I was in a rush.
I had decided to pick up birthday flowers for the wife from a local florist, but found it closed. Out of business. I went to another location, same deal. Tough days in the flower trade.
Finally, I found a third that was open. I bought a bouquet, stuffed it in the passenger seat, and nosed my way out onto Ventura Boulevard.
Traffic was heavy, and I focused on the image in my side-view mirror for a gap.
When the gap appeared, I toed the accelerator and looked up, all in one motion. Instinctively, my foot pivoted to the brake pedal. I stopped suddenly.
Not 6 inches in front of my bumper was a homeless woman. Maybe 45, maybe 50, maybe older. The look on her face suggested she was waiting for something, expecting something. It didn't occur to me at the time that what she was waiting for and expecting was an impact.
It took her a few seconds to look down at me, and to halfheartedly raise her fingertips to her mouth to say, "I'm hungry."
I was shocked and a little angry. I had no idea where she'd come from. She was jeopardizing her own life to get a buck from me. In retrospect though, I don't think that's what she was doing. There were pedestrians on the sidewalk, not 10 feet away. Why wasn't she soliciting them instead of a guy in his car, pulling into dense traffic?
She moved, and I drove off. Like I said, I was in a rush. I had to get the flowers home, and I was already late to pick up my daughter at volleyball practice. Halfway to my destination it occurred to me that maybe this woman was trying to get herself hurt.
Having gone over and over it in my head, no other explanation pencils quite right. I don't think she was trying to get herself killed; there were better ways to do that, too. But she was more than hungry. She was a desperate person taking a desperate measure, prepare to endure great pain to escape a greater one. Hoping that an insurance company might step forward with a settlement she could use to buy herself the measure of basic comfort that society, government, and charity had not.
Collectively, we have failed to help her, and so many like her who cannot help themselves. Of the chronically homeless, 30-40 percent are mentally ill. And yet our so-called safety net is in tatters, sliced open by Republicans at the behest of billionaires glad to label the human beings tumbling through it as "takers."
Their solution is to dismantle the safety net altogether. Private charity, they're quite certain, will rise to fill the void.
It won't. In my story, I am charity, and I am too late, and too busy, to help. My encounter with that homeless woman was random chance, and random chance does not produce constructive outcomes. People working together with common purpose does that. Societies with shared values and social contracts do that. We agree that people should not have to throw themselves in front of moving cars to make their reality better, and then we organize and create structures and pathways that ensure that no one ever finds himself or herself in a place like that.
This "makers vs. takers" framework is toxic. It's also ass-backwards. That woman on Ventura Boulevard isn't a taker; she's a victim of a society that has judged her unworthy of its care, and that has in fact taken from her something beyond price: her dignity.