THE WHITE LADY with the red face sits on the corner of E and North Capitol behind the fruit vendor and the bags that contain her life and shrieks.
There on the steps of the huge, new vacant building she snarls loud, witchy threats into her lap and seems far removed from the last place that offered her regular meals, baths, the laughter of children, the grumbling of man, a telephone ringing, a noon whistle blowing. Surely she once had some of these simple things. When she is quiet, her face has the same vacant look as the brown-skinned peasants posing for National Geographic. She is a long way from home.
Most people pass by her quickly, their eyes focused straight ahead, their shoulders squared back, their steps rigid, eyebrows way up in their hairlines. A very few stop and stare incredulously and appear as if they want to speak, to help; they move away from her with a great deal of difficulty, turning around even as they walk away. They act as if they are disputing something deep within themselves.
The fruit vendor is impassive in the early morning as he lines up bananas and peanuts. "I gotta live with her," he says, with a shrug, then an admiring gesture. "In a little while, she really be going off."
The white lady with the red face is perhaps one of a dying breed in the growing hordes of street people: an authentic colorful character, an indigent still capable of attracting attention.
Maybe 10, 12 years ago, when the first little old lady trekked down from the Apple or somewhere and set up vigil at the station long enough to become memorable, there was a possibility of a bag lady seering herself upon the compassionate consciousness of passersby. Perhaps then it was possible to elicit a concerned, "Lady, are you lost?" "Where do you live, Sweetheart?" But not now.
To be sure, caring people have never been the majority even in simpler times. Now the compassionate have dwindled to a handful of folks slowly walking away, looking back weakly over their shoulders.
America's untouchables are drawn to the vicinity of Union Station, perhaps lured by the clicketyclack, the fading hope of escape south, north or west. In the morning, a solitary old woman with stringy yellow-gray hair and a cadaverous face sucks her cigarette on the circle of steel just above the metro escalators. She keeps her plastic bags next to her bony feet.
The handsome Indian-looking black woman with dull, rust-colored hair that isn't natural and isn't dyed quietly stands downstairs at the foot of the escalators, then moves across the street to stand gloomily next to the croissant man. In a little while, she licks the crumbs around her mouth, then settles on the Post Office steps where she stretches languidly. Instantly she is surrounded by empty stretches of cement.
An old man in a newspaper hat resembling a giant, unwashed Santa Claus, vigorously stalks to the station, diligently looking into trash cans. People rise when he approaches. In the deli across the street, a filthy man mumbles into his coffee for hours, the exact same curses as the white lady with the red face but in more subdued tones. "He's alright," confides the waitress to the skeptical, the fearful, "but a lot of them . . ." The dining vagrant is encircled by empty tables.
Street people smell bad. They reek of undulating waves of thick, foul odor: banana peels, cigarettes, spilled coffee and wine, petrified sweat, dessicated wastes from bodies that no longer try to make it to the john. The odor is more inexorable, more divisive than their stunning poverty. What have these harshly scented outcasts in common with the wild-eyed cab drivers who hang around Union Station?
Those self-exiled tribesmen from the land of yams and cane, tough, resilient men, figure a hard hustle will beat the odds every time. "Silva Spring? Gimme, eight dolla, Miss." How can the scurrying workers, primed for 9-to-5 by caffeine, high hopes and perhaps a little fear in these days and times, relate to these dull-eyed creatures who smell so bad? Their scent answers the questions that are no longer asked. Yes, the street people are far away from home, lost, irrevocably lost. Hardly anyone goes near them.
In America, when people consistently smell bad, the effect, overall, is that they are rendered a little less human. This is, after all, the land of cans that guard the right and left, suffocating pores in the sanitation process. A furtive spray will banish lunchtime garlic and a couple of mints will hide the rest. America has no desire to smell itself.
Black people see the white lady with the red face and suck in their teeth. "See that?! White folks turn their own mommas out on the street." Whites see the old dark men clutching wine bottles and shake their hads. "These people . . ." The Southerner heading home looks around Union Station disdainfully and comforts himself. "Where I come frm, we take care of our old folks." Send the Red Cross across the ocean, not here. Amazing, this universal ocular dexterity: people really do see what they want to see.
Dirty Santa's odor, his possible insanity and potential violent tendencies legitimize the right of most people not to see him and thereby not to be touched by his filth and desolation. But walking quickly and holding one's nose won't make street people disappear and certainly doesn't prevent them from affecting even sanitized lives. Odors drift and mix in the air; they end up clinging to places from which they didn't orginate.
That vast American sense of charity, that storehouse of merciful kindness that sends canned goods to East Asia and the Sahel and collects money for the indigent in the land of Mother Teresa is being eroded right here at home. The national largesse is not quite up to people American can see and smell. These street people with their vacant, wandering look, their inexorable smell, are just too much, too close for most people. That is to be expected. Most people don't want to realize that inside that awful smell are human beings. The majority don't want to realize that inside them a callus is forming that squares shoulders, makes steps rigid, while shooting eyebrows way, way up. The callus will be there for awhile as a sore, hard spot. Beyond that, there is numbness than can paralyze a nation.
Winter is coming. The stench pervading the capital will temporarily be frozen out or covered by heaping swaddles, Goodwill coats and sweater, damp, filthy blankets, funny paper hats and shoes. Across the ocean, kindred souls huddle in the favelas of Brazil, in makeshift huts in Calcutta, stand ragged and filthy in the Sahel and other slanty-eyed, dark-skinned place of the Third World.
What world is this? At Union Station in winter, people waddle away from their grates when the sun is high. They forage through trash cans and quietly eat garbage and, alas, hardly ever bother a soul.
A few people should help them. Most people aren't so inclined or capable, but a handful should try to comfort street people and in the process, perhaps save themselves from that hard spot that gives way to numbness. Sparse human kindness really isn't enough to battle the wind that is speeding across America, but it is all that is available.
Lord knows the authorities shouldn't meddle with Dirty Santa and the Black Cherokee; bureaucracy would only add to the harshness of their world. No, a handful of decent human beings sdhould form shelters at their churches or contribute time and money to those already existing. A few courageous souls should occasionally give a street person some money, their old clothes, a sandwich, a hello, a smile. A tiny minority should cling tenaciously to the realization that frustration and even burnout from trying to help feels so much better inside than nothing at all.
The majority, of course, have learned to parody the haves of Brazil, India, Senegal andMi El Savador, those foreigners who step past outstretched palms with outrageous nonchalance. Most people will rush home to feed their canaries and repeat every night after dinner that the country is going to the dogs. Lord have mercy. White lady with the red face, scream louder. Surely, a few people will hear you.