by Daniel J. Durand
A couple of weeks ago, I met a woman named Bess.
I was in Barnes & Noble, soaking up air conditioning and free Wi-Fi, thinking of ideas for articles. I’ve been doing a lot of research on green technology and have become fascinated by home solar panels and trying to make individual homes more efficient, so I thought I’d try to write an article about what I’d learned.
I was making good progress, too, but after a while of getting redirected to websites for doomsday preppers, and also learning that a “carbon scrubber” is apparently a device used in growing marijuana, not just helping the environment, I decided to call it a day.
My stomach was growling as I stepped out onto the street. French fries sounded good, maybe with some vinegar. I adjusted the strap on my laptop bag and started toward my car.
“Excuse me, can you help?”
The question had come from a woman, who was about 20 feet away from me in the parking lot. I stopped and turned, not sure if I’d even heard her. She quickly closed the gap.
“Can you help, sir?”
She had a small bag on her shoulder, a duffel bag grasped in one hand, and a taped-together picture frame in the other. She wore socks with sandals and a faded dress, and a floppy sunhat with the plastic brim falling off. She smelled vaguely of what I thought was patchouli.
This was Bess, and she was homeless.
In and of itself, I was not shocked to meet a homeless person. Boise, like many cities, has a pretty serious homeless problem.
Also like many cities, local government has been slow to acknowledge it. Barely six months ago, the police had broken up a tent city downtown, and I regularly see homeless people on the streets on my way to work.
I asked what was wrong, and Bess introduced herself. She said she didn’t want to offend me, and she didn’t want to take my time or cause me any problems. She said she had been hoping and praying for help, and wondered if there was anything I could do, and that she would understand if I didn’t want to or couldn’t be bothered.
I was about to say she had my attention, and that I would help if I could, but before I could say anything, she sped through a rundown of her faith and how her present circumstances are a test to bring her closer to God. She had clearly given this speech before, and I guessed she was probably used to people walking away or being more defensive.
“That’s why I carry a guardian angel on my arm,” said Bess, showing me the picture frame she was holding. In it was a portrait of an angel, with a serene look and clasped hands, and a background of clouds, surrounded by a glowing aura.
Bess assured me that she didn’t drink any alcohol or do any drugs. I hadn’t asked, but the reassurance was nice. Truth be told, I’ve seen enough druggies and drunks to know she was probably telling the truth, and based on her age, it seemed more likely to me she was homeless from lack of access to drugs, not misuse.
About five minutes after she approached me, I finally got a word in. I explained that I didn’t carry cash, but I was willing to come back if she’d be in the area for a while. I figured since I was going to get a bite to eat anyway, I could get her something, too, and maybe throw in a few bucks.
“Actually,” said Bess, “If you don’t mind or if you’re not comfortable giving me cash, I need medicine and I need to raise money for that.”
I asked what kind of medicine.
“I don’t like to use pharmaceuticals or manufactured medicine,” she said. “The vitamin shop is just up the street, and I need barberry tincture; it helps the gallbladder.”
I looked at my watch, and then at her face. She seemed innocent enough; her eyes reminded me of farm animals back home. She was older, but her skin seemed wrinkled more from sun than from age. I imagined she had been quite pretty when she was young. I imagined she had liked to laugh.
What the hell, I had French fries on my schedule, not a meeting with the Pope.
I threw my laptop in the trunk of my car, and we started walking to get her barberry. I thought about driving us there, but I’ve heard enough horror stories of people getting mugged or having guns pulled on them by hitchhikers to be cautious. Besides, it was only a few blocks.
Bess asked me about myself. I said that my name is Dan, and I’m almost 24. She asked how long I’ve been in Boise, and I said about a year, that I’d moved here a few months after I got out of school. She asked what I went to school for, and I said journalism.
She made an “Ah” sound, one I’d heard a lot since going to school, usually followed by comments about how bad things are with the media or that I wasted my time and should have picked another major. Her reaction wasn’t quite that extreme, though, and I decided to take the opportunity to ask about her.
