We’ve seen her sitting there in the hot Alabama sun and humidity a couple of times now. She slumps over to the side in her wheelchair, looking defeated and sad, holding a paper cup out for those who take notice of her and give her some change or a few bills. Too many walk on by.
Dan never fails to hand me money to give to someone so obviously in need, his heart touched as mine always is by the sadness of it all. We have a problem with homelessness in Birmingham, and with the pandemic it is only getting worse. Some of the homeless are confrontational and angry, some are quiet, fading into the red brick of the restaurants in Five Points South.
When I put the bills in her cup, the look she gave me touched me deeply, though I can’t put it into words. I felt the need to do something, anything, to try to help her. We went into Jim ‘n Nick’s and talked with our server, ordering salads (a tradition on the days that Dan teaches yoga). I looked at Dan, my eyes tearing up, “Honey, can I get lunch and iced tea for that woman?” Dan didn’t hesitate, answering as I knew he would, “Of course, Honey.”
I went to our server, Mary, and told her that I’d like to add a to-go order to take to the woman outside in the wheelchair. She immediately smiled knowingly, “Ah, Ms. Fay. I’ve known her for years. I’ll get this for you right away.”
When the food came, I left Dan eating his lunch, put my mask on, and headed out of the restaurant and down the sidewalk to Ms. Fay. She looked at me with confusion in her eyes as I approached, and I told her that I’d brought her lunch. She asked me to wait as she slowly and with great difficulty tried to turn in her wheelchair to place her precious cup of money behind her, spilling it and working to return her small treasure to the cup and safely behind her. Her clothes were falling off of her and her shoes were off, leaving her poor cracked feet on the sidewalk. I could only think, What if this was my mother, alone and helpless, having to beg for the smallest of things?
After a few minutes, Ms. Fay turned to me and asked, “Why are you doing this for me?” and tears began to stream down her face. My heart absolutely broke in two. I handed her the warm box of food and placed the iced tea down beside her chair. I began to tear up, telling her that she could have been my mother and I just wanted her to have a good meal today. I put my hand on her soft cheek gently, hoping that she could feel my sincerity, that she knew that I saw her as a person in need and not some nuisance to be ignored as people get out of their fancy cars and go into nice restaurants to eat their lunches in the cool air conditioning. I hoped that she felt that someone cared about her, even for a few minutes. I told her to take care, to enjoy her lunch, and that I would see her again, then I headed back to Dan and my own lunch, tears so close to the surface.
I was deeply touched by my encounter with Ms. Fay today. I almost didn’t write about it, as I think that acts of kindness are best when done without any audience, just human to human. But…I wanted to share this because Ms. Fay reminded me to be grateful for my life, of all of the conveniences that I take for granted every day. She reminded me that by helping someone in need, you also help yourself to look inside and grow into a better human being. For that I say, Thank you, Ms. Fay. I think you are an angel sent to wake us up from our indifference.
I will look for Ms. Fay again, I will gaze into her sad brown eyes, call her by name, making sure she knows that I see her.