She was wearing a coat on a balmy early evening. That should have given me a clue. She made some gesture at me from the passenger side. I buzzed the window down just a little:
"What?" I thought my parking was bad and she was alerting me good-naturedly. Maybe this is not a parking zone? Is she telling me to move?
She waved and said something inaudible. She then bent down to pick something up. I saw an empty soda can in her hand when she straightened up again. Oh God, is she homeless? Is it too late to get out of the car and run? I decided to stay put. What could she possibly do to me?
I buzzed the window up. Please go away, I pleaded silently. I have a class to go. I don't have time to be bothered.
More importantly, I needed my quarters for the meter.
She moved slowly across the front of my car and approached the driver's side. Oh no, what does she want? I felt a little panic.
She started talking and gesturing. I couldn't understand a word of it, but finally i figured out from her gesture that she wanted food. I dug into my purse for some change. I couldn't give her the quarters because, well, I needed them for the meter. I had to give her something because she was blocking my way out.
I found a few dimes and cracked the window a bit to hand them to her. She didn't take them right away - still busy talking in spite of the fact that I didn't show any signs of comprehending any of it. She showed me her wrist while she talked. There was a round bump the size of a ping pong ball near her wrist. I thought to myself, "Please don't let it be contagious."
She finally took the change I was holding (carefully - trying to avoid touching her skin in any way.) But she was not leaving. I came to realize after more gesturing that she wanted more, so I looked back to my purse with a hint of resentment. Where is her family? Have they no shame? How could anyone let their elder, who doesn't speak a word of English, beg on the street? Street in a city with the highest crime rate, I might add.
At last she took the second alms and left, but not before rambling some more of the foreign words to me. Now it was almost time for the class, so I didn't need the quarters after all.
I felt a thorny pinch in my heart every now and then for the next few days. Why didn't I give her more money so at least she could get a hot meal or two? Why did I assume she had something contagious just because her joint was deformed? Why was I afraid of an old woman who was just hungry? I shouldn't have blamed her family either. Maybe she outlived all of them, and she didn't have other means to support herself.
I prepared some small bills when it was time for the next class, but she was nowhere to be found. The redemption I was hoping for did not happen. It must be a punishment designed by God. My sin was forever etched on the triptych.
I have always thought of myself as a somewhat decent person. Not perfect, but still, not bad. I tried to be nice to people. I tried to be compassionate to my friends. I tried to do the right thing most of the time. I volunteered at the children's center and other non profits. I even donated to my friend's cancer walks. I was better than most people out there, you know?
Along came a tiny, frail, and very wrinkled old lady, and she nudged me off my pedestal effortlessly.