On Thursday, a homeless woman slapped me in the face.
It wasn’t as bad as it sounds.
My walking commute takes me through a San Francisco neighborhood frequented by many street people. On any given day, I may pass 4-8 people sleeping in doorways, and another 5-10 people who, to phrase it broadly, don’t participate in our primary social system. I wish everyone slept warmly in this world, but they don’t, and few of us reach 56 without that understanding.
On Thursday, I looked up ahead on the sidewalk as I walked, and saw a street woman coming towards me. Her hair was tangled, her skin dirty, she wore baggy pants and a sweatshirt. Her face was covered with cuts, but still pretty under the wear and tear. Literally torn, in this case.
I had a more emotional reaction than I usually do when passing a street person. She looked sad, and as though she was in pain. The thought flashed through my mind, “Ah, how hard to be a woman on the street. How much threat, abuse, rape, beatings does a woman like that suffer? I looked at her face, a little longer than I would have, given my usual level of attention and feelings.
As she passed me, all the while looking straight ahead, she flapped her arm out terribly quickly and slapped me lightly right in the mouth. Her hand was covered in her sweatshirt cuff and I felt the fabric.
I was, as you can imagine, shocked.
“Ow!” I said, even though it hadn’t hurt. It was an exclamation of outrage and a little fear, not pain. “Oh, I’m sorry,” she said, without slowing her pace as she walked away.
The oddest thing. As though she’d just bumped me in passing. As though she hadn’t meant to. As though her arm had done it like a dog or toddler off the leash.
And of all the things that I’ve experienced in the last 6 months, this small incident drew me most vivid sketch of myself. I offer this to you because maybe you’ve had a similar moment, or maybe imagining happening to you will spark similar insight.
- The first thing I thought was, “How stupid of me. Significant Other will tell me with good reason that I do not keep my guard up sufficiently in an urban environment. I should have known not to look at her face. I should have moved to the edge of the sidewalk.” I am prone to examine every problem starting from, “Was this my fault?” You know, I like that quality in myself. I think I’ll keep it. I believe it leads to better answers.
- Then I started to worry about germs. What if she had AIDS? Of all the things. I kept my lips pressed together through the remaining commute so that no microbes would enter my mouth, and then I washed my lips on arrival at my office. So many dangers in this world, but I’ve always had a strange fear of toxic substances. Probably I can shift my focus of concern. Are we agreed?
- Note. My response to the woman assumed we shared something – being women most of all. We did, but less than I expected. Of course it’s harder to feel universal connection when you’re mired in survival.
- And finally, oddly, several minutes later I was flooded with a sense of well-being. Of gratitude. “How lucky!” I thought. “How lucky not to be her. To have the job I do, tough but rewarding, to live where I live, to have my dear Significant Other and my family? The education. The good fortune.” Proof positive of what I have always suspected; some of us are simply hard-wired to see good, protected by some mysterious endocrine system that doles out cheer. For this, I’m just going to say thank you. And remind myself that others who seem unnecessarily gloomy are living with different chemical systems that they do not control.
I ask, how would you have reacted, in this situation? Or have you met with a similar revelation of self, in some wholly unexpected moment, in a wholly unexpected spot? I’m still shaking my head and saying “Huh, who knew?” At 56 one’s experience of self is still full of new stuff.
Have a wonderful weekend.