Bess, it turns out, had been a night security guard for a number of years before an accident in 2012 threw her life into chaos; while crossing the street one day at a busy intersection, she was hit by a car and tossed onto the pavement, resulting in several broken bones and brain damage.
She showed me the ring on her finger, which had several spaces in it where stones had been set. The force of the impact had knocked the stones out of her ring.
While she was able to recover, she was not able to return to work. She said she had family that took care of her for a while, but they had all died, and since she never married or had children of her own, she was alone. She soon became homeless, and then decided to wander.
A few friends Bess made after getting out of the hospital scraped some money together to buy her a bus ticket to Montana. Originally from northern California, Bess didn’t tell me why she was headed to Montana, but she got off the bus in Boise because it seemed like a good place to live.
“There’s no drugs here, and it’s a very wholesome family atmosphere, and what drugs there are are illegal,” she said. “I wanted to be somewhere like that, where I could just focus on my spiritual learning and connecting with God.”
Bess continued on about her faith, how it was really what was holding her together. Her whole life had been changed in a day, and everything she thought was important was cast aside; she said without her faith, she wouldn’t have survived.
I felt funny, then. It had occurred to me that I was walking to buy homeopathic medicine that I doubted would be effective, for a woman whom I knew next to nothing about, as we talked about a god I don’t believe in.
As if on cue, she said she was very grateful that I was helping her, and that most people wouldn’t go to this much trouble.
“It’s no worries,” I said. “At the very least, you get your medicine and I get some exercise.”
We made it to the vitamin shop and I stopped to let her catch her breath. We stood there for a few minutes while she talked about a man she had met about my age from Seattle, who had gone to school to study computers and spent about a year looking for jobs and losing hope before landing a position with Micron.
“That time he spent searching was for him to learn, just like it is for me,” said Bess. “And just like I’m sure it is for you, this up-in-the-air time you have now, to learn and to go to Jesus and ask for help.”
I held the door for her and we went into the store. If I’d had any doubts about her authenticity up to this point, they vanished when she made a beeline to the barberry tincture, the store clerk recognizing her face and greeting her with a small nod. Bess had obviously been here before. I paid for the tincture and we started walking back to my car.
On the walk back, Bess said that she didn’t mean to impose anything with her religious beliefs. She only meant to share, and that the last thing she wanted was to give me unsolicited advice after all the mistakes she had made in her own life.
“When people tell me I should go to the church, or get help, or go to a nonprofit, they’re not understanding, they’re not helping,” she said. “We all have to find our own way.”
I did end up giving her a short ride a few streets over; it was getting dark and I figured if she were going to brutally murder me, she would have done it by now, so it would probably be okay to help her get on her way home, even if I couldn’t take her all the way. I dropped her off and went to get my belated dinner, thinking about our conversation.
While I waited for my order to be made, I kept thinking. When I got my greasy brown bag of fries, I kept thinking. When I got home and ate alone in my room, I kept thinking.
Not because of the religious conversation, or that she talked about Jesus so much. No, that was part of who she is, what’s keeping her strong, what makes her human in a life that would make most people forget they aren’t animals.
I’m angry because Bess isn’t the first person I’ve met in the last year driven to poverty, to have their life ruined by circumstance or to be left with nothing but their faith. I’m angry because I know people who are just one step away from being Bess, from needing tinctures and angles to get through the day. I’m angry because no matter what else, these people are still people, and I feel like society has let them fall through the cracks.
Why do we let people get sick and not take care of them? Why do we let the elderly live on the streets? Why do we give people so little that when they need help most, they must depend on the intangible?
I’m angry because I don’t have answers to these questions, and because frankly, I don’t think any answer would satisfy me anymore.
But at least I got my damn French fries…
Daniel is a writer and editor based in Boise, Idaho. He likes detective stories and probably drinks too much coffee. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org