I was on my way to see a friend from out of town, driving to the city in San Diego. I paid for an overpriced parking permit and walked down the street when a woman was in open distress, yelling for someone to help. I stopped by and asked what was wrong – getting yourself involved in something like that, to put aside your personal plans or to put aside your principles, you can feel the struggle inside yourself. And only then do you realize this is when you could decide to be a hypocrite.
A white man, bringing up the fact he was a firefighter, walked by to assess the dilemma and started interrogating her with legalistic questions, eventually losing what little patience he had for others and telling her to shut up. She still had the dignity to cry out against that insult, and he walked off telling me to leave her alone, “She’s on drugs.” I hated that, I hated him. That hatred helped me to stick by and help her.
We got into my car and she needed me to take her to the local university hospital, as she was in extreme bowel pain – bleeding, maybe. She navigated me through the streets she knew personally, knowing exactly the shortest routes in alleyways between apartment buildings.
The whole time I didn’t know what to really say. The best thing to do in new situations is just to listen.
We got her through the hospital lobby and she already knew the layout – she’d been here plenty before, as she’d tell me later. She told me her younger sister was still living with her abusive white nationalist father, who she herself ran away from long ago. “Comrade” she said in dark parody. Sometimes in the silent retrospective she’d realize how far she’s failed to take care of herself, terrible diseases and all. She loves her sister, misses her, wants to help guide her, wants her to be safe.
She’s hurting a lot, her gait is affected by the pain in her gut.
Eventually we made it into the small waiting room for care, where some young blonde receptionists – you could swear they do yoga and walk dogs – tried to get her the right little forms to fill out. A nurse eventually took her blood pressure on her forearm after getting frustrated with her apparent struggle to unclothe her upper arm; I said thank you to him, to which he responded with an unrealistically magnanimous “You’re welcome.” Asshole.
She told me about being hunted down by what I knew to be sex traffickers. One of them taunted her, calling himself a “guerrilla pimp”. She opened a trashcan in the hospital cafeteria and found a surprisingly intact burger. I got her food from the cafeteria instead, and we ate together. She opened her bag full of art supplies, mostly plastic pens and markers, and a nice little bottle of India ink.
We go outside for a walk at some point, and it’s still raining a bit. She pointed out the house in the distance where she and her boyfriend were squatting. It was certainly a hard place to live in, but better than the street. She points to another part of the street where she saw another homeless woman was forced to defecate. We turn a corner under a little roof and she asks me if there’s something on her back; it’s a long red scar of sorts, and she tells me about how the hospital stitched that up for her but left behind all kinds of nasties, like debris, even bugs. It seemed generally healed for now, but I could still see some dark specks; I took a picture for her and showed her. I don’t have the picture anymore.
She asked me if I could figure if she had ringworms and hookworms, so I googled what those looked like and looked back to the spots she called attention to. Seemed like it.
She told me her name. She’d been struggling with methamphetamine, and took the time to recite to me a poem she made about heroin.
Sometime in the cafeteria she wanted to tell me about one last thing, a garden out in a river under a bridge in San Diego. One that was maintained by other homeless people in the area. She told me how they arranged stones and grew just the right types of plants – notable was the fact bamboo retains harmful bacteria, and she got an MRSA infection from it in her nose – to maintain an ecosystem that could raise crawfish and other freshwater animals for consumption. Then it was destroyed when hazardous waste was dumped into the river, probably by a construction crew.
She drew me a sufficiently detailed map of the area for me to find it later. With some Google Maps stuff, I figured where it was and she confirmed that was it.
There was a whole world nobody I knew was aware of.
Eventually her boyfriend showed up at the hospital lobby, and she thanked me for taking her. Him too, and he seemed like a nice man. I left them with a twenty I happened to have on me, and we parted ways. Sometimes she's on Facebook.
I remember she asked me if I could do something to bring attention to her life, to what she knew about the world she lived in, like some kind of documentary, anything – some kind of proof she existed in the world.
In my moment of utter vulnerability, I could only say one thing. "I'll remember you."