I met a woman. A warrior. Silent and strong. She used to come to the soup kitchen where I worked. At first, she said nothing. She didn’t want to interact at all. She needed lunch. And to leave, so that’s what she got. It took months, but my colleague, who was in charge of figuring out what the hell was going on with the women with whom we interacted, slowly but surely broke down those barriers and figured out some things about this individual. Turns out she’d been homeless for about 30 years by the time we met her.
She became homeless when she was 14, because her mom came home and found her boyfriend (the mom’s boyfriend) having inappropriate relations with her daughter. So, she threw her 14-year-old daughter out of their trailer in Minneapolis so she could pursue a life of living on the streets. At the time we met, I was 22. She didn’t speak to me for months. Then she did. And when she did, every other word out of her mouth was an f-bomb. I can swear like a sailor, but this lady put me to shame in that game.
After some months she’d at least eat her lunch sitting on the back steps rather than immediately taking the plate to go and tearing off. Turns out she was living under the Mass Ave bridge in what I can only describe as a very mutually abusive relationship with her then boyfriend. He’d blacken her eye, she’d blacken his. They drank more beer than I’d imagined was possible, but they were inseparable. I knew her for about 4 years. In that time, we found her housing once, she managed to get thrown out because she “illegally” moved her dumbass boyfriend in, then got mad at him for being an asshole, and scattered his belongings across the rooftop of the building next door. Let’s just say the next time we helped her find a place to live, we encouraged her to not live with that fella.
Also, in this time, she and I got to know each other a bit. She’s one of those people who gets a little defensive about people they care about. I’m not dissimilar. So, when some silly punk kids tried unsuccessfully to mug me, and I ended up with some skinned knees for the adventure, she got all mad. Like “Who did this to you? Where can I find them? I’m gonna kick their asses.” And I had to be all “I honestly don’t know, and even if I did, you can’t just go around kicking peoples’ asses on my behalf.”
Which leads me to this. When I left this job, I moved across the country from Boston to San Francisco. I had to let the women know that I was leaving, because it was a small staff, small community, etc. I made my announcement – “Hey, women, just so you know, I am leaving because I’m moving to San Francisco, and though I’d love to keep this job, the commute would kill me.” And my “friend” burst into tears and left through the back door, and I felt like 3 kinds of crap. After conferring with a few of the ladies who let me know they were happy for me and my new opportunity, I went out, to find her pacing in the alley behind the shelter. I still smoked at that time, so I offered her one and lit us both up. She still had tears.
Finally, she said to me – “You think I’m crying because I’m mad at you?” and I said, “I don’t know why you’re crying; I just know you are.”
And then she said “I’m not crying because I’m mad at you. I’m crying because I’m proud of you. For doing the thing you should do. For taking a risk.”
And that, simply, is the best damn compliment I’ll ever get. And I hold it close to my heart.