A Sidewalk Titan
Late one Monday afternoon, I did not decide to go down to the sea, I was not going to find my soul whaling, I was not going to row backwards with all my might into the jaws of hell, I was not going to face Ahab. I just wanted to go for a brief walk before dinner to get the ants out. A good excuse for that was to take my recyclables to the bins a few blocks away and dump them. And so, with my bag of squashed milk containers, I set off.
After waiting for the light at Luisenstraße, I crossed the street and swung into stride. Not far ahead, the figure of a woman, her back to me, stood motionless on the sidewalk between two shopping bags set on the pavement.
My neighborhood is not upper-crust. Bums are frequent. We could do nothing about it. A Penny store recently erected by the subway entrance – a brand-new, spanking clean Penny store meant to upmarket the place – had turned the corner into a hive of Russian vagrants. Where had they come from? Obviously, we couldn’t win. Our appeal for a certain type of population was worldwide.
Nor were we rich. My neighborhood harbors old people, poor people, ailing people, and a vocational school opposite the Penny store that belches out throngs of rude students at lunchtime, giving them a chance to smoke and drink beer squatted on apartment building steps, where they leave their bottles, butts, and half-eaten snacks. That is to say, they were not university students. That is to say, hope and bright visions of the future did not radiate from the faces you encountered here. Yes, the figure standing stock-still on the sidewalk thirty paces away was not unfamiliar: an aging woman, stunned to find herself too feeble to go any further, was reassessing, grimly, just how much farther she had to carry those bags.
As I approached, I was careful to catch a glimpse of her face to gauge how likely help might be wanted. People who don’t need help don’t like to be asked, I have learned. Her face was rough, florid, her mouth slack and twisted. Her dress and odor indicated she was not returning from a shopping trip; those shopping bags held the last of her worldly possessions. She reeked of stale alcohol. Assistance might well be in order.
Yet, I hesitated. While the coronavirus had made us all cautious, I have occasionally come across people who gave me the distinct impression of being infectious. At such encounters, you can’t help but draw back because those are the people you least want to be infected by, as if preferences in the matter made any difference. This woman fit into that category. The fact that her mask was parked recklessly under her chin only strengthened my misgiving. That mask was surely months old and teeming with germs, while I was not wearing mine. We no longer had to wear masks when we were outside. It took some effort to subdue the impulse to slip mine on even though I knew such abundance of caution simply to address a stranger in passing would surely seem cowardly, if not insulting.
“You doing okay?” I asked casually, giving her wide berth as I moved past.
The woman looked around and glared at me. Ascertaining that I had spoken to her, she barked: “Yes, I’m doing okay.” She bowed down to her bags, but did not pick them up.
“So you don’t need any help?” I asked.
She straightened up and looked around in a fury, as if disoriented, fooled, betrayed. “Munich is shit!” she screeched.
The sound was unnatural, like a buzz saw on sheet metal. And yet it was a voice, a woman’s voice, a wounded, wounding voice. Unnerved, I backed away.
“They’ve ruined it!” she shrieked, gesturing at the buildings all around, as if someone had cruelly rearranged things in her absence. If she had been gone for about fourteen years, then they had. The block right across the street had undergone a dramatic change in that time. The lugubrious, clammy, block-long Paleontology Institute with its curious ground-floor overhang providing superb quarters for legions of winter squatters was gone. In its place stood a bright, white, graceful apartment complex for which we were all grateful. It was the best thing that had happened in our neck of the woods and the only architectural endeavor I ever hailed as an improvement over what it had replaced. The area had changed, I had to grant her that, but had hardly been ruined.
“Munich is too big!” she ranted. “I’m supposed to be in Augsburg! Augsburg!”
Well, she wasn’t in Augsburg. I said nothing.
“The shit train didn’t stop in Augsburg!” she fumed, taking in again the strange area.
The urge to put on my Corona mask returned. Again, I suppressed it. The gesture would have been tactless under the circumstances. I just wanted to know if she could manage on her own or would like some kind of assistance.
“I have to go to the Schwanthalerstraße,” she said.
“That’s a long way from here,” I replied.
That caused her to explode.
“It’s right here!” She stamped a foot. “Right here!”
She buckled to one of her bags, pulled out a sheet of notebook paper, and straightened up. Holding the sheet taut between her two hands, she thrust it out where she could get a good look at it – arm’s length, slightly above eye level – and stared at it. There was writing on it. I could see a short list of addresses. One of them was Schwanthalerstraße.
