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CYC-Online Issue 83 DECEMBER 2005 / BACK
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a story

The bag lady

A. Freeman

The middle-aged businessman in the flashy three-piece suit clutched frantically at the stem of his Pierre Cardin umbrella. The umbrella, for it’s part, had turned itself inside-out and was struggling desperately to escape from his grasp. The umbrella was winning.

The model, who had never made it to the pages of her high school magazine, held down her fly-away skirt with one hand and with the other tried vainly to protect the fashion statement her hairdresser had constructed so carefully on her aging head. She was due to collapse any minute.

The taxi driver waddled wistfully down the rue, chasing the receipts that had flown from his cab when the sports jock leapt out to intercept the model. Lined up at the curb, his colleagues jeered at his helpless attempts, urging him to go on a diet before he had to replace the car springs again. He dreamed of Florida while his body screamed.

An innocent looking conservative stood by unsmiling, offering copies of a religious magazine to anyone who would pause long enough to fill her morning. The more she talked the more she knew her life had more meaning than it did before she signed up to sell Jesus on the street corners of her adopted city. She was oblivious to the wind raging around her as she secluded herself into the overhang on the recently renovated Rejuvenation Plaza. She knew Jesus could find her anywhere.

The rough looking young man approaching her with a twinkle in his eye was looking for more than shelter. He didn’t care about Jesus and he didn’t even wonder if his soul was worth saving. He was just searching for meaning in his own meaningless way, trying to fill his own hunger, and the lady selling Jesus looked like an easy snack. He was going to eat her up.

On the other corner the bag lady repositioned herself on the ledge by the bus stop. She had just returned after being summarily removed by police hustled into action by a few discontented merchants afraid that her presence would scare away fat wallets out to satisfy their failing self-esteems and changing forms. The bag lady was an easy target I guess. After all, nobody seemed to want to touch the hungry or drug-infested individuals lingering in Pallister Park only a few feet behind her.

She watched the scene on the other corner with amused snickers, peering from behind the mound of possessions she’d gathered in a protective clutch around her failing health. She didn’t have to worry about selling Jesus or being jeered at by her colleagues. She didn’t care about the fashion statement on her head or whether her clothes would appear in the glossy pages of an expensive magazine. And she didn’t worry about the lost and hungry who huddled under the leafless trees in the open space behind her.

She only worried about how long the storm would last and how wet she was going to get when she pushed her newly confiscated shopping cart down the street in search of a place to stay; a place where the chill of the newly forming winter wouldn’t pierce through the layers of recovered clothing. She did wonder if she should move on before the punk tired of his intellectual masturbation and searched for easier prey.

She’d watched this scene a thousand times before; sometimes seeing it, sometimes not. She’d seen the rendezvous” and the flying papers every time the wind had crawled up from the back streets this summer. But this time the wind was colder and it reminded her that there was worse to come. Like the long cold nights clutching her belongings hoping that when she awoke everything would still be there and that her foot wouldn’t freeze again this year like it did two winters ago; like struggling with her cart through the accumulated layers of snow, cursing the street cleaners who failed to remove it from the entrance of the alley where she curled up to get away from the icy blasts; like arriving late for the free meal because someone looking for a moment of pleasure had pushed her into a pile of slush and scattered her treasures along the streets; or sucking warmth from a shared bottle in the Metro while the man in the slick three-piece suit passed her on his way to another rendezvous with the aging fashion model.

The businessman dumped his umbrella in the trash can and slipped the model into the back of the next taxi in line. The fat man drove off in pursuit of another fare, the punk disappeared, and the lady selling Jesus looked longingly at the bag lady, shook her head sadly, and went home. The bag lady curled up in the corner for a nap just as the wind died and the sun lit up her corner of the world.

The string of connectedness, always fragile, was broken before it was born. In a city so rich, poverty is the greatest shame. Everybody should have a room to go home to when the winds come. Every year a bag lady dies in winter. I wonder if her children know where she is.

I wonder if she will make friends with the young runaway on the other corner. Show her the ropes, teach her how to survive. Someone has to.


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