It was Saturday morning in Portland, Oregon. I was on my way back to the hotel from a coffee run. As I was crossing the last street to my hotel, I made eye contact with a skinny homeless guy crossing the other way.
I thought it was a guy from a distance.
No… it wasn’t a guy. He was a she. And she was unkempt.
Long, stringy, unbrushed hair. Socks without shoes. One pant leg rolled higher than the other. Loose fitting Hawaiian shirt. Skin that had gotten a lot of sun. Lots of wrinkles. A welt forming from her left eyebrow. She was using a mop handle as an improvised walking stick.
She spoke up when we were mid cross-walk and said "I know you're in a rush but..."
She seemed earnest. I chose not to just shut her down. In the spirit of the weekend I chose to be kind, no matter how small the action.
I invited her to come back out of the road and to tell me her story. She started with saying that she had a son, Skye, whom she desperately wanted to get back in touch with. It sounded like a rehearsed spiel. Lacking a bit of heart but the type of thing you say because people tend to help you more. (God, I'm so cynical.)
And then she said something about a box of voodoo donuts and a guy by the women's shelter and smoking bud… I didn't quite follow. It didn’t matter because she finished the next sentence with, "...I just want enough change to get a cup of coffee.”
I was already primed for that from buying coffee for a stranger as part of the #WDS2016 Hero’s Journey. "Coffee we can certainly do! Would you be willing to take a walk with me to the Starbucks?"
She said yes, so we crossed the street and walked together. I noticed a welt on her face that looked a few days old while we were talking and I and asked her what happened to her face.
She told me a story of intervening in an altercation outside the women's shelter. It sounded like she thought a woman was under threat, intervened, and was rather unexpectedly struck by the woman.
"...and I just want to know why she did that." She finished.
I told her that, “why” is an expensive question sometimes and that there may be no getting an answer. Still, there was something in that altercation that was very personal for her.
We crossed over to the corner where Starbucks is. She greeted the homeless guy sitting outside the Starbucks and rested her walking stick there between the newspaper dispensers.
I asked her if they'd give her a hard time for going in and she said no. So we walked in together and stood in line.
I asked, "Would you like a banana to go with your coffee?"
"Go ahead and grab one." And she grabbed one. I was glad. I figured she could probably use some good calories. Voodoo donuts are probably delicious and all but a banana seems sensible.
It occurred to me we didn't quite know one another's names.
"I'm Francis. What's your name?"
"I'm Tina." She replied and gently locked gazes for a moment. I looked her deeply in the eyes and studied her weathered face. Her skin was tan. Her wrinkles were deep. Her chin was hooked forward. I couldn’t tell what age she was.
The moment ended. We arrived at the register. She ordered her coffee and we didn't talk for the next moment or two. After paying, I glanced over my shoulder to see her standing at the espresso bar. There were tears in the corner of her eyes.
She was trying not to cry. I flipped through a quick sequence of thoughts: I hope it's not shame. It might be. Maybe it’s just good to be seen for a moment.
Maybe it's just hard to look people in the eye.
We were done paying. I invited Tina to take a few steps over to the place where we wait for drinks. She peeled and ate half of the banana. I stood sentinel nearby, her host and guardian for the next few moments.
Her drink arrived.
I asked Tina if she was walking back the way we had come, and she said, "Yes." I offered to walk with her and she accepted.
We stepped outside. She immediately turned to the right to cross the street leaving her walking stick behind. I ask her if she meant to leave it.
”He'll probably need protection." she said, referring to the homeless guy sitting against the newspaper machines.
We crossed and there was another homeless guy sitting on the corner verbalizing but not making clear words. She gently touched the back of his head as she continued on by. My hotel was to the left.
"Tina, I need to turn here!" And she continued onward and said “okay… goodbye!
We parted ways and I headed back to my hotel to get ready and head to my first day of #WDS2016 main stage presentations.