No bag lady

Larry Zaroff
Stanford University, Palo Alto, California, United States

 

umbrella

Photography by Jose Manuel Rios Valiente

I can not call her a bag lady though she wanders through our town of 7,000 homeless. She has no bags, preferring to clang along pushing a Safeway cart piled with suitcases and several large bottles of water. Starkly open, an emaciated blood-red umbrella affixed to the cart dangles like a beach chair. A hard cover copy of Moby Dick, embedded in a zip lock bag, sits at the top of her belongings: “I feel like the whale, someone is always after me,” Sally explains.

She is beyond clean; so scrubbed pink, she could open an abdomen. She has shower privileges at a gentleman’s home, but refuses the use of a room, worried about “the physical.” Unadorned except for an attempt at lipstick—faint, peachy—Sally’s gold hair, medium length, nicely cut, is a fit partner for her unlined, round face. A solid looking woman, she appears in her mid-forties; her voice, soft, courteous, belongs to a librarian. Always in motion, a serious walker, seemingly free of gravity, restless out of God-knows-what cerebral disability, she can not be restrained, pausing only to sleep or to eat. When I asked about her devout walking, she pointed out that her father was a famous walker, “It’s in my chromosomes.” Aside from her father, she does not mention family or friends—mysterious in origin, an endangered species.

She never passes anyone in town without a greeting by their first name. Thousands of names. She demands with her politeness a response. “Yes, Sally.” “Good morning, Sally.” “How are you, Sally?” If names are not exchanged, she knows that the person is a visitor or a tourist. Sally regards anyone she does not recognize as a culprit. She parks her cart in a doorway and follows suspects for blocks until she is satisfied that they are not pickpockets or burglars. She explained to me that she was most concerned about another Lindberg. When I asked a local cop about Sally, who is never harassed, he grinned and said, “We think of her as an asset.”

If the police department never bothers Sally, social service makes up for their nonchalance. At least once a week, someone asks her if she wishes to spend the night in a shelter or move to an apartment. Her answer is always “No, I am afraid of shelters, and I like the freedom of the outdoors; social engineering is not my bag.” Yes, she uses the word “bag.” Though the temperature drops to the low 40s, she sleeps outdoors under an old oak in the small park in the town center. A shredded blue poncho serves as her tent. On occasion, a nasty cold rainy night drives her to the local laundromat, where the owner allows her to sleep if she arrives after midnight.

Never asking, never begging, Sally always seems well-fed. The locals like her, often surreptitiously giving her 10 or 20 dollars. If someone makes a show of giving her money, she refuses, proclaiming, “I don’t take handouts.” She is dignified, serious, never annoying, going about her business, which is walking as if she were mayor. Her clothes are spotless, matched in color, stylish but scant, hardly enough to withstand the winter. Noticing her thin garb on a windy January day, a long-time resident offered her a jacket, one of those fiber-filled that hikers and students wear. She refused, claiming a devotion to wearing “only wool, organic, natural, you know.”

Every few months, Sally passes out a leaflet explaining her situation to familiar residents and her favorite merchants. She had been unfairly deprived of money and prestige for developing the cell phone and the Visa card. I could not be but amazed at how she could conjure up two such divergent beliefs, engineering and marketing. One restless day I asked Sally to explain this paradox. She softly smiled as if addressing a second-grader: “I am a graduate of Vassar and a Renaissance woman,” strolling away, I swear, with a swagger.

In late September Sally disappeared. Everyone noticed. I asked, as did my local friends. The town seemed less robust without its ubiquitous wanderer. As if the Vesuvian fountain in the center of town had been turned off, the streets she prowled appeared half-deserted; the local merchants were wistful, missing greetings; the police noticed fewer complaints and seemed bored.

Weeks later a doctor who worked the emergency department in the county hospital told me Sally had been brought in by an ambulance because of an epileptic seizure. He said that, while in hospital, she complained whenever asked to take her anti-convulsion medication. When Sally reappeared on our streets, I asked about her illness. She explained that she had had “spells,” but was now fine, perfect.

“What about the medicine the hospital gave you?” I asked.

“Oh, I don’t need that, it slows me down, I want to be unpruned.”

 


 

LARRY ZAROFF, MD, PhD has had five careers following his residency and his two years in the US Army Surgical Research Unit. He focused for 29 years on cardiac surgery, including a stint as director of the cardiac surgical research laboratory at Harvard. There his work centered on the development of the demand pacemaker. He spent the next 10 years concentrating on climbing and did a first ascent of Chulu West, a 22,000-foot peak on the Nepal-Tibet border. His third life has been at Stanford, where he received a PhD in 2000 and where he teaches courses in medical humanities. His fourth career has been as a writer for the New York Times science section. He now works one day a week as a volunteer family doctor. He has received awards as the outstanding faculty advisor for the Human Biology program and in 2006 was honored as Stanford’s Teacher of the Year. He also serves on the editorial board of Hektoen International.