IN THE TRAIN station an old woman washes her swollen feet in a rest room sink, then gently dabs a paper towel over open sores. In a shower room at a San Francisco hospital a gray-haired soul cleanses her frail body with a chemical solution to rid herself of lice.
On a city street a plump woman parks the cart that contains all her worldly goods, drops a cardboard box next to the curb, then lifts her heavy skirts and defecates while passersby continue on their way.
Shopping Bag Ladies is an unusual collection of black and white portraits depicting the loneliness and misery of homeless women. New York artist Ann Marie Rosseau found her subjects in shelters, hospitals, streets, train stations and libraries in New York, San Francisco and Boston.
More than a collection of photographs, this is also a fine work of photojournalism. Coupled with the portraits are lengthy transcripts of talks she had with shopping bag ladies who, with imaginative flair and intelligence, describe their lives and explain how they ended up the way they are.
There is a poignance that resounds in this book, as the visual impact of the photographs is echoed by voices that speak of violent former husbands, troubled childhoods, past lovers, long-lost children, unrequited dreams of show business and professional careers and the long hard dive to poverty and rootlessness. They become human and individuals rather than the lonesome faceless beings we encounter almost everyday, but from whom we often quickly turn our eyes.
Rousseau, a professional photographer whose work has appeared in a half-dozen books and has been exhibited in several New York area museums, spent three years on this project, funded by two nonprofit organizations, after volunteering as an art teacher at a New York shelter for homeless women.
"The values of mainstream life were not forgotten by these women," she writes. "They felt drastically out of place, demoralized by their inability to establish homes, find work and belong."
Indeed we find that shopping bag ladies, these urban outcasts are generally elderly, many are mentally disabled, and some are only temporarily homeless, awaiting the uncertain arrival of monthly welfare checks that often get lost in the bureaucratic maze.When the checks do arrive the women are free only to check into seedy rooming houses or single rooms occupancy hotels until the money runs out, whereupon, as if powered by some relentlessly sinister centrifugal force, their only recourse is to return to the shelters, the streets and the train stations again.
They are luckless independents left to fend for themselves in a public netherworld lying somewhere between the welfare fix and the mental ward. Yet they remain people and in the faceless mass of women known loosely as "bag ladies" -- at least 4,000 of whom live in New York City alone, that's only an estimate -- there are as many different personalities and stories as there are individuals.
Unfortunately we learn this in the book only after Rousseau, in a strangely disappointing 6,000 word introduction; resorts to inscrutable jargon and sociological mumbo jumbo in an attempt to explain why these women are the way they are. Shopworn bureaucratic terms in the introduction such as "life management," "dealing with reality," "meeting the needs" and other phrases only further fog the essence of the troubled lives she is attempting to explain.
"My own worst fears of homelessness were heightened by this tangible manifestation of the reality for those who could not provide for themselves," she writes at one point.
But when Rousseau allows her photographs, and the women, to speak for themselves, this book is as clear and ringing as it is unsettling. Here is Betty Weiss, an elderly woman who was left alone in the city on social security after her husband died. She lived on the subways.
"Usually I live in hotels but it's too expensive . . . So I was living on the trains . . . I'd go to all the different lines . . . that lasted about eight days." Until the train wobbled, she injured her shoulder, and ended up at a shelter with other homeless women.
And Mary Lou Prentiss -- just one of 20 women profiled here -- who quit a job at ABC, went to work as a housekeeper, and eventually, after undergoing mental treatment, fell from the middle class to join the ranks of the dispossessed.
"I was like an old clock. I just sort of ran down. . . . I was furious to still be alive. It's a terrible thing to say to yourself. I have no home. No place that is mine where I can go and close the door."
Rosseau concludes her disturbing book with a six-page glossary of emergency shelters across the country available for homeless women. For those of us who can afford the $17 price of the book, it's surely possible to come away after reading it with enough enlightenment and renewed compassion to point an indigent and homeless soul toward the nearest shelter.
Still, the feeling persists that there must be something more that can't be found in these pages. Year after year newspaper articles and books are written about the destitute -- Rousseau's being one of the few focused solely on women -- and we indeed know more. Yet year after year homeless men and women wrapped in layers of rags still slumber in train station hallways, gather in abandoned storefronts and freeze to death in the streets.