The Straw Lady
The subway tracks screeched and the scent of oil tinged the air as I waited for the red line. Someone muttered, an incomprehensible squabble, and I looked up to see an old woman hunched over on the bench beside me. A straw hat tied with a tattered pink ribbon obscured her face. She wore a cotton dress so thin it could have been made from rice paper, and it hung loosely on bones so thin they could have been made of straw themselves.
At first, I thought she commuted, like myself, waiting for her train to usher her home from the chaos of the city. I didn’t think much of her until a couple walked by, and she took off her straw hat, revealing a head of squirrely gray hair. She held it out, and it shook in her fingers.
A bag lady, I categorized to myself with a mingling of pity and uneasiness. She was like the many homeless people and street urchins that patrolled the busy city above, blocking the entrances to corner-shops and sleezing around the benches in Cambridge Common. They always made me uncomfortable. As I walked by them, I would turn my head in the other direction toward the busy street, like I searched for my car when in fact I’d parked at Alewife, a whole T ride away. Sometimes the bolder ones would yell at me to give them spare change, like it was their entitlement for being a bum and sometimes they just accused me with a glaring look in their jaded eyes.
Yet this woman differed from the rest. She seemed like she’d been innocently humbled to this station in life. Who’s to argue such a thing anyways? Who’s to say which person had the mental capacity to work and who needed more assistance?
The stray lady’s wrinkled face stuck in my memory that night as I walked to my car and the next day when I filed back in line for my seat on the T. How did she get to be that way? I thought up numerous reasons and scenarios as the train took me back to Harvard Square.
Did her family abandon her? Were they all dead? Or was she too proud to ask for their assistance, preferring to beg from faceless strangers? Was she insane or an addict? Did she lose her job? All these situations rumbled around in my head as the train halted at my stop.
And there she was, right where I’d left her. For a moment, I thought I might give her some money. I did have a five dollar bill in my wallet and various quarters shifting around in my purse. But wouldn’t that be enabling her situation, teaching her that a life of begging was acceptable? What if she turned around and wasted the money on booze or drugs? Was I providing the impetus for further crime? And what if she looked for me after that, following me down the dim-lit alleys after my concerts to ask for more? The thought of it made me shiver.
I walked by as she held out her hat. I was a coward, another member of the masses that ignored them, denying the problem. It was easier that way, to pretend not to care.
I walked to my graduate classes at my music school and assembled my silver flute. It was disconcerting how poverty coexisted with the elite, living side-by-side. While I studied Mozart and Beethoven, played chamber music, and practiced advanced theory, the straw lady sat alone and hungry, begging for coins.
The next time I saw her, she caught me staring. I looked away and pretended to ruffle through my sheet music, plugging my iPod in my ear. I’d managed to get away before she asked for the money, but not before I saw the hopelessness and vulnerability in her watery old eyes. The next few trips, I drove into the city and circled around until a parking place opened up. My classes ran past the meter and I accumulated parking tickets, but at least I didn’t have to confront that woman and those eyes.
After winter break, when my classes resumed, I decided to help her. I had the five dollar bill crunched in my fingers before the train stopped. I’d worked out the conversation in my imagination, replaying it over and over the night before. I’d place the money in her hat and smile, maybe ask her name. I hoped she’d smile back.
When the doors opened and the people filed out, pushing past, I stood like an awkward teenager, looking around like I was lost. The bench she sat on was bare, her wrinkled plastic bags whisked away. Had the police asked her move? Or did a worse fate befall her?
I felt like I had failed. The guilt hung with me the entire day as I performed Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun in masterclass and listened to the finer points of the Feldenkrais technique.
I made it in into the symphony, but as for the straw lady, I never saw her again.