Note: I wrote the following paragraphs yesterday afternoon, recounting an encounter I had at work, because I needed to exorcise my feelings. I had no real intention of publishing it, but then today on Facebook, I saw a “Mom” meme that made me reconsider. It read:
I either have my hair and makeup done, or I look homeless. THERE IS NO IN BETWEEN.
I’m not generally one to scold people for taking things too lightly, or push up my imaginary glasses and say, “Well, acxtchully…” (OK, sometimes I am that, however unintentionally), and none of this should be construed to be about shaming people for having fun venting on the internet. It’s just that the juxtaposition of this meme with my experience yesterday formed a sort of ironic poetry that begged to be shared. So here’s what happened.
For about the past month or so, I’ve been working on a little renovation job at the Hennepin County Government Center, in downtown Minneapolis. Unlike the big, new construction projects I’ve been seeing lately, the building is fully open and working, so I encounter a wide variety of government workers and citizens as I go through my day, traversing the hallways, eating in the cafeteria, and using the public rest room (a rare privilege indeed, in my line of work).
This afternoon, like every afternoon, as my shift came to a close, I took off my coveralls and bandana and walked the hundred yards or so to the bathroom to wash the fiberglass and dust off my face and hands before handling or donning my (relatively) clean jacket and heading home. I walked in and was a bit taken aback to see that two young women had basically monopolized the entire sink area and were putting on makeup. One girl moved over and let me access a sink, where I did my thing. As I stood back from the sink, drying my face and blowing my nose with a paper towel, cheap camouflage pocket tee tucked into orange, nuclear issue scrubs, glue-stained black work boots, and a red face, I felt like an impostor in the women’s room. Whatever that creature was, looking back at me from the mirror, was most certainly an entirely different thing than these two primping ladies on either side of me. I tossed my towel in the trash and went into a stall to pee, avoiding eye contact and not really taking in the whole scene.
As I sat on the toilet, one of the girls left. A minute later, a guy came in, impatiently (but not roughly) trying to convince the remaining young woman that she looked fine and they should go. He had gone before I emerged from the stall, and as I was washing my hands, she startled me by asking me how her makeup was. I looked at her, for the first time since I had come into the bathroom, and said, clumsily, “It depends what you’re going for.” She was wearing jeans and a red “boyfriend”-style T-shirt, with medium length, light brown hair framing a pretty, but harried face, and she’d shaded the creases above her eyelids and lined the lower lids with a light, ruddy tone, highlighted with thick swaths of bright, sparkly white eyeliner on the top lid. She told me that she was going out for dinner to celebrate her anniversary, and she wanted to look really special, but she was homeless and couldn’t get the kind of makeup colors she wanted. At this point, I realized the three or four ragtag totes lying on the floor probably held all her earthly possessions.
She looked as though she’d been crying, but her makeup job wasn’t bad. I told her the colors she’d picked were cute on her (which they were). She thanked me, and told me that her boyfriend thought she looked fine but she asked me because “He’s a guy. He doesn’t know.” Despite my appearance, I guess I was welcome in the girls’ club after all.
I went back to get my coat, feeling conflicted. Should I try to help this girl? She looked so young. What could I do? Was that other girl in the bathroom with her and her guy? They didn’t seem to be talking to each other. Was he some sort of pimp for both of them? If that was true, would he really take his girls into the government center, which is crawling with cops, to clean up? I remembered that there was an ATM near where I keep my coat, and decided to take out some money for her. I stopped back in the bathroom on my way out, half of me hoping she was still there, and the other half hoping she’d gone. She was still there, and I handed her a folded twenty-dollar bill, and said “I just wanted to give you this. Have a nice dinner.” Then I turned to leave, and she told me to wait, welling up with tears and opening her arms. We hugged, and I left, holding back my own tears, which haven’t stopped threatening since.
I still feel conflicted, like I didn’t do enough. I keep wishing I’d tried to talk to her more; maybe at least asking about her boyfriend – if he was good to her; where were her parents; nothing she’s done could possibly be so horrible that they wouldn’t take her back – so many swirling questions. But I don’t know her, or her situation. All I know was she reached out to me for advice and I treated her like a person. It was all I knew how to do in that moment. And now I’m home – clean, warm, surrounded by nice things; crying because I feel at once involved and powerless.