It wasn’t the best of neighborhoods, or the worst, even for Memphis. I had started out trying to track down local art galleries, looking for one that would carry my paintings for the Memphis market. Not finding any, I had lunch at a sandwich shop in a drab strip mall, then moved over to the used bookstore next door. Time passed pleasantly.
My wife, Martha Hannah, was at a film production studio nearby, working for the day. She was acting in an Industrial, a corporate training film. I had ridden with her from Nashville to Memphis to keep her company on the long drive. While she worked, I explored the area of the city surrounding the studio.
Browsing the bookstore, I watched through the front windows as a young woman roamed the parking lot, approaching people as they got in their cars. She was obviously panhandling. Sure enough, as soon as I left the bookstore and got into my own car, she wove through the parked vehicles and tapped on the window.
“Do you have any spare change for bus fare?”
The last of my spare change had just been spent on a used copy of a 500 page Dorothy Dunnett book. I thought of handing her the book, but it would not have worked for bus fare.
“Sorry, but I don’t have any spare change.”
“You hate women, don’t you?”
“I know what you’re thinking. You hate women.”
“No, I don’t hate women.”
“Yes, you do.”
“No, I don’t hate anyone. I just don’t have any spare change. Really.”
“I know what you want to do. You want to hit me, don’t you?”
“I don’t want to hit anyone.”
“You want to hit me. That’s what men want to do to women.”
The young woman was getting more and more intense as she spoke, elaborating on what men thought of women and what men did to women to shut them up. I let her talk. When she ran out of words and stopped to catch her breath, I asked her, “Do you feel better now?”
The question surprised her. She thought for a moment, smiled and looked squarely at me for the first time.
“Yes, I do.”
Then, without another word, she turned and walked back through the rows of parked cars to continue her quest for spare change.
She lived a reality very different from my own. Abuse of any kind towards anyone is absolutely unacceptable to me, but it apparently was or had been a part of this young woman’s life. Choosing to acknowledge that took no effort on my part. It was an easy kindness, a simple act of listening, that I hope was as much value to her as the spare change might have been.
The memory of this young woman has stayed with me. I’ve often wondered what more I could have done for her in our brief encounter that afternoon, without breaking the fragile truce of that moment. I think she was a strong woman and a survivor. I hope she found the peace and acceptance in her life that she deserved.