She stood on the street corner with a pinkish-purple blanket wrapped around her shoulders and a small sign in her hand. Her hand. Her poor hand.
I will think of her and I will keep a picture of her in my mind for a long time. I know this because I see her now, 24 hours later, even more clearly and vividly then when I saw her in person.
Whoever made up the word forlorn could have made it up for her, small, young, pretty, and alone in a city of four million people, the day after Christmas no different from the day after any other day. Her poor hand.
There was a line of cars at the red light on the otherwise deserted street this day after we celebrate giving, joy, and humanity. I couldn’t see her clearly at first but I knew what she was doing, she was working one more day like any other day, like all the rest of the days are probably going to be as well, so we pulled over and waved. She hesitated for a moment because we were on bicycles. Perhaps it wasn’t immediately clear that we wanted to help, or even that we could, but her hesitation vanished the moment my hand went to my pocket. She waited for the traffic to clear and hurried over.
It was probably in the mid-40s, so not that cold unless you were wearing the thinnest of cotton clothing draped only with a velour blanket. When I think back on our briefest of encounters I kick myself for not having taken off my pack, emptying out my bag and giving her my heavy wool coat. Maybe she would have sold it, but maybe she would’ve kept it because it was cold if you were standing on a street corner waiting for charity, and that jacket would have kept her warm, worth more than anything she was going to get that morning.
I don’t know if she was 20 or 30 but I think she was probably both, 20 years of age and 30 years of hard living, maybe a lot more. She was disoriented but smiling and thankful and in disbelief when I handed her $20. In a few days I’ve had to reset my money values once again, as I thought that I knew how much $10 was only to realize that I had no idea how much money it is and how nonlinear in value a $20 bill is when you don’t have anywhere to live.
She was chatting almost gaily, she said her name was Amy, she said she was from New Orleans, she said her mother had died the week before, she said thank you for your kindness, she blessed us in the name of Jesus Christ, and that’s when Kristie cried out, “Oh my God your hand, your poor hand, what happened to your hand?”
I looked in horror and said, “We have to get you to the hospital now.”
I hadn’t seen it though it was obvious enough when you looked, her right thumb almost hacked off from the rest of her hand, butchered, and put back together as if done in a craft shop somewhere, a huge horrible wound that looked fresh and yawning and terrible beyond any words.
She smiled, and held up her hand so that her wrist was revealed showing a plastic tag. “No no, I am just coming from the hospital. I been there for a while. I just have to get some antibiotics.”
“What happened? Are you sure you don’t need to go back? It looks terrible.”
“I’m okay, I was just trying to go to sleep and some guy jumped me and I tried to fight him off but he had a knife and he was pretty good with it and he was trying to cut my throat but I put my hand up and all he got was my hand. I blocked the knife and then I beat him up pretty good. But I was bleeding bad and ended up in the hospital where they were able to kind of put it back together a little bit.”
I dug desperately into my wallet, but only had $20 left which I gave to her immediately. “I’m so sorry,” I said, “this is all I have right now.”
“This is great!” she said, “now I can quit working this morning and go get my medicine.” She actually smiled. She was happy.
I don’t know if you have ever felt this way, completely helpless, facing a knot of human problems, of troubles, of horrible things that you can never fix or maybe that you can even never meaningfully improve at all. Even so, recognizing the terrible soup of pathology that was standing before us, all we could see was a young child living on the streets, cut to the bone and simply happy that she didn’t have to work anymore on that cold post-Christmas morning to get some drugs, or maybe not, to get whatever she needed to make it to that eternity called tomorrow.