“Schwanthalerstraße!” she screeched. “Schwanthalerstraße! I know exactly where I am and that’s right here!”
She certainly was right here, but nowhere near the Schwanthalerstraße. I simply stood and waited.
“I am right here,” she repeated, her passion intensifying. “And I’m going to the women’s shelter and it’s right here! Right here! Hmph!” she muttered. She lowered the paper to her thighs. “Somewhere. Where is it?” The squall had passed. Pacific winds whispered over the waters. She had transformed into simple supplicant.
“Where’s what?” I asked.
“JESUS CHRIST!” Her cry ruptured the air, rendering mild anything she had uttered so far. “The women’s shelter!” she screeched, then stopped, once again perfectly calm. She had worn herself out, and me, too. My heart was pounding.
“There’s a women’s shelter back there,” I replied, pointing back the way I had just come. A women’s shelter was housed right across the street from the entrance to my apartment building. I had passed it in coming to this crossroads where modern Munich was colliding with this woman’s rock-solid, but incorrect, orientation.
“Rubbish!” the woman brayed. “It’s there! Up there! Right up there!”
“Right up where?” I asked, thoroughly puzzled.
“Is there a church up there?” she asked meekly.
“That’s where it is,” she said.
“Okay.” That was plausible. There was a church up there. Churches did things like shelters.
“So where is it?” she asked.
“Where’s what?” I asked again. I wasn’t the one who was so sure a women’s shelter was up there. She was.
“The church!” she bellowed.
“That’s right up here,” I answered confidently. “Thirty-four Karlstraße.”
She squinted in that direction. “How far is that?”
“It’s just right up here–”
“I know! I know!” she cawed as if that’s exactly how she could and, this time, would knock me down. “I know exactly where to go! I go down this street and cross–”
“No,” I corrected. “ You don’t–”
“JESUS CHRIST!” The storms of Hades were upon us once again.
I merely stopped and waited, my heart again beating fast. The woman’s voice was indeed terrible, the volume unearthly.
She raised her arm high overhead then slowly lowered it like a spirit level until it pointed, like nothing else in this world could, straight down that sidewalk. The gesture was steady, unerring, formidable. “I go down here,” she said.
“That’s right,” I agreed.
“And cross the street–”
“No, you don’t–”
“JESUS CHRIST!” Another detonation. “I cross the street.”
Unwilling to contradict again, I simply said, “The church is right here.”
“Where?” She had the oddest way of shedding the most furious tirades to become that mild, inquisitive spirit asking a simple question genuinely seeking information, some of the time.
“Right here.” I pointed vaguely down the street. I wasn’t exactly sure where the church was, but I did know it was there. That I did. And you did not cross the street to get to it.
She huffed, her eyes rekindling, thoroughly disgusted with having to deal with an oaf like me. “Jesus Christ!” But it was also tiring her out. “Where?” she asked simply.
“On the right or on the left?” she coaxed.
“On the left. Down here on the left.”
That got through to her. So she didn’t have to cross a street. But instead of heaving up her load and setting off as the virago she sounded like, she stood dithering between her shopping bags. She was a short, spindly, badly used woman, no muscle, no fat, kind of rubbery. She wore an oversized, short-sleeved shirt and a worn gray skirt of a thin, knitted fabric. She had large, bright-blue, red-rimmed eyes. Her beach-blondish, jaw-length hair was in complete disarray. It had somehow gotten tangled up with the mask’s straps that were looped around her ears. A strand of hair hung down alongside her face that she never brushed away. She wore low, plain shoes but no socks. Her legs were bare. She might have been fifty.
“So you okay?” I asked, getting ready to move off, but paused. She had bent down and was gingerly dragging one of her bags over to me. I got the message.
“Would you like me to carry that for you?”
“Please,” she said, in that supple change of tone that was rather disarming.
As I reached down to grasp the bag’s straps, the bulldog was back.
“In the middle! In the middle!” she screeched, reaching out with both her hands to slide my hand to where it happened to be.
“I have it in the middle,” I told her, moving most of me away from most of her as best I could. The woman had gotten very near, and it alarmed me to think that we had been in close proximity for some time now. I would really rather have had my mask on at that point. But she was dragging the other shopping bag over to me. Now I was beginning to feel like camel. Couldn’t she at least carry that one? She seemed vigorous enough. No, I was to carry both.
As I reached down for the second bag, she went into another frenzy.
“In the middle! In the middle!” she shrieked. Again, she used both her hands to try to place my hand on those straps exactly where it happened to be: in the middle. Where else do you grab shopping bag handles, for heaven’s sake?
