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The Old Woman With the Little White Box

by Sherman Smith

It was four days before Christmas, and the old woman was missing. For some reason, that bothered me.

People were hustling and bustling as they went from shop to shop seeing how much stuff they could buy, wrap, and place beneath the Christmas tree or get to UPS before it was too late to be delivered in time. The restaurants and shops were full of people spending outrageous amounts of money. Many were splurging on pumpkin spice lattes at Peet’s Coffee near the corner of N.W. 12th Street and Coach. This corner, across the street from the Whole Foods Market, was her corner. Or had been, because the old woman wasn’t there.

When I first moved to Portland, Oregon in the fall of 2011, I experimented with living in one of those tall condo high-rises that proliferate in the area. I was a man of sixty living in a land of young adults with expendable incomes.

I was soon to find out that it cost twenty bucks to cross the street. I needed to check my bank balance before daring to enter and shop the Whole Foods Market.

One day, across the street from this whole-paycheck grocery, I noticed an old woman standing near Peet’s Coffee. She stood in a cold shadow as people passed her by burdened with holiday packages and steaming lattes.

No one noticed; the old woman seemed to be invisible. She was invisible because she was very old and very poor. To acknowledge her existence, you would be reminded of how difficult it is to become old without the resources most of us have that protect us from the ills and ravages of aging to the point of our own invisibility.

The woman supported herself on the handles of an old walker that looked like it needed her help to move rather than the other way around. All of five-foot two; perhaps her stooped posture brought her petite size down even further to the ground. Her face was so weathered and creased that it was impossible to guess what beauty might have been there once upon a time, now lost to the humor of father time. Her right eye was masked beneath a thick film of cataract, her left not that far behind.

She wore an old weathered coat and a purple hat that looked like it dated back to Prohibition. Her hair, thin and unkempt, she dared not brush it for fear she would pull out what was left. For her there was no latte cup, its steam a shield against the bracing cold. She held a small Folger’s coffee can which suggested she needed what spare change you could afford.

As I watched, she never asked, never begged, her facial expression changing little until she heard the clink of a coin and then she would smile. Her lips would part as she showed her two front teeth, one up and one down, and she would whisper a very heart-warming, “Thank You.” At that moment she became visible, but only for a second, the coffee can trembling in her hands, as more passed her by, never seeing her, never caring.

The old woman had lived in the Pearl District of Portland since the time it had become filled with warehouses, breweries, and noisy railway cars. The apartments were small with few luxuries, including running water. Many only had an old outhouse located not far from the back door.

Later, I would learn that this neighborhood had been her home from the time she was an orphaned child foraging for survival each day, and she was witness to the urban renewal that had brought down the railroad, the warehouses, and single-room occupancy hotels.

There no longer was room for her in the Pearl, where it now cost twenty bucks to cross the street. A price that once had been enough to pay for a full month’s rent; often hard to find. Displaced, she had moved to another time-forgotten single-occupancy hotel in a part of town still clinging to poverty, which she shared with the city’s poorest of the poor, too old to live on the streets with no one to help and nowhere to go.

On or about the twentieth day of each month, she would steal a ride on public transit, working her way back to the corner of N.W. Coach and 12th Street, near where her home had once been. There she would hold out her old Folger’s can until she collected enough for her meal and a taxi home. What monies she got from public service agencies ran out shortly after the month was halfway through. Her money gone, she would return to her old neighborhood, lean on her walker, can in hand, regardless of weather until she had enough to make it through one more day.

She had no kitchen, icebox, crockpot, or anything else to preserve or save a meal. Her pace slower than the proverbial tortoise, she would slowly work her way, to the annoyance of impatient drivers waiting for her to cross the street, a busy four-way intersection, until she entered that bright, promising expensive grocery.

At the far end of the store was a salad bar, with an array of hot dishes that could be consumed there or be taken home in little white cardboard boxes that could be filled to go at an expensive price per ounce.

