UNITED STATES—She was crouched asleep, knees to her chin, by the sink in the laundromat. When I rushed around the corner, she started like a frightened animal. It’s hard to say who was more frightened, she or me.
“This place closes at 11,” I said.
“Where’s there a grocery store,” she said, gathering up a couple flowered, brightly colored pieces of luggage. She was ash blond and her pretty face sunburned from a couple days’ exposure—not weathered from years.
“There’s a Ralphs down on La Brea.”
“Where’s La Brea,” she said.
She walked slowly to the front of the laundromat and contemplated the dark, cold street before plunging into it. She repeated the plaint, “It’s so cold” a couple times during her trip from the sink.
One other customer and I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, but the woman didn’t ask for a handout or protest and went outside.
“What do you make of her?” I asked the sole remaining laundromat customer.
“I think she had a house until a few days ago. And something happened. She’s not used to being on the street,” said the woman who most of the time had been fiddling with her hair extensions and taking selfies as her laundry dried. “It’s a tough city. Maybe she’ll get lucky and somebody will give her some money.”
I went out the door and looked down the street. The woman with flowered bags was gone. The next morning, I was driving my daughter down Fountain and there she was, the blond woman crossing the street. In just a second my daughter extracted the observation: “That woman looks scared for her life. Like somebody is coming after her.”
That’s when I resolved to speak to her if I ever had the chance. The chance came during closing time at the laundromat a couple days later and there she was, gathering her things. She had survived, she and her flowered luggage. Things started spilling out, lunatic things at first, but I was ready to listen. “I always had closets full of clothes. I’ve never been in a situation like this.” She was a hair stylist in Las Vegas—“Never had a complaint.”
She had come from Las Vegas to live with her boyfriend, a nice guy who turned out really bad—so that explained why La Brea was a mystery to her and why she felt so cold when it wasn’t that cold. Since she hit the streets, a nice guy let her sleep in his car and he tried to touch her while she was sleeping. “You don’t do that to people while they’re sleeping.”
I turned to her and like a fool said, “How can I help you?”
“Can I stay at your house?” she said. “That’s what I need, a good night’s sleep, where it’s quiet and I can rest without being asked to move.”
“No,” I heard myself saying. “No I’m sorry. That is not possible. I can’t do that. I’m sorry.”
“Is there someplace I can go?”
“There are places downtown. There are steps on the church down the street.”
“Do I look like a homeless person to you?” she said.
Finally she left. Back onto the street en route to another laundromat that was open 24 hours. I was not comfortable with myself after that. I couldn’t get her predicament out of my head. Believe it or not, that week the pastor at church spoke of a belligerent man who camped nightly in the doorway to the church. It had become an issue: he was aggressive and didn’t want to be lumped in with homeless people. I expected this to dovetail into the pastor’s sermon, but it didn’t. He was simply exposing a problem. “We’re open to any solutions,” said the pastor.
After dealing with the disturbing and disturbed woman in the laundromat, I saw the need for a different solution. It could be pods were people can spend a night, bathed in silence and fresh air; maybe the solution will come when finding a place to live in the glamour capital is less of a trophy. Neither the hair stylist from Vegas nor the man in the church doorway saw themselves in a Midnight Mission.
My guilt over the matter was assuaged somewhat when a friend told me the example of the pope. The pope saw a man with tumors all over his face and wondered what kind of disease he was suffering. Rather than wait for the answer, the pope gave the disfigured man a hug and tears broke out from his gnarled head. A gesture like this, humanity speaking to humanity, puts charity within reach of all. As the pope himself has tweeted, “True charity requires courage: let us overcome the fear of getting our hands dirty so as to help those in need.”
Humorist Grady Miller is the author of “Lighten Up Now: The Grady Diet,” and “The Hostages of Veracruz,” available on Amazon.com.