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She would make her way slowly through the train car, patiently when it was almost empty, and excusing herself to those who were already shrinking away from her, when it was crowded. She would stop sometimes and peer into the face closest to her with a deep imploration in her eyes. When it was my face, I would look down discreetly, sometimes placing wrinkled bills into her dirty, wrinkled palm. She would thank and bless me profusely, I would dismiss her by staring at my hands with an embarrassment I couldn’t explain. I didn’t want her attention. I didn’t want her to look at me or thank me. I wanted her to not exist. I didn’t want to wonder if she was a mother or a part of family or how she ended up in her sad journey walking through the rumbling cars of New York City’s trains.
She would move on to another uncomfortable face, another one that ignored her. Some would say a casual, “No.” Almost as if she had asked if they knew the time. She would simply move on. When she had been ignored by enough faces, she would stand close to the doors adjoining the trains, nod slowly and then walk through.
I saw her one day in the bathroom of the Long Island Ferry Station. I stood to the side, waiting for a free stall. She walked in and sneezed several times. She had an almost confused expression, staring at the wall and then the floor and then me for a little while before walking up to the garbage can. I was very surprised, so removed she was from where I was used to seeing her, from the part of my day where her presence had become normal, expected.
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It was very late on a Saturday many months after the encounter in the bathroom. I had seen her many times since. She seemed different again. She walked into the car but didn’t smile. Her speech was awkward, jerked, forced from her it seemed. She would still be so grateful for any kind soul to help. A dime, a nickel. Anything. Anyone. The same speech but now with a quiet desperation. With a tiredness weighing at her, pulling at the corners of her mouth.
She took one step and as I rummaged through my crowded bag I heard her scream and then scream again. She stood in one spot and repeated her speech. No longer imploring--demanding then begging and demanding again. She walked, momentarily staring into my face and then stood in the center her shoulders shaking, her breathing harsh, and cried loudly to all for help. She became a fit of curses and cries, crumpled on the floor, sobbing softly and then quieting. There was silence, and only her pitiful form, broken on the spotted, tan floor of the car gave away what had just happened. Pages turned as songs were fast-forwarded. Only I stared, shocked at what I had witnessed; a woman lay engulfed in her misery, naked in her misery. I almost felt like I was intruding by what I saw; only I. Or maybe we all did. But either way, no one said anything. No one offered comfort.
She screamed again, desperate to be heard. But the eight, nine people in that late-night train just stared at their hands perhaps too tired to care. I wish so much that I had said something to her, anything. Maybe, I would have, but soon she stood up, bereft of dignity and quickly walked across the car, ran almost. She was running to escape what had just happened, I think. I knew that in the next car, she would have that same weak smile.
I have seen Marion since. I try not to look away when she looks at me. I try to smile even. I think perhaps I was not the only changed that night. I always feel such guilt because of her and every other homeless person I shut out and try to forget. But most of all, I feel immense sadness when I hear her voice. Her name was Marion. She was homeless. But no, she never stole and never had in her life. She was down on her luck and needed help. And could we please help her? A dime, a nickel, anything. In fact, she would be happy with food. No, she didn’t do drugs and would be so grateful for any kind soul who would help. Thanks.