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I've therefore recently gotten into the habit when leaving the supermarket of being aware of the people around me in the parking lot and, upon reaching my car, of tossing my purse into my car and locking the door before unloading my groceries.
Last week I was at Kroger's and, having duly followed my parking lot safety drill, was loading my groceries into the trunk of my car when I caught sight of a woman heading towards me from across the parking lot. Now, even though I was still in my heightened state of vigilance, the first thought that came to my mind about this woman was not that she was out to panhandle, purse snatch, or car jack me. I expect this was because she was nice-looking and well-dressed in a pair of tailored jeans and a black coat. In truth, she was better dressed than I was at the moment in my baggy jeans and old grey hoodie. Her hair looked cared for and she looked healthy and well-nourished. She appeared to be in her mid-thirties. Maybe a young mom out grocery shopping.
I suppose that's why my first impression of this woman coming towards me was that she must have locked her purse in her car (as I had) and accidentally locked in her keys along with it (as I have been known to do) and was going to ask me if she could use my cell phone (as I've had to ask of a stranger on more than one occasion).
However as she approached my space the look on her face suggested more distress than one would normally expect in a mere case of being locked out of one's car - or perhaps it's just that I've locked myself out of my car too often to be very distressed about it anymore - and now I could see the black straps of a backpack against her black coat. And she was maskless. She is going to panhandle me, I thought. Great.
So in the few seconds left until she reached me I scrambled to decide what I would do. It's always so hard to decide what to do when one is accosted by a panhandler. It's natural human instinct to want to be kind, to help someone in need. But on the other hand, it's far more likely that any money one hands to a panhandler will be used not to provide for a life-sustaining need but to feed a lethal habit.
But there was no denying that this young woman looked different. Different from most panhandlers, that is. What she actually looked like to me was someone more like me.
Which was probably why, as she approached me, in my mind's eye I saw myself unlocking my car door, reaching into my purse and, against what was probably better judgment, handing her a few dollars for whatever she intended to use them for.
Except that, as it turned out, a few dollars wasn't what she wanted from me.
"I'm homeless," she said in the most despondent of voices. "I need a room. Can you help me?"
"A room?" I said.
"A room for the night. A hotel room."
"A hotel room?" I said.
"It's just temporary," she said. "Can you help me?"
It occurred to me that what this woman was up to was far more ambitious and outré than the typical street hustle. And yet what went thought my head next was that I could in fact get her a hotel room. After all, I certainly had the wherewithal to transport her to a hotel, a nice hotel, even, and the financial means to pay for a room for the night. And if it were true that one night in a hotel room was really all this girl needed then I could and would gladly put her up. How easy it would be if that were all there was to it. But of course my brain stepped in and advised my heart that one night in a hotel came nowhere near to all there was to it with this girl.
She hung around me while I unloaded my groceries. "Look, there's a church close by," I said, "Just down the block." I pointed the direction for her. "They may be able to help you out."
"I've been to churches, they won't help me, " she said somewhat vehemently. "I just need a hotel room. It's just temporary. Just 'til I start my new job. I mean, just 'til I get my first paycheck."
Ah, so now the hotel room wasn't just for one night. It was just until she started her new job. Or got her first paycheck. What is your story, child? I wanted to ask.
But of course there were a million reasons not to ask such a question of a strange young woman begging in a parking lot, among them being that we're in the middle of an epidemic when even those we cherish have to be treated like strangers. And I had a trunk full of perishable groceries.
She finally gave up on me when I opened my car door to leave, but by the time I'd buckled my seat belt and started the engine she was already in a new conversation, this time with a middle-aged black man in the parking lot on his way to his car. As I drove off I saw the man pointing in the same direction I'd pointed the woman, towards the church. The last I saw of her she was shaking her head, her hands into a gesture of supplication.