by Laurel McHargue
“NEED FOOD,” read the cardboard sign held by a woman who appeared to be in her 70s. It’s hard to gauge the age of homeless people, as most do not age well.
I was returning from a weekend conference in Denver and stopped by our local Safeway for a few things before going home. The petite woman was walking toward the store in the opposite direction of my travel and I had already driven past her.
“Just go home,” said the left hemisphere of my brain.
It was Sunday afternoon. I was tired from the weekend festivities and anxious to reunite with my husband. I drove a little farther before the right hemisphere had its say.
“Go back” was the command.
Risking a traffic violation, I pulled a U-turn. Something about the woman called me back to her. I drove up slowly with my passenger window down.
“Could I take you to Safeway?” I asked. I’d considered simply handing her one of my bags of food but thought it might be awkward.
A literal bag lady, she approached the window with hands covered in blue rubber gloves and enclosed in plastic Safeway bags. She smiled a sparse-toothed smile and her weather-creased face lit up.
“Well, I don’t really need food,” she started.
It’s a trap! I thought. Why didn’t you just go home?
“… I’m allergic to almost everything. I can’t eat any of their chicken. What I really need is shelter. I’m staying at the hostel and it’s $25 a night.”
Though I rarely carry cash, I had sold some books at the convention and knew I had at least that much in my wallet. It was certainly easier than taking her on a shopping spree.
I brought $25 from my wallet and she leaned into the window with another plastic bag into which I deposited her fee for another night at my friends’ place, the Leadville Hostel. “Wild Bill” and Cathy have operated the hostel for the past 15 years and it quickly became our home-away-from-home during the four years we lived in Colorado Springs before finally making the leap to Leadville. We visited far more often over those four years than we have in the eight years since we moved just a mile away from them, and whenever we accidentally bump into one another, usually at Safeway, we laugh about it.
“I’ll call Wild Bill and let him know I saw you today,” I told the woman. It came out sounding like I was keeping tabs on her, and I felt a need to explain. “He’s a friend.”
She smiled again and said, “Did you know even mice are smart enough to have a God?”
“Oh?” I waited.
“They call him Cheesus,” she delivered her corny punchline with a truly sweet smile, her gift to me, and walked away.
When I got home I was eager to unpack, but my brain reminded me to call Wild Bill. We hadn’t spoken in months and I figured it was as good a time as any to reconnect. He answered in his Mississippi drawl and we discussed the woman who was allergic to everything. He thanked me for helping out.
“And you know what time it is?” he egged me on with characteristic mischief in his voice.
“Um … what time?” I asked, ready for another bad joke.
“It’s time to get together for our annual ‘we-never-see-each-other-anymore’ dinner!”
We both laughed at the recurrent theme and agreed to meet for dinner the following week.
“I’ll call Cathy next week,” I said. “And it’s our turn to cook.”
I could tell he was busy – the hostel is always in full bustle with new guests and regulars – and we hung up with a “See you soon!”
Early Monday morning Mike came into the room to wake me, something he rarely does.
“Cathy just called,” he said too quietly, and although I was still in a waking stupor, I knew he was trying to convey serious news. Knowing many Cathys, I was confused. With difficulty, he uttered the words, “Wild Bill’s gone.”
“What? What do you mean?” I asked, fully awake.
He explained how our friend was on his way to Denver Sunday evening and didn’t get far at all before his vehicle went off the road and hit a tree. Stroke, heart attack, whatever happened, he died on the operating table Monday morning, 64 years young.
“Could I take you back to Buena Vista?” I asked the bag lady at the hostel, knowing she had recently been there. She needed to leave to make room for family coming from all over to grieve the shocking loss of a man everybody loved.
“No, it’s too hot there now,” she said.
Although she’d been told the reason she needed to move on, I wasn’t sure she grasped it fully. She was squatting on her heels in the living room, her hands bagged and prepped for a day of money-gathering, and she looked adorable.
“I think I’d like to write something about you,” I told her. “What’s your name? Where are you from?”
“Barbara Marzec Rotunda,” she said. “I’m from Niagara Falls.”
“Marzec’s Polish, right?” I asked. “Would you mind if I took a photo of you?” I wanted to capture her just as she was.
“Yes! Polish! And can I make borscht!” she declared, standing and pushing her bangs back into her hat. She suddenly became self-conscious.
“Oh, I look horrible,” she said. “But I used to be quite a cutie.”
“You look adorable,” I said, and I think she might have believed it for a moment.
I learned about how she used to travel with rock stars, Stevie Nicks being one, and how the man she married was no good. She unfolded a paper map onto which she sat next to me, allergic to the fabric on the couch, and allowed me to take her photo. Then I delivered her downtown, handed her $20 and showed her where the advocate’s office was.
“That’s what I need,” she said, “an advocate.”
She allowed me to hug her, though I could tell she was considering my potential allergy-inducing attributes.
How do we decide who we’ll help?
Leaving Safeway that evening to bring food to Cathy and gathering friends at the hostel, I walked past a young man sitting near the door playing a harmonica – not even a little well – with a dog by his side and a hat out for money. It made me angry. I wanted to yell at him, “Get off your ass and look for a job.” He was far too young to be panhandling.
But then I thought of Barbara and how she had gifted me with one last conversation with a friend I’ll never forget. And although I didn’t stop to ask his story or offer money, I didn’t yell at him.
I hope Barbara has found shelter for another night.
I hope Wild Bill is resting peacefully, spinning his stories in a less judgmental world.
“Leadville Laurel” survives cold mountain winters blogging (with a warm glass of scotch) by a fire and dreaming and writing of faraway places. Escape with her to a bizarre new world early next year when Laurel releases her new novel: Waterwight.