She rarely ate anything on site, for fear someone would think she was stealing. There were always watchful eyes to make sure the poorest of the poor did not help themselves. There were plenty of poor — street people — to go around. She would fill her little white box with salad, macaroni and cheese, jello salad if it wasn’t too runny, a roll, and anything else she could fit and manage to chew.

After paying, she would go back out onto the street, holding onto her walker with some difficulty while clutching her little white box, and stand just a little bit in the intersection, causing people to walk around her, cars to honk, until she would flag down a cab with an awkward nod of her head.

She stood on that corner for ten, sometimes, twelve days a month until she had collected twenty-two dollars, nine of which were for her car fare; not counting tip.

Most of the cabbies who frequented the neighborhood knew that she was good for the nine-dollar fare plus a two-dollar tip; money she had panhandled just for that purpose. She was too old, too tired, and it was too hard to carry the white box for any distance.

I often looked down from my 17th floor condo at the city and bustling crowds below and wondered what life had been like for the old woman when she had been young and the air filled with factory smoke, coal dust, and the sounds of labor, industry, and the clunk-clunk-clunking of trains.

As often as I could, I walked the six blocks to where the old woman stood and put a few dollars into her coffee can. Her quiet “Thank you” and the flash of her two front teeth as she smiled were worth the price. Last Christmas I put a Christmas card which contained two twenties into her can.

I’m not sure if that had been to make me feel good or if it had been a true gift from the heart. This year, the winter colder and bitter, I had determined to do better. In my pocket I had a Christmas Card, and ten ten-dollar bills. The sky looked of snow as thick puffy clouds gathered around the city’s hills. Christmas carols piped out onto the street from the busy shops mixed with the honking of cars and muffled conversation of people as they hurried hither and there. As I rounded the corner, I reached into my pocket for the Christmas card. I had not addressed it; I did not know her name.

The old woman wasn’t there. I looked at my watch. It was too early in the afternoon for her not to be there. Sometimes she was late. I listened for the tram and looked down the street. The transit bus was on time and there was no little old woman taking tiny, slow steps behind a walker.

A drizzle of freezing, tiny-pellet rain was just beginning to fall as I crossed to see if she was already gone to fill her little white box at the Whole Foods store. She had not.

I asked the guy who pandered the homeless newspaper in front of the store if he had seen her. Counting today, this was the second day she hadn’t shown he told me, his hand out hopeful for a tip. He did not know where in the city she had come from and, like me, did not know her name.

I was embarrassed that I had never asked. She had been on that corner since before the construction and opening of that grandiose grocery. Once I asked her age. Being a lady, she would not answer the question. She was easily eighty-nine or perhaps even ninety-three. She had lived a long, if not hard life, managing to keep her smile until the end. Now she was gone, just as invisible as the last day she had stood there, wordlessly asking for a little help.

Being a writer, and having just finished my first and yet to be published novel, I decided that she had a story to tell. I guess that wanting to find the old woman because of my writer’s curiosity amounted to something; besides, I still had her Christmas present in my coat pocket. Actually, I had quite a few questions. Who was she? What had she done in her life? Ever married? Children? Had she died? If not, why hadn’t she shown up today? Yesterday? What was her name? Where did she live?

The day after Christmas, no one had seen her. I tracked down and queried the neighborhood guides and security patrol. They had also wondered about the old woman; however, they had too many other street people whose panhandling was annoying if not too aggressive to worry about. The old woman was as harmless as the Christmas garland that wrapped the brick wall above the spot where she normally parked her walker.

Her name was Sally, one of the guards said.

The first step in my quest began there. Her name was Sally; that was it, all I knew. I could have started with the morgue; instead, I started with the hope of finding the old gal alive, not yet bound for Potter’s Field.

I was determined to find her. With that positive thought, I went into the store, filled a little white box, tucked it beneath my arm, and stepped back out onto the street. I raised my hand, calling out, “Taxi.”

Copyright © 2016 by Sherman Smith

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