It was almost 5 p.m. on Thursday, and after 50 minutes of bumper-to-bumper traffic all the way from New Westminster, I was relieved to exit the highway. Instead of the usual 15-minute trip from work to the exit, my commute had lengthened, so I was relieved to not have to remain in that traffic. Thankfully, I could avoid the traffic congestion and claustrophobia of the Cassiar Tunnel.
As soon as I exited, I saw her near the stop light. Begging. That surprised me. I was used to seeing a man there whenever I travelled that route — the Exit 26 off ramp from Highway one. But I’d never seen her there before. Had never seen a woman there. Seeing her there rattled me. I found myself wondering about her. How had she ended up there? Where was her family?
I didn’t want to make eye contact with her. I just couldn’t. I didn’t want to look into her eyes. See her pain. Her hurt. So, I stared ahead. Tunnel vision.
She slowly shuffled past each car, shoulders hunched, looking in. I continued blindly staring ahead of me. As she slinked past me, through the corner of my eye I could make out one word capitalized on her small, dirty brown placard – HOMELESS.
I observed her through my wing mirror. She was definitely in her fifties. Like me. A little over 5 feet. Like me. A visible minority. Like me.
I leaned forward and stared more keenly through the mirror. She had pulled her dull, black hair into a ponytail. Her worn out flat, black shoes fit like a pair of well-loved socks. Her black pants hung loosely on her narrow hips, and I wondered about her thin, black and pink sweater that clung to her frail body – just enough to clothe her. Thick enough that she wasn’t freezing, but not thick enough to keep her warm as she panhandled on the street in -5 degree Celsius weather at 5 p.m.
As I wondered how cold she could have been feeling, I remembered the $5 change I had put in my purse after buying lunch the day before. I reached for my wallet. I quickly rummaged through it, found it, and fished out the money. Craning to look behind me, I lowered my window.
She was standing beside a car that was at least five cars behind mine. As I stuck my head through the window and looked behind me, our eyes connected. Her eyes held a question; then I saw hope. I stretched out my hand with the crisp $5 bill and she started running towards me. As soon as she did, I sensed movement beside me: The cars in the lane to my right were moving. The light had changed to green.
I glanced back at her, eyebrows knitted. Then, through the mirror, I looked at the cars behind me. Then I glanced back at the light. Then at her. I wanted to shout, ‘Run. Please hurry. Come quickly.’
By now the cars in front of me had sped away. I was holding up the line. I didn’t want to annoy the drivers behind me, but I didn’t want to not give her the money. I looked back at her while drumming my fingers on the outside of my car door. Her run slowed down. I saw the uncertainty in her eyes as she noticed the cars in front of mine had driven off.
Do I forget about giving the $5 bill to her and just drive off? I thought about just tossing it but it was crisp, newly minted. And it would probably just disappear as the wind carried it away. Then the light bulb went off in my head. I had a quick thought. I just crushed the bill in my palm, looked at her hoping she’d get my unspoken message and tossed the crumpled bill through the window, aiming it in her direction, and, threw it right through the window, hoping it’d land near to her. Trying to be mindful of the drivers behind me, I sped down the road trying to make up for time lost at the stoplight.
I drove away hoping I hadn’t made things worse. She was already begging; I didn’t want her to feel I was treating her disrespectfully.
Should I have not thrown it at her? Why did I have to throw it at her?
Why hadn’t I decided a few seconds earlier to give her the money?
What took me so long?
My eyes got cloudy. When I reached the top of the road by the stoplight, just as I was about to turn left, I glanced at the rearview window and saw her. She was crouched on the ground, clutching the money to her chest. My eyes got more cloudy. Then my tears rolled down, blurring my vision.
As much as I had hated throwing the money to her, I felt relieved that she got it. It wasn’t much, but it seemed to have been a lot to her. As I drove down Hastings Street, I remembered the conversation I had just had with my husband the night before. That day, he had heard someone on CBC radio discussing homelessness. Apparently most of us in Canada are just one pay cheque away from homelessness. I wondered what was her story. How had she ended up there?
As I drove further away from the woman and the distance between us grew greater, I remembered the initial pain in her eyes. I thought about the despondent droop of her shoulders. I thought about the hope she had when she saw my outstretched hand. I thought about the relief she felt at getting the money. A mere five dollars. And then I reflected: That could have easily been me.
And, for the first time, the words of the sixteenth century English evangelical preacher and martyr, John Bradford, resonated with me: There go I but for the grace of God.