I was working at the toy store not too long ago, when a woman came in and asked, “Those clothes on the rack outside aren’t free, are they?”
We sell children’s clothes on consignment, and place a rack of sale items outside the door on the honor system. If you want an item, just bring it in to pay for it. So no, they’re not free (pretty close, though).
“Well, there’s a woman outside stuffing clothes into her bag,” this good Samaritan informed me.
I went outside and found the thief in the doorway of the closed store next door, indeed stuffing clothes into her bag.
“Excuse me,” I said to her, “Are you planning on paying for those?”
The woman turned to me, startled at being caught. An older woman, long graying hair, face wrinkled with years and care. She reeked of cigarettes, and I recognized her as one of the “vagrants” that congregates on one of the benches along Main Street.
“Oh, I’m just looking for my wallet,” she stammered, making a show of pawing through her purse.
“Why don’t I take these clothes for you, and you can meet me in the store to pay for them?” I said, taking the clothes still in her hands. I knew there were probably a few items in the bag, but I let it go.
“Oh, okay, sure.” Needless to say, she didn’t make it back into the store.
I fumed the rest of the day. I hate thieves. How dare they take something that doesn’t belong to them? It’s rude and selfish and just plain wrong.
The next morning, the very same woman came into the store and walked up to the register where I stood, trailing the scent of cigarettes behind her.
“Excuse me,” she said in a broken voice, “Do you think you could give me a dollar or something? I’m homeless and I have nowhere to go. I’m trying to get help through Service Net, but they can’t help me…” She trailed off, near tears.
Call me naive, or a bleeding heart, or whatever you want, but at that moment, my heart broke for this woman. I told her I couldn’t give her any money from the register, since it wasn’t mine to give. But I emptied the extra penny basket into her chapped hands. She thanked me and went on her way.
The whole incident bothered me the rest of the day. I realized how quick we are to judge others, when we know nothing about them. What series of unfortunate events happened to this woman, to bring her to such a desperate, humiliating situation? Maybe a string of bad luck. Maybe some really bad decisions. Probably a mixture of both. I don’t know. I don’t know her; I haven’t walked in her shoes.
I realized that the homeless group that gathers on Main Street is reviled and looked upon with contempt because they stir fear in us. The fear that it could be us someday. You never know. A car accident, resulting in pain that leads to drug addiction. A mental illness that gets the better of us. Just plain bad luck. We feel secure in our good fortune, our education, our supportive families, but things can change. Imagine never having any of that at all. We fear that thin line we walk everyday. And that fear leads to unthinking hatred and prejudice. It’s in the news every day. Small scale, big scale, we let our fears rule us.
The whole incident reminded me to stop and look deeper. That woman isn’t just a vagrant. She’s a person, however broken and lost she may be. She had been a child, with hopes and dreams like the rest of us, but somewhere along the way it went awry.
It’s important to look at the whole person, in life, and also in writing (you knew I’d bring it around to writing, didn’t you?). Main characters, villains, even minor characters should be three-dimensional. Even if we don’t get the details of their lives into the narrative, it’s important that we, the writers, know them: their dreams, their fears, their mistakes, so that every action, every word that comes out of them rings true.
And in the real world, maybe a little kindness and compassion can make another’s life less painful.