mumbled some lame introduction and held out my bag of baked goods in offering. They thanked me, took the bag, and asked if I’d like a hit of weed- a return favor.
“No thanks,” I said. “But would you mind if I joined you for a bit… to talk?”
I spent my free afternoon in the shade of the doorway beside four young strangers who told me their stories. Well, only three of them did. The youngest, a fourteen-year old boy, silently smoked his joint until it disappeared, then immediately lit a hash pipe in attempt to burn away the pain of his past, and the uncertainty of his present. His future he blew into a smoky haze.
The rest of us talked about Lunchables pizza, the amazing mini pizza you can prepare without an oven, while people walked by us, averting their eyes, eeking out crooked, uncomfortable smiles. I saw myself in each of their middle-class faces, but this time I was on the other side of the glass.
No one asked me any questions. My secrets were mine to keep. But I told them a little, and when I mentioned that I was forty, they gasped. In their world, the world of the urban survivalist, I looked to be only around thirty, thirty-one max. I took the compliment.
The oldest of the group, Sam, was a friendly thirty-two year old man who looked older than me. He’d run away from home at fourteen, just like the boy sitting beside me. A father of three kids in three states, Sam told disjointed stories hinting of mental illness packed with kung fu fight scenes and gratuitous opinions about society’s ills. I found myself looking for opportunities to change topics and engage someone else.
It was really Marie, the 23 year-old girl wearing white sneakers, whose story I was most interested in. Maybe it was because she didn’t look homeless or sound mentally ill. Or maybe it was the way she first smiled at me and said hello, like she’d suddenly found herself on the wrong side of the glass. Clearly someone had made a mistake. She was a recent college graduate. She was sober. She was wearing nice glasses with a CS Lewis book tucked neatly between notebooks in her backpack. Her sneakers were clean.
Marie had been living on the streets for just a month. She told me her parents in Alabama forbade her from dating a Latino boy, so she moved to California with that boy, who then beat her. After two stints in ER, she escaped him and found herself suddenly homeless without a plan. I wondered how much of the story she told me was true. Maybe all of it. Maybe just parts of it.
I accompanied Marie to the Veteran’s building so we could keep talking. When the subject of her future came up, she shared her dilemma:
How do you grow in this environment without losing yourself?
I had no good answer.
She needed to get inside the building before the showers closed. Marie’s luxury was taking long hot showers. Once a week she’d go to Willet, the public pool- her spa, because she could take hour-long showers without anyone noticing.
Armed with a small white towel, Marie headed into the shower to continue her fight against looking homeless. I walked slowly back through the farmers’ market, giving a half-assed glance for strawberries. But I no longer wanted any.
I ordered a cappuccino in a nearby café and looked out the large glass window separating me from the outside. Inside, people wearing fancy sweaters ate arugula salad and talked about society’s ills. Outside, people wearing donation box clothes ate Lunchables pizza and talked about society’s ills.
I squeezed my key, the one that unlocks the door to my house, and took a deep breath. So much for relaxing free time. It felt like I had changed time zones and crossed international borders. Like I’d travelled into deep space and on my way back circled the moon. But I hadn’t really circled anything. I was just sitting in a Berkeley café three blocks from where I’d met Marie and her friends.
Three blocks, and one very thin piece of glass.