The other night I was at a gathering, open to the public, at which a woman showed up who was clearly troubled. She interrupted a person who was speaking to loudly proclaim: “I need a ride home after this! You people say you want to help but no-one helps me!”
“Sit down, Tammy,” someone yelled.
“I won’t sit down. I need a ride!..I need 10 dollars! No, really I need 20 dollars!”
“Aw, wait’ll the break, cancha,” someone else shouted.
I turned around. Tammy was in a short-sleeved T-shirt—no sweater, no jacket, though the night was chilly (I myself, forever cold, was wearing two sweaters, a coat, and a scarf). Her dirty blond hair was uncombed, her face was red and chapped, and she wore that perpetually-in-need expression that tends to send people fleeing for the doors. Everything about her spelled defeat and she was clearly an ongoing thorn in the side to the folks who’d sponsored the gathering. She held forth for a few more minutes, the 50 or so people in attendance looking at the floor, the ceiling, their shoes, their watches: anywhere but at Tammy.
Such people are often mysteriously drawn to me and at the break, sure enough, Tammy made a beeline for my chair. “I need a ride, can you give me a ride?” she pleaded.
“Well I’m going to speak next, so I can’t leave now,” I said. “Why don’t you stay and wait till the end and maybe someone will give you a ride then.”
“Me think you speak with forked tongue,” she giggled, in that uncanny way “crazy” people have of seeing straight through to your frightened, hypocritical core.
She hovered by my seat for the whole 10-minute break, and when the gathering broke up, 45 minutes later, there she was again, hovering, circling, and wheedling yet again, “I need a ride. I need 10 dollars.”
I’d been up since 4:30 that morning, it was 10:30 at night, I’d driven across town to come, I had a 35-minute drive back.
I took one of the guys who I knew aside and said “What’s with Tammy? Is she safe to give a ride to?” “I wouldn’t,” he said. “Especially not alone.”
But Tammy didn’t look dangerous and to send her out to the street to wait for the bus, or wander around on foot, or sleep under a bush, or whatever else her Plan B might consist of on that cold dark night without a jacket didn’t seem right. A little knot of guys stood outside, hunched against the cold, smoking; smirking and snickering as Tammy and I got into my car because to consort with a leper is in some small way to become a leper yourself.
“Aren’t you cold?” I asked.
“Not really. I’m used to it,” she said. “Plus it’s the weirdest thing, every time I know I should bring a jacket, I don’t bring a jacket! It’s like some wound holds me back…” In the midst of extreme dysfunction, another uncanny insight…
“Where are you going?”
“Up Sepulveda, north.”
“Okay but how far north?”
“Ten, twenty minutes.”
“There’s a big difference between ten and twenty minutes. A mile, two miles, ten miles? How far, Tammy?”
“I don’t know, Miss, it’s up by Roscoe.”
“Roscoe and what.”
We were in the (San Fernando) Valley, which I don’t know well so that didn’t help much. My fear was that Tammy was bluffing and in fact had nowhere to go and that I’d be stuck driving aimlessly around all night, or paying for a hotel room, or possibly having to adopt her and be joined at the hip to an unbalanced stranger for the rest of my life.
We proceeded north in silence.
After awhile she said. “Those people back there…they never have to ask for anything. How do you work things so you never have to ask?”
It was an excellent question and I didn’t have the heart—because of course I was one of those people—to say “You hog everything for yourself. You don’t share. You make the whole goal of your life security. You make the goal of your life looking good.”
She told a bit about her mother who’d died, and how she’d grown up in the Valley. I asked her how she spent her days and what she would have done if I hadn’t given her a ride–“Really? You walk around all night?”
“Do you have any money at all?”
“Social Security, Miss, my check comes Tuesday, that’s why I’m a little short.”
We drove for several miles. The houses were starting to thin a bit and I was getting a little nervous.
“Tammy, are you sure you know where you’re going?”
“Well how much further?”
“Ten, twenty minutes.”
“Tammy, we’ve been driving twenty minutes.”
I went a couple of more miles and then I started getting really nervous. What if we just kept going into the mountains? What if Tammy had noplace to go, no idea where she was going, what if Tammy turned psycho on me at 11 at night in a strange part of town?
“Tammy, we just went through Roscoe and if you don’t know where you’re going, I can’t take you any farther, I’m sorry. I’ll let you off at this MacDonald’s.”
“But Miss, we’re almost there.”
“Well if we’re almost there, you can walk or take a bus the rest of the way.”
I pulled into MacDonald’s and she got out of the car, in her shirtsleeves, with a small black plastic grocery bag full of God knows what.
“Thank you very much, Miss.” Meek. Mild. Not a note of reproach, self-pity, or anger. I watched her make her way to the sidewalk and then I got out my Thomas Guide (I’m old-school that way), turned on the interior light and looked up Tupper. Sure enough, it was up ahead, maybe half a mile. I turned the car around, pulled abreast of the sidewalk and beeped.
“Is that you, Miss?”
“Yep, hop in.” She got back into the car, trustingly, docile, like a child. I thought of how easy it would be to take advantage of such a person. I thought of the phrase “lamb to the slaughter.”
“I looked at my map, and you’re right, Tupper’s up ahead. Sorry I jumped the gun like that.”
“People have talked like that to me all my life. Is it something wrong with me?”
“No, Tammy, it was me. I didn’t know where I was and I got uneasy. I’m sorry I snapped at you.”
“That’s okay, Miss. I’m glad you picked me up again.”
I dropped her off at the Hometown Inn. She “knew people” there. “Say a prayer for me, would you, Miss, that Dave gives me a room, even if I’m a little short.”
We embraced goodbye and I gave her twenty bucks.
“Thank you, Tammy, you cheered me up. Try to get a sweater or a jacket for yourself.”
“Thank you, miss.”
We held hands for a minute and then she got out and I watched her make her way to the door. I had put her out of my car. I’d been about to leave her on the street. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. How do those people do it who never have to ask?
Some people never have to ask, and some people have to ask their whole lives. How little I know of charity. How much we should fear that moment at the gate when the sheep are separated from the goats.
Matthew 25: 31-46:
“But when the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. Before him all the nations will be gathered, and he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. Then the King will tell those on his right hand, ‘Come, blessed of my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry, and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty, and you gave me drink. I was a stranger, and you took me in. I was naked, and you clothed me. I was sick, and you visited me. I was in prison, and you came to me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry, and feed you; or thirsty, and give you a drink? When did we see you as a stranger, and take you in; or naked, and clothe you? When did we see you sick, or in prison, and come to you?’
“The King will answer them, ‘Most certainly I tell you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ Then he will say also to those on the left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire which is prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry, and you didn’t give me food to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me no drink; I was a stranger, and you didn’t take me in; naked, and you didn’t clothe me; sick, and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’
“Then they will also answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and didn’t help you?’
“Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Most certainly I tell you, inasmuch as you didn’t do it to one of the least of these, you didn’t do it to me.’ These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”