Tuesday was the first time I’ve ever given anything to a homeless person on the street.
As I was walking back from ALFMED, I saw a tiny, middle-aged woman curled up in front of a supermarket, wearing dirty clothes and holding out a tiny cup to beg for change. The closer I was, the more I stared at her. She was so small, her thin malnourished body hidden away in a long ratty dress. The toenails protruding from her dirty sandals were an unnatural, sickly yellow color.
I couldn’t stop looking and didn’t even shy away when she looked back at me.
I suddenly didn’t care about how humid it was that day and how awfully sweaty and matted my hair was. In only a five minutes’ walk away, I would be in an air-conditioned hotel room with a bed and fridge full of food. I could take a shower to control my stupid hair or use my euros to pay for an unlucky stylist to tame it. My issues with vanity fell short and were pathetically puny compared to hers. When I saw that woman, I also saw her helplessness, vulnerability, hunger and pain. There were no tricks or schemes that I could see; nothing about her seemed bogus.
She was simply another human being in need.
We connected eyes and as I approached her, I instinctively held out a plastic bag with a sandwich I bought but haven’t touched. There was no eye rolling or change in mind on her part. She took it and whispered “merci” to me in a trembling, tired voice. All the basic French I’ve learned disappeared and I was left speechless as though my esophagus was plugged and my brain fried. I nearly sprinted off in fear that I would do or say something stupid.
I didn’t feel any better after that encounter since nothing about my act was heroic. I didn’t save her from poverty or get her back up on her feet; I didn’t do anything special at all.
Really, it felt like it was something I should have done a long, long time ago and I’m frustrated that it took me until I was in Perpignan to figure that out.