Union Station, Washington, D.C.
I was young, but I was old enough. To be honest, I don’t remember my age exactly. I just remember that I had hit the age of thinking ‘critically,’ meaning that I had begun to believe my thoughts were critical, and that the world was complicated and much bigger than I was, and that I could use my thoughts to dwell on the immensity of that.
So here I was, sitting next to the railing of a second story restaurant, looking down on the people coming and going below. Except there was this one woman who was neither coming nor going; she was sitting. And she had stuff with her that made it seem like that was all the stuff she’d have wherever she was– it was that much, and that little.
I ate the complimentary, pre-dinner bread and salad, getting full off of it, still watching this woman. She was still just sitting. I imagined that she was there because she was allowed to be, resting from a long day of… not resting, staying in a location that would not remove her for doing just that. By the time my food came, she brought out her dinner: saltine crackers. I was full, remember, but still gluttonously digging into more of the pasta I ordered, as she nibbled more of her saltines.
I wondered what would happen if I took my plate to her, offered it, shared it. I wondered, and fretted, and wondered, and almost had the courage to do it when I looked down and saw her spot empty. She had left, belongings, saltines, and all. Disappeared. Just like that.
My opportunity was gone, and I felt the weight of that. More than sharing my food, I simply wanted to share her presence. She had just sat, calm, dignified. Eating her saltines, quiet, unseen. I wanted that, to get away from my overabundance and to be with her– if only for a moment– in her endurance. I wanted to hug her and say, “You’re not alone.” I wanted all of that and never even left my chair.
Looking back, I was wrestling with what I would later realize were White, middle-class privilege problems, physically looking down on this woman as she was used to being looked down upon metaphorically. But, it’s funny: cynical phrase tags don’t quite seem to fit all years later, even after I have been jaded by seeing so much more and learning so much more. I really do wish I could have given– could still give– this woman a hug. I wouldn’t mind sharing a meal, either. I didn’t see her as a poor person. I saw her as a person who was probably poor.
It’s a strong memory, one I still can’t seem to figure out. All I know now is what I knew then: I was young, but old enough, and she was alone, eating her saltines.