Monday, 3 March 2014
TELL ME YOUR STORY
“Tell me your story. For that’s where I’ll find your heart.” – James Simmons
The question was: High heels, Pencil skirt, 1 km to the post office, 15 minutes before I had to be back in the boardroom for my next meeting. Could I make it?
As usual, I had left things to the last minute. I am an artful procrastinator who has unconsciously made “Works well under pressure” a personal mantra. I am forever rushing out during my lunch hour to try to bite off a morsel of my never-ending list of personal chores. On this particular day, my chosen destination was the post office, where I hoped to mail off a stack of soon-to-be-due bill payments.
Off I went, the clickety clack of my heels accompanying the rhythm of my panicked heartbeat as I flew down the hill to the main street. (Ok, ok, “flew” might be a slight exaggeration. I admit my skirt had me doing more of a thigh-chafing shuffle than any kind of graceful gazelle-like stride…)
My mind raced faster than my feet. If I didn’t get back in time for my meeting, my boss would think I was irresponsible. If I didn’t mail off my car registration it would expire in two days. Without a car I’d have to take the bus to work. If I had to take public transit I’d be an hour later to the office every morning. If I was late every day I would lose my job. If I had to look for a new job, I’d have to explain why I got fired…and so on and so on.
My hyperactive brain barely registered the shops or passers-by that streamed by me. There’s the eclectic corner store that sells cigarettes and sushi. Here comes the neighborhood dog-walker (Hmm, I wonder how much a dog-walker makes? An alternate career if I got fired…?) There’s the ‘artisan’ bakery that sells $5 cake-pops (Is it just me, or is someone making a whole lot of cash off ten cent donut holes...?) Here's that Goth-styled street kid, laughing it up with her friend.
And that’s when I skid to a stop.
At first, I wasn’t even sure what it was that made me take a second look. I had seen this homeless teen plenty of times before. She sat outside the pharmacy most days and stood out on this trendy street with her worn army surplus fashion, charcoal lipstick and requisite piercings. Her scraggily-looking dog rested his chin faithfully on her lap. Goth Girl was a fixture on this corner. Most passers-by bent their heads to avoid eye-contact. Sometimes I would dig in my purse to drop a few coins in her black manicured hand. Other days I uttered an awkward “Sorry, not today” as I strode past. But this day I stopped.
I had never heard her laugh before. Though her ever changing cardboard signs sometimes hinted at a hidden sense of humor; “Bet you a dollar you read this sign”, “Spent my last cash on this cardboard and marker", “Obama ain’t the only one who wants change,” I had always taken her defeated cynical expression for granted. But today her eyes lit up as she recounted some hilarious episode to the young woman beside her.
From where I stood, I couldn’t hear what she was saying. Was she explaining how she ended up here and where she slept at night? She had not always been here on this street corner. Once, she was like any other child. Like my child. I pictured her as a baby, being held by her mother. I imagined the butterflies in her stomach on the first day of kindergarten. I saw her close her eyes to blow wishes over her birthday cake. She, like all of us, had her own story. I glanced at today’s cardboard billboard.
“Have you ever felt invisible before?”
I felt the weight of her words in my chest. But the truth is, it was neither her painfully honest question nor her unexpected laughter that stopped me in my tracks. In fact it wasn’t even Goth Girl herself at all. It was her companion.
Goth Girl’s friend was no street-kid. I estimated that her recently highlighted hairdo must have taken a good 45 minutes with a high-end flatiron to achieve. And here she was, parked unselfconsciously on the grimy pavement in her pristine pink Lululemon pants. She had torn her ham sandwich in half to share, all the while listening intently to Goth Girl’s animated tale.
It was her story that really piqued my curiosity. Were they friends from before? She struck me as half of the oddest lunch date ever. I wondered what chapter of her past compelled her to squat and randomly chat with a homeless kid on the sidewalk. Was it just some instinctual adolescent affinity or was there an event in her own story that had shown her with clarity what really matters.
Mostly, I wondered how she knew that hope could be found in half a ham and cheese and that all it took to expose another’s heart was to stop for a minute and ask that simplest of questions,
“Tell me your story.”