The Unlikely Optimist

January 19, 2011

Yesterday I was leaving the parking lot of the SPD grocery store with my sons, bound for yet another basketball game. As we were headed out of the parking lot I saw an unusual thing for that affluent neighborhood: a panhandler with a cardboard sign. I squinted and looked again.  A very pregnant panhandler with a cardboard sign.  She was small, fit, young, and looked to be about nine months pregnant.

“Oh my God,” I said, and as the boys said, “What?” I asked Levi to reach into my wallet and hand the woman five dollars as we drove by.  This he did, and then mentioned that I don’t usually give money—especially that much money—to those asking for it.  He’s right. I often give food if I have some to share, but I’m reluctant to give money to a stranger. But a pregnant woman is a whole different story, for some reason, I said.

Today I was leaving Grass Valley, a neighboring town, dropping one son off at yet another basketball practice.  I took a back road toward Nevada City—the town with the SPD grocery store (and the other son who was at, yes, basketball practice).  As I approached the stop sign I saw her, the same very pregnant young woman in the same clothes, hitchhiking.

If I rarely give money to strangers, I even more rarely give them rides.  In fact, I have an agreement with my husband that I will only pick up people I know or he knows. I’m not naïve enough to think that this woman couldn’t hurt me. She approached the car and opened the door, smiled.  I made hard eye contact with her, asked her if she was okay.  She met me in a flash.  “Are you going to SPD in Nevada City?” she asked.  “Right by there,” I said.

She smelled strongly of tobacco and it looked like she wasn’t eating well. But her voice was strong and her words delivered with a clarity and spunk that got me interested right away.  I drilled her with questions.  Food stamps? Not eligible.  “But the food bank is great!” she said brightly.  Jobs?  She and her belly had applied for 70 of them.  Other kids?  Two.  Being watched by a friend while she ran her rush hour errand.  The goal: enough money to fend off the landlord one more night.  “Hospitality House is great,” she said. “But it’s hard for my kids to be so good in a church until bedtime. Hopefully he won’t lock us out again.”

“I’m sure things will get better after the baby,” she said.  “I’ve never had trouble getting a job before.” I pulled over into an empty parking place in front of SPD.  “Thanks for the ride,” she said.  “And thanks for your help yesterday, too.”

She told me her baby is due in two weeks. I think of all the things I could have asked her. All the ways I could have helped her. We will be driving by there tomorrow (after a basketball game) at rush hour, and I’ll look for her.  Maybe you can, too.



Filed under Essays

3 responses to “The Unlikely Optimist

  1. alison

    I saw this gal a few weeks ago, flipped a U-ey, and gave her 20 bucks. Prayin for her.

    • I was thinking of you yesterday when I was talking to her. Didn’t ask her about her prenatal scene. The smell of tobacco made me afraid to ask in the moment I’m praying for her, too.

  2. great piece carolyn. so sad. can’t imagine being in her position. i will look for her.

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