“I have it in the middle,” I protested, thinking I had had just about enough of this lady. Yes, I had asked if I could help her and, yes, I was bound to see the simple task through, but couldn’t we just get on with it?
As I straightened and lifted the bags, I understood why I was carrying them. They weighed a ton. Glancing down into one, I glimpsed the dark gleam of a bottle of booze under some frivolous covering. Had she come all the way from the train station with these?
As we started toward our destination, I couldn’t help noticing the woman’s peculiar forward motion. Though spare, she waddled slightly, moving her arms from side to side in wide lateral arcs as if she were handling a hoola hoop, and she was careful to keep her elbows high, as if she were wading through rib-high eternity to get to that shelter. And she limped, the cause of the waddle.
“You have a problem with your foot?” I asked, wondering how she had ever carried the bags any distance at all.
“Yeah,” she said, but didn’t complain about that. Instead, she mentioned she had been a healthcare worker taking care of some old, ailing person and had gotten sick of it and quit because that had been shit. Then she mentioned something about being outside was no good and sleep – no sleep.
We approached a man who lay sprawled half-conscious against the wall bordering the churchyard. Although in my eyes it was a creature not so far removed from her own circumstances, she spewed invective all over him. I did my best to calm her down and hurry her past. Within just a few steps we arrived at the church.
“Here we are!” I exclaimed, overjoyed. I put down her bags – gently – and looked up at the plain brick building fronted by an impressive stone portico.
My announcement only elicited abuse from my limping chum, who said I knew nothing about direction or addresses or where she had to go, which was –
“See?” I pointed to the metal plaque mounted on the building above our heads. “Thirty-four Karlstraße. This is the church. St. Boniface.”
I had to repeat my words twice before she stopped her complaining and stared up at the number, but I don’t think she could see it.
“And see here?” I pointed to a large, handsome sign that served as a divider between the church driveway and the parallel walkway that led back along the side of the church. The sign listed all the services that awaited those who would simply turn left into the church’s deep courtyard.
“Homeless shelter,” I read, tapping the sign’s plexiglass covering where those words appeared. Glory be! There really was a homeless shelter here. That I had doubted.
She stared at the sign, but didn’t seem to see it either. I picked up the bags and turned in. She refused to move, bleating that this wasn’t right. Two woman were exiting the courtyard at that moment on the other side of the sign.
“Excuse me,” I addressed them. “Is there a homeless shelter in here?”
They smiled pleasantly, sanely, helpfully. “It’s all the way at the back, where that high-lift is. On the left.”
I thanked them, lifted the bags, which were getting pretty heavy, and lumbered down the walkway. My ragged, blond friend grudgingly tagged along. Halfway down she stopped and pointed left.
“It’s here,” she cried.
“No,” I said. “It’s down here and–”
We were at it again. I explained that the shape of the arrow on the sign she was looking at indicated we were to go straight and then left, not left and then straight. She did not believe me. Wearily, I followed her to the door that she insisted was the shelter door. It was not. I got her turned around and walking toward the very back of the courtyard where we had been told the entrance to the shelter was. I pointed out to her the text beside that door. She positioned herself directly below the sign and stared up at it. Meanwhile I pressed all the buzzers there were to press, but my heart had already sunk. The place looked pretty deserted. Then I actually read the sign myself – this particular emergency homeless shelter closed at 4:30 p.m.
“I think it’s closed,” I told her sadly.
She pointed up at the sign. “They’re open. They’re open. They close at 4:30.”
“It’s nearly six,” I informed her.
She stared at me. A pillar of salt could not have looked more formidable. A workman walked by. Here was my big chance. Hurriedly, I drew out my mask and put it on.
“Excuse me,” I called out to him.
At that moment, my friend approached him as well.
“Abstand! Abstand!” the workman cried, holding out a stiff arm as if warding off, well, a pestilence. The woman savvily kept her distance.
The well-informed workman had bad news and good news. Due to the coronavirus, the homeless shelter no longer accepted women and, as so tragically observed just moments before, was closed. But he knew where the women’s shelter was and began giving us directions to it. I lit up.
“Across the streetcar tracks on the left,” I said, recalling the modest building very clearly. I passed it often.
“That’s it,” he nodded and moved rapidly on, none too reluctant to put Abstand between himself and us. “The Karla,” he said, but added: “You better get a move on.”
I guess that emergency shelter had office hours, too? I reflected anxiously.
“Will you come with me?” the woman asked.
