Today, I decided to run out to McKnight Road, where the majority of relevant stores are located here in the North Hills. I went out there so I could get a new hammock for Loki from Petco, so that we could cycle his, allowing him to always have one to snuggle in. As I was sitting at the light to leave the plaza Petco sits in, I watched as a young woman a few years younger than me walked into the grass by the road and sat her dog down, took out a sign, and began to stand and wait for someone to hand her some money. Her sign read that she was on the road and broke, and needed some help so she could keep traveling.
I didn't have any more than a dollar and some change on me, but instead of heading home, I pulled into the nearby 7-11, went inside, and bought a bottle of water and snagged a paper cup. I brought it out to her, and as I handed it to her, I told her that it was much too hot for her and her dog to sit outside without some water.
She thanked me for it, poured some into the cup, and gave it to her dog, who gratefully lapped it up. She ended up giving him the full bottle, remarking on how thirsty he was. The dog nuzzled me and with his great big eyes staring at me, I couldn't resist but to pet him.
That's when I got to talking with the girl. She told me her name was Courtney, and she was trying to get back home to Buffalo, NY. She said that she had moved down here to be with her boyfriend, who had an apartment with some friends here in the city. Later, those friends moved out, and were replaced by older roommates, men in their forties, who quickly brought the house down into unsanitary conditions. They were peeing in old milk jugs and leaving it outside of their bedrooms. They were leaving food everywhere, beer cans. They soon blamed Courtney and her boyfriend for making the house dirty, and kicked them out. The house, she said, was later condemned for how horrible the men made it.
She paused a moment to accept a twenty from a woman who, like me, had seen her and pulled into the 7-11. The woman said something quickly, handed the money off, and walked away as fast as she could. Courtney slipped the money into the back pocket of torn short shorts.
She continued her story, telling me that the money she had saved ended up being poured into her old car after an accident, and she lost her job shortly thereafter.
"So here I am," she said staring at the line of cars behind me. "My boyfriend, my dog, and I, we've been living out of my car for the last like, two weeks, and it's so disgusting in there now, but we don't have anything else."
She paused again to take some money from a man in a black truck.
Courtney went on to tell me that she hoped to get back home to Buffalo, that she hopes her father will let her live at home for a while until she gets back on her feet. She wants to go back to school to be an X-Ray technician. She was surprised that I was a chemist. "I never expected someone with so many tattoos to be a professional chemist," she remarked.
"These last few weeks, they've been hell," she said, petting the old dog. "It seems like everything is going wrong. But I have to keep hoping that things will change. And that's why I want to go back home. Start over. Try again. Maybe things will be different." She flashed a smile.
She's not even sure that her old car will make it to Buffalo. All she knows is that it took her about $100 to get here. She hopes to raise at least that much so she can head back.
"Most people," she said looking at the empty bottle of water. "They just pass by me or give me dirty looks or flip me off. I have a couple who give me a few bucks, but no one stops and talks to me. No one wants to know anything about me. But I've been here for about fifteen minutes, talking to you, and there was that woman who gave me that twenty and that other guy who gave me some money, and you brought me that water. It gives me hope. Makes me feel like I'm getting lucky again."
When I left her standing there, after twenty or so minutes of chatting and petting her dog, I felt so conflicted. I came home and resolved to try to do more for her: I cooked some pasta and some frozen vegetables and some hot dogs for her dog and packed it all up with some water and drove out to where I saw her, but she was gone. I drove up and down McKnight, hoping to find her, but she was nowhere to be seen.
I've put the bag of food and the water in the fridge. It will keep for a few days. I'll go out there every day and try to find her until the food is bad.
Meeting with Courtney was not something I anticipated happening. I never thought I would be stopping and getting out of my car to shake hands with a girl who came to this city with hopes in her eyes only to lose almost everything. It made me think about how close I came to that very same circumstance last year, after leaving grad school, when I spent five months unemployed. During that time, I was searching for work every day, I sold all of my gold and silver jewelry except the pieces that meant the most to me, so that I could help Rich out by buying some of our food. I tried everything I could think of, but I was too educated for low-wage jobs and not educated enough for jobs in my field. It was sheer luck I landed my five-month job at ModCloth, and there was certainly some luck involved in my getting employment at PPG. But before finally finding work, I debated doing what Courtney is doing now: standing at busy intersections, hoping someone will give me twenty bucks so I could contribute to the maintaining of the place I call home. I debated leaving, without saying anything, to live under a bridge or something, so that I could be less of a burden on the person I love most.
Courtney's story is something I think we can all learn from. She has fallen on hard times, something that is very easy to do in this country right now, but she still had hope. She still had so much love for her fifteen year old dog that she gave him every last ounce of the water I brought her without taking a sip for herself.
Someone once told me that, sometimes, we are a stranger's only friend, and we must do whatever is in our power to make even just one day better for someone, whether we know them or not.
Today, I sat down with a girl who needed help and talked to her. I saw her sign, and instead of ignoring her, I talked to her, I shook her hand, and I even high-fived her. I learned her story, and I will always remember it.
We should all strive, in a world so full of hate, so full of trolls, so full of complaining, to bring a little love to every day. Do something nice for someone, every single day. Listen to someone's story. You never know what you'll learn.