I picked up Janet hitchhiking this morning. The first time, I’d driven past her at 55mph down Route 9W. Thumb out, cigarette dangling from her lip, she stood shivering close to the metal guardrail — it was 46 degrees. She looked like she had slept in the woods – no doubt, she had.
I drove past thinking, “Where is she going? Wonder what’s her story?” She looked worried, as if she was late for work, or that she wished she had a job to be late to. I found that to be the case. She lost her job, and her apartment, after breaking an ankle. I didn’t ask how, but from the smell of the bag of cans she lugged with her, I envisioned a cadre of circumstances: a miscalculated stride off the curb, stepping into a groundhog hole, or simply not paying attention. I’d done those myself over a lifetime, some with, and without, the help of a bag of cans.
After a mile, I turned around. I half hoped she’d be there, half-hoped someone else had stopped for her. Flashers blinking, I pulled over gradually, giving the 18-wheeler behind me time to decelerate and pass. I stopped. She opened the door and thanked me. She wondered why I had my flashers on, what was my story: was I running out of gas? Or was I actually stopping to pick her up? She passed in her cooler, a bag of cans, and climbed in. She’d missed her bus by three minutes. Three minutes, she said, she couldn’t catch a break. She thanked me again, and told me I was one of her “Turnaround Girls.”
Trembling, she clutched a makeshift cup from an apple juice can, sharp aluminum edges folded over made for softer sipping. She cradled a second cigarette in icy-bent fingers, blue with cold and chipped nail polish. Ten minutes in the highway-side wind coupled with a night in morning dew-lined tent had frozen her to the bone. She huddled on the passenger side. I cranked the seat heater and blower motor; she defrosted.
In 5 minutes 23 seconds, from roadside to her destination, I got a glimpse of her story. I’d heard parts of this before, from people in need, some homeless, living in the woods, couch-surfing at a friend’s, tent-dwellers and those in-between on their way to permanent housing. They’d been to my office asking for help, help out, help up, any help.
Why the woods I asked? To save money for an apartment, she said, it was the only way to get ahead. But someone stole her pocketbook yesterday with $400 in savings. A friend had found her purse contents, but not before she’d cancelled her bank account; the bank charged her $30 to do so. She was back to zero. Luckily, she bought a tent two days ago; the Catskill cold had set in this week and she needed protection, but still needed a tarp. She’d been out there 10 days. She couldn’t afford a tarp. She cried, reset.
Janet would charge her phone at the convenience store. Her phone, a needed expense was her lifeline to work prospects, a human connection, a promise of another life, a home. Her battery barely holds a charge longer than an hour, she said, but she’d make it work. She’d recycle the bag of cans she’d collected while walking and spend a dollar on coffee. She’d warm up, cry, recharge, reset.
Her warm clothes stored 30 miles away, her Kingston apartment belongings in limbo; she had no way to get to her stuff, to move them, to store them. She cried through our brief talk about support services, how a system tough to navigate was cruel and offered little help and no hope. She couldn’t access the support she needed. Anger reset her composure. She was not letting this get her down. Her sporadic surveying gig in Tug Hill provided inconsistent income that disqualified her from most services. We talked about 12-step meetings, asking for help, holding onto hope that things will turn around. She thanked me again and closed the door.
I crossed the street to get my car serviced. In the back seat, I found the bag of cans. Shame-filled, I clutched the stale-beer promise of 5-cents-on-redemption. I cringed, wondering what the Service Desk employee thought. Did he think that clanking smelly bag of cans was mine? Disgusted, I wanted to toss the bag of cans, ditch them inside the warm waiting room recycling bin, or maybe stash them out-of-sight outside under a dealership bush. Would this bag of cans really matter to Janet if it weren’t returned? What if it were her clothes bag and phone? I cried inside, reset.
I climbed into the warm shuttle van and asked the driver for two stops. Walking into the convenience store, I found Janet charging her phone, making small talk with another semi-defrosted companion. I gave her a bag of cans. She smiled, thanked me, hugged me. “It’s gonna get better, right?” Yes, I said. And walked out.
In the passenger seat, I cried, reset, and went to work… for housing for those most in need.
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