As I hurried across the street, I saw her approaching from half of a block away. Reflexively, I looked down, doing what I sometimes do when things get uncomfortable. Face the ground. Ignore what is so clearly right in front of me.
As she got closer, moving in my direction, I forced myself to look up, to make eye contact. I said hello.
She thrust a fist containing a few small coins toward me, pleading.
"Got any spare change so I can get a little something to eat?" She asked, smiling with a mouth that lacked much in the way of teeth.
She was frail with a close crop of greying hair, a filthy backpack slung over her shoulder, and a look about her that suggested addiction.
I paused, "I'd be happy to buy you something to eat.?" I suggested, never sure what the right thing to do is here. That struggle between giving her what she wants yet not wanting to hand over money that may well pay for a bottle of booze.
She fidgeted. She also needed bus fare, she said.
I paused again.
"We could get you something in the market. It's right there," I said, gesturing to the corner.
"Okay," she finally nodded. "Okay, that's good."
We crossed the street and headed inside.
"What do you feel like?" I asked. "A sandwich?"
She looked around.
"I'd like something sweet," She replied, bobbing her head up and down as she headed for the bakery section.
Something sweet? I found myself thinking, the practical me, the dietitian in me, judging. The last thing this woman needs is dessert.
I followed her to a counter lined with cakes and pies. She took in the offerings, finally resting her hand on a bakery box that housed a pie.
A whole pie.
"Lemon meringue pie?" I asked, "That's what you'd like?"
"Yeah," she sighed, "I'd like a pie."
I hestitated. All she wanted was a few quarters and now I'm in for an entire pie.
"Do you maybe want something from the cafe instead?" I asked, pointing to the coffee bar laden with cookies and scones."
"No. This is good," she said.
So I picked up the pie and we headed for the cash register. Lacking the cash to pay for a pie, I gave my credit card to the owner of the market, who was taking in the scene before her. I signed for the pie, picked up a plastic fork, and handed them both to the woman.
"Ah," she whispered, "Thank you,"
"You're welcome," I replied.
As I turned away, I felt strange. A little swindled, perhaps, and at the same time, sad about the inadequacy of a$22 pie for someone who needs so much more.
But as I kept walking, I found myself smiling. Imagining this woman heading down the sidewalk with her pie and fork. Where was she going? Would she share her pie? And the extravagance, the total impracticality, of choosing pie when you have nothing else.
I shook my head. Then went home to bake.
Photo credit: John Autry. Used with permission from Cooking Light