The Woman on the Sidewalk
The dog and I step outside for our morning walk. We go down the front steps, turn into the driveway, and there on the sidewalk is a woman. She’s sitting against the maple tree, the hood of her white sweatshirt pulled tight over her head, covering her face. Strewn across the sidewalk nearby: bits of torn paper, a shiny golden purse, a phone, and a can of IPA. She’s motionless, knees to chest, hugging herself. The dog growls and then looks up at me.
“Are you all right?” I say. No answer, no movement. “Do you need help?” Still no response. But she’s breathing, I can see now a faint movement at her shoulders.
No neighbors are out. The morning smoky and already warm. There’s a woman in front of my house on the sidewalk. In all the mornings that the dog and I have stepped outside, we’ve never before found someone sitting in front of our house.
The woman goes on sitting there, her face hidden. She might’ve just had a terrible night, and this was the safest place she could think of, for a moment’s rest. She might have a home someplace, a family. Then again, she might have no one.
I’m not sure what more to say, or do. Maybe she needs a bit of space and quiet?
The dog and I start walking down the sidewalk through the dense wildfire smoke, here in the age of nature’s revenge. It’ll be a short walk this morning, but the dog needs to get out, and as we step along I glance over my shoulder and the woman remains there by the tree.
All over Portland these days you see people sitting or lying on sidewalks. You see encampments by freeways, by footpaths, in front of shops, sometimes in front of houses or apartments. A few blocks away, on a busy street, I often come upon human beings lying or sitting on the sidewalks, or occasionally, human beings walking along flailing their arms, muttering or shouting. Humans in need of medication or therapy or both. Humans in need of shelter and food. In need of calm conversation, some eye contact.
But this is the first time someone has been sitting right outside my front door.
As the dog and I walk the quiet, hazy neighborhood, I wonder if the woman will still be there when we return, and if so, what will I do then? I’ve read a few stories lately in the newspaper about violent encounters in the city, neighbors trying to engage someone who shows up in their yard or on their porch, and what if the woman has missed a needed dose of meds, or what if she’s high, or high and blitzed? Inside my house, behind the locked front door, my wife and son are starting their day.
Or what about this? What if I offer the woman some water? That would be a kind thing to do. But then part of me is embarrassed by the thought that follows: What if I offer her water and she takes it, then comes to view our front yard as a some sort of sanctuary, what if she brings her friends?
I’m an ass, I decide. I’m overthinking this. I got jarred, unnerved by the sight of someone sitting against the tree in front of my house and now I’m being an ass.
When we loop around and turn the corner onto our street, the woman is still there. But now she’s sprawled out on her front, blocking the sidewalk, resting her head on her arms. Her papers, purse, and phone are where they were before, but the beer can is gone. And someone has brought her a glass of orange juice and a green apple, which sit near her head. It looks like maybe she took a few sips of the juice.
“Are you all right?” I say, rolling the befuddled dog’s leash around my wrist, and once again the woman doesn’t respond. She’s breathing, possibly sleeping, and from this angle I can see a prescription bottle peeking from the unzipped purse.
Okay. This person may or may not have taken too many pills, she may already have other drugs in her system, and one of my neighbors has likely brought her a glass of orange juice. The woman will not, or cannot, respond to me. She looks to be in her mid to late twenties, the ends of her hair are dyed magenta, there’s a rip in her black tights on the right calf. It’s seven-thirty in the morning.
I’m worried, yes, but now I’m also slightly angry. Part of me isn’t proud that I’m angry, but I am. My family is close-by, this is our small space in the world, it didn’t come easy. There’s this rise of protectiveness, my jaws set harder.
And yet, here’s another possible interpretation: Here’s a human being who feels safe enough in this spot on earth to have stretched out to rest for awhile. Here, in front of the place where my family and I sleep, she has chosen to lie down, to trust whatever comes next. For all I know, this could be her last call for help. I do not know her story, she doesn’t know mine, and our lives have met at this point on this morning when smoke from many trees, some of them ancient, these particles across time, enter deep into our lungs, with each breath.
I take the dog inside and call the paramedics, who soon arrive and eventually get the woman talking. They sit her up, they talk and listen some more. When I spoke with the dispatcher, she advised me to stay inside, let the responders do their job, and so I try to refrain from going back outside, I even try not to keep looking out the window.
But then I hear the paramedics’ truck start up, and I return to the window. I don’t see the woman, and the truck pulls away. Is she inside of it? Are they taking her to the hospital or to a shelter, or did she leave on foot? I step out on the porch and look up and down the block, but there’s no sign of her. Just the red truck driving away.
On the sidewalk, she or they gathered up the bits of paper and the purse and the phone, but what’s left makes me stand there for several beats, throat burning, on a searing morning in Portland, Oregon.
There by the tree: the glass that held the orange juice, the untouched apple beside it.