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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Bag Lady

We all make choices everyday in life. Some have more consequences than others. When the consequences turn bad, we would like to press the "Re-do" button, which isn't always possible. That's when living can become a real challenge, as one woman discovered.

Excerpt #4 from "A TIME TO..."

Lower Manhattan, home of Wall Street, the World Trade Center and Battery Park, was bathed in the sunlight of a dawning day. As thousands of workers rushed to their offices in the area, a bag lady slowly rose to a sitting position on the train station bench beneath the World Trade Center where she spent the night. As she wiped the sleep from her eyes, the Statue of Liberty glistened from the warming sun’s rays on nearby Hudson Bay. Soon, the bag lady would be out on the street again to bask in the warmth that departed, like all the workers, at nightfall.

Anyone who looked at this woman felt something – compassion, contempt, resentment, fear, and more – depending on their own emotional states. She unwittingly was a catalyst of emotions for everyone who saw her. Sometimes she benefited from this phenomenon and other times she was victimized by it.

She was always amazed when people responded to her so differently, even though she did nothing different, and this day was no exception from her last thirty or so nights and mornings in this station, on this bench.

“Please take this,” said the well-dressed business woman who was about her own age as she gently placed a five dollar bill in the bag lady’s hand that rested on her lap. As the bag lady looked up to thank the kindness, the woman had already disappeared in a wave of business people in a hurry to get to their jobs.

“Ah, this will be a good day,” the bag lady said to herself as she carefully placed the bill in a pocket of her tattered, stained, over-sized coat.

“Crash” went the rusted toy wagon she used to transport two shopping bags full of her worldly possessions. Sprawled all over the floor in front of her were clothes, a few kitchen utensils, some treasured photos of her previous life and an angry young office worker who wasn’t looking where he was going before tripping over the bag lady’s wagon.

“Hey, are you trying to kill me or something? I ought to have you arrested, you bum,” he seethed as he got up off the floor, dusted himself off, and kicked the two shopping bags.

“Tim, good one. I’d give you a 5.5 on your landing. Want to try for a 6.0,” chuckled one of the two co-workers he was with as they continued on their way.

“Maybe this won’t be a good day,” the bag lady mumbled to herself as she gathered up her stuff. Her photos, the most recent of which was five years old, were bundled together in one stack by a rubber band. As she held it in her hand, she closed her eyes and wondered how she sank so low. In spite of everything that had happened to her, she fought daily not to give in to the temptation to see herself as a victim, and as a result she remained, for the most part, the same person she had been before. Things just happened. People responded. She made choices, and here she was. It was as simple as that. If she could do it all over again, she would do things differently.

But, now, she found herself trapped in a life she hated, searching for answers that would lead her out of this hole she helped herself dig. To ease her pain and her frustration, she drank, giving her temporary relief. Unfortunately, her drinking made things worse because it blurred her thinking and interrupted her sense of purpose to reclaim her lost life, or maybe start a new, better one.

Her drinking began innocently, like taking an aspirin for a headache. But, because she took responsibility for what had happened back then and because just one drink lost its soothing effect, one drink lead to another, slowly transforming her into just another nameless street person. In her lucid moments, like now when she tightly held onto the photos of her previous life, she knew that she had to stop drinking. In the past, just when she thought she resolved to do that, a new wave of blame, guilt and circumstances knocked her down. So, she turned to alcohol as her lifeline.

As she looked at the photo on top of her collection and placed herself in a happier time, she finally realized that she couldn’t get from here to there on her own. And, she wept as she gathered up the rest of her belongings while on her knees.

“Are you hurt? Can I help you?” asked a passerby who stopped and leaned over to help the bag lady.

“Hurt? Yes. Can you help me pick up the pieces of my life?” she replied as if she were talking to herself while wiping away the tears.

“I was thinking more about picking you up from the floor,” said Al as he offered her a hand.

The bag lady waved off his hand, saying, “I’m OK. I’m just packing up my stuff. Some guy tripped over my wagon.”

“Do I know you? Your voice sounds familiar, but I can’t place the face,” Al said.

The bag lady looked up and recognized Al from her previous life and quickly turned away. She didn’t want him to make the connection. She had gone out of her way to find places that were far from her former life.

“I doubt it mister,” she said with a hint of fear.

Al’s curiosity increased as he heard her distinctive voice again – a voice he had associated with unhappy times many years ago. He squatted down next to her and looked at her face to face, studying her features. His memory bank worked hard at matching the raspy voice, the puffy, weathered face and sad, sunken eyes with someone he knew in his life, but he couldn’t place her, and he didn’t want to make the situation any worse for the bag lady by staring at her any longer, so Al stood up and walked away.

But after taking a dozen steps, Al turned back and caught up with the bag lady, who had quickly gathered her things and was walking as fast as she could in the opposite direction. “Valerie? Is it you?” Al asked incredulously.

“No.” she said quietly as she continued walking away.

“That’s the last thing you said to me at the office when you walked away from me the last time I saw you. I’ll never forget that day, and how you look from the back as you walked away. It is you, but it can’t be!”

The bag lady opened her teary eyes slowly and looked into Al’s inquisitive eyes with fear and humiliation. “Yes, Al. It’s me, Valerie,” she said with remorse.

“I don’t believe it. What happened to you?” Al shook his head in disbelief and said, “I’d like to talk with you to find out but can’t now. Please call me, he said sincerely as he handed her his business card and ten dollars.

How ironic she thought to herself. Just when she was ready to accept help from someone, the someone offering help was Al.

“I will,” she said softly. “Thank you, Al.”

“Please call me today. I’m leaving the country tomorrow for a week,” he said as he turned and hurried off to work.