This essay is part of the Great Lakes Review’s Narrative Map project.
I worked with a woman who my boss described as “salt of the earth.” Gloria didn’t have my master’s degree social work credentials, but she had enough hardscrabble experience to last several lifetimes. She walked with a spring in her step and seemed to know everyone, frequently stopping to chat. She hummed all day long, and I imagined she sang full-on gospel alone in her car and at home in the shower. She sometimes wore a frosted blonde wig, and her smile and cackling laugh were contagious.
I respected her. And I needed her. She was the black to my white, the wisdom to my youth, the city to my suburbs, and when making a home visit in Detroit, I wanted her by my side.
The families expected us; we weren’t there to investigate abuse or remove children from homes. We were a link between a major hospital and disabled children in the community. But poverty and family dynamics create myriad challenges. Gloria was a sister, a mother, a grandmother; I was an intruder. She had been there; I had not. She had raised a disabled child into adulthood on her own. She represented what was possible.
We visited homes crawling with cockroaches. A house cordoned off with yellow police tape. A house where we could smell the fires that had blackened the neighboring houses on either side. We climbed to a fifth floor apartment with no air conditioning in the middle of July. We sat on hardwood floors because there was no furniture. We visited far too many homes with no books or crayons.
But we also walked through gorgeous tile and marble arches framing crumbling apartment buildings. Gazed at alleys of garages turned into graffiti artists’ canvases. Threaded our way through a shadowy basement apartment full of African art. 1920’s brick duplexes and millennial houses built by Habitat for Humanity. Homes where mothers want the best for their children. Homes where families have stayed for two and three generations, remembering what it was like in their childhood – the canopy of leaves over the street, the neighborhood full of children playing, walking to the elementary school a few blocks away.
Every day, I entered a world of hope and decay. And each day ended with a fleeting moment of dismay. Near the freeway on my way home, the green lights routinely turned to red, and there I sat in my car right next to the man in the wheelchair holding a cardboard sign, or the woman wearing a heavy coat in the heat of summer holding a cardboard sign, or the young man with long lank hair and yellow eyes holding a cardboard sign.
Should I give them money? How much? I saw them every single day. It felt disrespectful to ignore them. It seemed I had a duty to at the very least acknowledge their suffering, their humanity. Yet it wasn’t hard to avoid eye contact. I hid behind my sunglasses, and they often stared right past me.
Gloria drove through several miles of city streets to reach her home. Her solution for the homeless was to give them sandwiches. Every evening she made sandwiches for herself and her children; why not make a few extras? How hard was it to spread some peanut butter and jelly on a few slices of bread? Indeed, it was so ingeniously simple, yet the thought had never crossed my mind. I followed her lead, made extra sandwiches, and kept a box of granola bars in my car. I began to carry containers of fresh fruit, strawberries or blueberries, for the children on my home visits.
On my way home from work one day, I stopped at a red light next to an old woman with a weathered face holding a cardboard sign. She didn’t stare past me. She looked through my sunglasses and nodded. I hadn’t made extra sandwiches that day, and I had run out of granola bars. I had given away the blueberries to a two-year-old boy with a speech delay, coaxing him to form the word “more” with his lips. But I had an apple left over from my lunch.
I pushed my sunglasses to the top of my head, rolled down my window, and held out the apple. Her crinkly gaze met mine.
“Are you hungry?” I asked.
She stepped closer and smiled a wide, toothless grin. I almost dropped the apple.
I stammered, “Oh, you don’t have any teeth. I’m sorry, you probably can’t eat this.”
She took the apple, her leathery hand brushing against mine, her face a road map of wrinkles. She smiled even wider. I smiled back.
“Don’t you worry, honey,” she said. “I’m a gonna make me a pie.”
The photograph was taken in Southwest Detroit and is being used courtesy of The Alley Project. Check out the project’s Facebook page.