There she is. She is seated by the door of the gas station. Her hair is slightly graying. She could be in her mid-thirties. Maybe late fifties. There’s no way to tell. There is a large backpack beside her.
She doesn’t ask for money. She doesn’t tell anyone a sad story. She isn’t panhandling. She’s just sitting there. Drinking blue Gatorade.
She is lean and wiry. Maybe ninety pounds. There are tattoos on her neck. Multiple piercings in her ears.
“I’m just passing through Birmingham,” she says. “I’m going to see my daughter, up in Chattanooga. She just had a granddaughter last week. First granddaughter I ever had.”
The woman has a cellphone. Which is a minor miracle to me. How can a homeless person have a mobile phone? Where does the phone company send the bill? How does this woman pay the bill? Where does she charge the battery?
On her phone is a photo of her new grandbaby. And I am struck because she looks happy and healthy. Like an ordinary baby. Nothing like her grandmother.
“Pretty, ain’t she?”
“Her name is Anne with an E.” The woman looks at me. “Anne is my name.”
She is smiling with her few teeth. She looks pretty beneath the tiredness. And in a word, that’s how homeless people always look to me. Tired.
I’ve spoken with many on skid row. Homelessness is a full-time job. Your whole life is work. Everything is up in the air.
Where are you going to eat? What about a bath? Do you go to the church shelter and use their facilities? Or does that make you sorry trash for abusing the kindness of others?
Where will you sleep tonight? Will you sleep at all? Is it even possible to sleep outdoors in the middle of a city where violence and gunfire is becoming as common as bird chatter?
We are interrupted when a woman comes out of the gas station. She is carrying a hot pizza box in her hands.
“Ma’am,” says the woman with the pizza. “I bought you a pizza.”
The woman on the ground changes. The look on her face becomes younger. More animated. She stands and accepts the pizza box and looks genuinely overcome.
She becomes a different person. You can see the change come over her. She is suddenly well-spoken. Gracious and polite.
Behind the scuffs and dirt, I can see evidence of a woman who used to be an average suburban mom. Maybe even a soccer mom.
Then she crumples on the ground again and begins eating her pizza. Two-handed. I notice a Gideon Bible poking from a pouch on her worn backpack. Also, a glass bottle.
“People are so good to me,” she says, eating the pizza with a ravenous bite. “Only reason I’m still alive is because people are good to me. God looks after me since I can’t look after my ownself. My life is a mess, but God cares for me, every single little bit. I really can’t explain it.”
And she’s obviously right. Because during our brief conversation she is given more food by more passersby.
A box of granola bars. A few bags of chips. Pork rinds. Peanuts. Someone offers to give her money, but she refuses.
“I don’t want money,” she tells the Samaritan. “Give it to someone who needs it. God is taking care of me until I get to Chattanooga:”
The man seems confused by her refusal. He pockets the cash and leaves her with a God-bless-you.
After he leaves, she smiles at me. She digs into her pocket. She shows me a Greyhound ticket. To Chattanooga. Her bus leaves tomorrow.
She says a man gave the ticket to her. An older man. She thinks he was Mexican, but she wasn’t sure.
Anne With An E told the man she didn’t want the ticket. He insisted. So she told him flatly, she wasn’t going to use the ticket because she didn’t deserve it. She said the ticket would only sit in her wallet.
But the man wouldn’t listen. The old man placed the ticket in her palm and closed her fingers around it. The man said, “Then let the ticket sit in your wallet for a hundred years. And every time you look at it, you’ll know that someone in Birmingham loves you.”
Her face is stained with pizza sauce. Her tickets are already greasy. She wipes her face with her sleeve. And if I am not mistaken, her eyes are wet.
“So,” she says, “ I guess someone in this [expletive] city loves me.”
I tell her she is dead wrong. Because there are at least two, Anne With an E.