While I am busy vomiting words inside the earpiece of my smart phone I blatantly ignore the shadow by my window, waving some cardboard sign at me. This is LA, a homeless person is posted every five traffic lights, with the veterans having the monopoly of the good intersections, and one can’t worry about them all, especially the obviously drunk or obviously deranged. Some are more good-humoured than others, the ones with marketing skills will dispense a compliment or two to entice a girl to part with her hard-earned cash and some hold downright hilarious signs. “Mother in law coming to visit this week-end – need money for a chainsaw”, read the board at the feet of a skinny and dishevelled young man slouched on the pavement in downtown Santa Monica. What made the sign funny was its obvious detachment from reality: you could just not picture this young man either married or able to brandish a chainsaw at anybody. But I walked on.
When I looked into the side view mirror at the shadow passing on and looking for better luck with other motorists, I noticed it was a girl. Bright and dirty blonde hair, blue eyes and a ready smile. The grimy clothes hadn’t seen a washing machine in quite some time but they somehow belonged together, a long brown skirt, an oversize cardigan, not the hodgepodge of donated or found rags typical of most homeless women. There was no trace of apparent mental illness in her expression, nor the far away or twitchy gaze of drug addiction, nor the stupor of alcohol. Just a girl.
“Hey” I called. She turned, having already written me off as another self-absorbed twit on her morning commute. Cursing my ingrained habit of not carrying any cash I poured a smattering of small change in my lap and passed it on to her “I am sorry, it’s all I have”. Her dirty fingers brushed my lemon verbena scented palm and left a temporary bruise and an itching to wash my hands all over. She smiled an open smile and I looked at her, really looked at her, without averting my gaze out of embarrassment and she stared back, with no shame. Don’t we all want to be seen? In my daily life I am so used to (mostly) gratifying human contact that I take it for granted – at times it’s even too much, making me crave solitude. But life on the streets must bring a kind of loneliness quite unlike any other. No brief interaction with the checkout girl at the market or the barista at Starbucks.
Homeless people, dirty and tattered and smelly, are entitled to their dignity, to my smile and my honest gaze and my recognition. Even if it’s all I can do. That and bagging some clothes out of my closet in case Blondie is at the same light tomorrow.