On Wednesday, I was walking down Chestnut Street to meet some friends for lunch, when I walked past an elderly homeless woman sitting on the sidewalk. I’ve often seen her in the neighborhood, wearing a long synthetic blond wig and looking confused. This time she was sitting outside the CVS and holding up a water bottle, asking passersby if they wouldn’t please help her open it. People kept walking by, not acknowledging her plea or even the fact that she was present on the sidewalk.
I was on my cell phone as walked past and didn’t pause at first. But something in her expression stopped me. I doubled back and took the bottle she held up. It was slippery with condensation and I could see why she was having trouble. I twisted the cap off and handed it back to her. She thanked me and asked if I’d like a bottle of water for myself. I turned her down, but thanked her for the offer. She had a Philadelphia accent that sounded much like the one that flavored my grandmother’s speech patterns and I suddenly felt my heart pang for this woman who was reduced to sitting on the pavement in the summer heat.
The poem you see below was printed in Garrison Keillor’s Writers’ Almanac on Friday. It’s not exactly a perfect match to the experience I had on Wednesday, but there was something about it that evoked a similar sense to the encounter I had.
by Anne Pierson Wiese
from Floating City: Poems.
There are many people who spend their nights
on the subway trains. Often one encounters
them on the morning commute, settled in corners,
coats over their heads, ragged possessions heaped
around themselves, trying to remain in their own night.
This man was already up, bracing himself against
the motion of the train as he folded his blanket
the way my mother taught me, and donned his antique blazer,
his elderly, sleep-soft eyes checking for the total effect.
Whoever you are-tell me what unforgiving series
of moments has added up to this one: a man
making himself presentable to the world in front
of the world, as if life has revealed to him the secret
that all our secrets from one another are imaginary.