“Do you have a light?” she asked, sitting down next to me on the concrete ledge, wanting to share the narrow piece of shade in today’s bright, hot 103-degree weather.
“I don’t,” I said, and then, feeling like I had to have a reason for not having matches or a lighter, I added, “I don’t smoke.”
She twirled the butt of a hand-rolled cigarette in her fingers and then put it between her lips. When she took it out again, it was ringed with her pick lipstick. Her face was leather, a flashing neon sign announcing she’d spent way too many days in the desert sun. Her hair was an orange that couldn’t be natural, an un-brushed halo framing watery eyes outlined with too much makeup.
“The police are after me because I was assaulted,” she said, her words slurred. “I have traumatic brain injury. Three actually.” Then, she started pointing to places on her head and face and mumbling details of these brain injuries.
I couldn’t understand much of what she said, but it seemed the gist of it was an altercation at the downtown smoke shop because she stumbled and someone got hurt and the cops blamed her. She stumbled not because she was drunk, no matter what anyone thought of her – “people always thinking something about me, everyone, all the time” – but because she had fallen so much her head wasn’t right.
I can spot a drunk at 20 paces and she sure seemed like she was drinking or drugged in some way, but she didn’t reek of a 40 or pot the way many folks at the downtown transit center do. And the fact that she just plopped on down and started talking, well, that was impressive.
She continued mumble-talking for about a minute while a voice in my head was asking me why I was trying to make sense of a conversation that probably had no reasoning in it, and another voice was reminding me that there, but for the grace of God, go I. We so often forget that.
So I stayed focused and tried to piece the disjointed puzzle together. At one point, when she heard the whistle of the train as it passed by a few blocks away, she got really excited telling me about her friend who drives a train, has been driving for 20, 30 years and makes “six or eight figures a year.”
“Can you believe it?” she asked, shaking her head. Nope, I said. That’s amazing. Then I asked if I should call the police for her, since she said she’d been assaulted. There were no obvious injuries, but when someone tells you they’ve been attacked, shouldn’t you dial 9-1-1?
“I don’t want them,” she said, standing up now, her black t-shirt and shorts hanging on her skinny frame. She’d accessorized with mismatched earrings and a necklace, both of which looked like they came from the dollar store. She stumbled slightly as she dug into her purse, then, sighing, sat back down. “Do you have a light?” she asked.
Before I left for my bus, I realized I had some cash on me. I asked if she needed money for food and gave her the three bucks I had. That sum won’t buy anything downtown, but there are fast-food places where three dollars can feed a person just a short ride away on the bus she said she was waiting for. It was the first time in Tucson I’ve ever given money to someone who wasn’t asking for it.
“Thanks, ma’am,” she said, putting the bills into her purse. She said she’d pay me back – or at least that’s what I thought she said.
“That’s not necessary,” I said. I never see the same homeless (or homeless-looking) people at the transit center, and even if our paths did cross again, the likelihood of her having any money to spare seemed slim. We didn’t need to pretend.
“No, no,” she said, leaning in close. “I’ll pay it back to someone else, somewhere down the line. I’ll pay you back by helping someone else. That’s how it works.”
Great idea, I said. Lesson learned.