“Of course,” I said, thankful I could keep my mask on without calling attention to being overly guarded. I bent to heave the bags again, but was feeling the strain. We had three long city blocks to cover and the shelter closed when? What would I do with her if that was closed as well? We had to hurry. But we couldn’t.
Back on the street, I increased the tempo and my chum tried to keep up, but she was limping badly now, slowing our pace to nearly zero. Sure enough, we had taken only a few steps in our new direction when she stopped.
“Where is it?” she asked, frowning. Her mask, slung under her chin like a wet rag, looked idiotically misplaced, but that’s how we all looked now. Her forehead glistened with sweat.
I pointed straight ahead. “Past that streetlight” – the light I had crossed antebellum my encounter with this woman.
She squinted in that direction.
“And past the next streetlight and on the left right after that,” I clarified.
It was about three hundred yards. She stared for some moments, then steeled herself for the next toe of the journey. I bent down to lift the bags yet again, but recoiled. Something was upon me. It was the woman. She was stroking my arm.
“You’re being very nice,” she purred, patting my arm gently.
Maybe I was, but I didn’t want her stroking my arm. It didn’t last long. She had already straightened up, squared off all over again, and this time proceeded to limp forward, aided by that deliberate, lateral swing of her arms. Her face rumpled in determination, her forehead dripping with sweat, she waxed loquacious.
“I believe in Jesus,” she said.
She also confided that she hadn’t bathed in four weeks and mentioned sleep again, or lack of it: she hadn’t slept too well because you can’t sleep out on the street. And she divulged that she had been permitted to stay on the farm of a relative for several weeks – the four weeks she hadn’t bathed?
By now we had reached the man sprawled on the sidewalk. He hadn’t moved. As we passed, she again so lathered him with invective that he woke from his drunken stupor to tell her to shut up. I shepherded her toward the traffic light, the only traffic light that figures in this entire, sad story. Crossing that would be a milestone and I was keen to do it. But three paces from the curb – the light was green – she stomped on the ground, straddled her weight decisively across her wide-set feet, thrust her hips forward to buttress her stance, and folded her arms. “We’re stopping right here,” she announced. And we did. And we waited. First for the light to turn red, then for the light to turn green. Eventually, it did turn green. I bent to grasp the bags.
“In the middle! In the middle!” she scolded me.
We crossed the street – reaching block two of our three-block Odyssey – and entered the corner of Russian bums. She noticed every one, sized each one up, and as she passed spat at each like a cornered cat. I hurried her past as benignly as I could when an enormous relief washed over me.
“Why look!” I exclaimed, putting down the bags.
She squinted in the direction I was pointing.
“The Karla,” I read aloud. “The Karla! The women’s shelter.” It was the very shelter I had pointed out to her at the outset of this laborious quest. The workman hadn’t been wrong. I knew there was a Karla further down across the streetcar tracks, but apparently it was popular, necessitating this branch outfit. Right here. Not to be mistaken. Frauenobdach. Notunterkunft. This was it.
The woman crept up very close to the building and looked up at the words on the mailbox. Convinced, she collected her bags, heaved them up onto the doorstep, pulled on her mask, hunched down, grabbed both bags by the handles, leaned into the door with a single-minded determination I have rarely witnessed in any human being, and waited. Rapidly, I pressed all the buzzers. And pressed them again. And again. An answering buzzer sounded from within. She continued leaning against the heavy door, I now pushed from behind, and lo and behold, the door opened. Lo and behold, she stepped inside with her bags. Lo and behind, she was in a clean, well-lit, quiet vestibule.
I waited to see if she wanted me to come in with her. She did not. But when she did turn to me, it surprised me very much to see that her blue eyes were soft and glowing. She smiled crookedly. “You have been very nice to me,” she said with a hushed warmth I would never have expected.
“I hope you sleep well,” I responded sincerely.
Still smiling, eyes aglow, she turned and crouched to her bags. The door shut behind her. I was free to attend to my used plastics. As I retraced my steps to the recycle bins, that mysterious glow made me ponder. It told me she was safe now; she had gained sanctuary; she was no longer afraid. And that stung. Yes, I had helped her, but for the wrong reasons. Throughout the encounter, I had humored her as a coarse, befuddled vagrant. But I had been so wrong. She wasn’t a vagrant. She was a lone, penniless woman who was terrified of being caught out in a world of homeless men when night fell. What I perceived as coarseness had been desperation. And she had been anything but befuddled. She knew exactly what she had to do: get to a women’s shelter no matter what do-gooding moron Jesus sent along to help her get there. And she had managed it. The titan had earned at least one sound night’s sleep.