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Reversals of Fortune

This picture has nothing to do with the post. Taken today simply because it was beautiful.

Let’s clear the air and state the obvious: lately, the norm seems to be that I am not writing these posts during the week as I had. Life has been busy all around and I have neither had a topic in mind nor had the time to cultivate one, leading me straight to a deadline dilemma. Regardless of this current trend, I shall press on. My goal is to post a blog entry weekly to keep readers engaged while I am on this journey. To keep this promise of progress, this week’s post may seem a bit off topic… and I think it is ok. The story is always the thread to anything I write.

Yesterday, I returned to work after having taken off Tuesday. When I opened my office door, I noticed a large brown paper bag filled with something under my desk. I wasn’t too alarmed, but definitely curious. I knew in a matter of minutes I would have an explanation in an email, so I didn’t bother to look in the bag. My lady boss (who I love like family) was going to be off for the rest of the week. We were going to miss each other at the middle of a high anxiety week at work and she always downloads to us before she is gone for a significant period of time. In her download to me, she tells me that I had a care package delivered and she kindly tucked it under my desk along with the card. Immediately two scenarios pop in mind, 1. Someone sent me something specifically, because normally if something is sent as a “thank you” for the entire office, it is addressed to the department or 2. My dear friend/colleague who had texted, looking for me while I was off, mentioned that she had something for me and perhaps this was said something.

In my absence, there were a lot of emails that I decided to read before I did anything else. Finally it was time, I slid the bag out from its hiding place and pulled out a huge beautifully wrapped gift basket from a high end, local grocery store. The card was certainly addressed to me. I opened the envelope and it was a very nice thank you from a curator from one of the major exhibitions that just ended. For some reason I was perplexed because for some strange reason, I took everything literally. The fact that it was assumed already that it was for me, the department itself not being addressed on the envelope and the nice, but general thank you, all left me at a loss. I have personally received “thank you” gifts and gestures over my 10 years here, but mostly the “thank you” has been for the entire office.

Is this for me, or is this for us? Sad to say, but I needed to phone a friend (text). Well two people were needed. I gave them both the replay of events and sent a picture of the card and basket in question. The consensus was that it could be assumed it was solely for me based on the context of the information provided. I on the other hand, even in the confusion, knew that I was good at my job, but perhaps not that good that my coworkers would have been left out of the praise. I also knew that the curator, who is a generous and thoughtful was not necessarily going to spread that kind of dough around for a few baskets and “thank yous.” These shows are more than paper work and phone calls and artist wrangling; my coworkers also work very hard to install the exhibitions. I can honestly say that I was sitting strongly on the fence about this but I knew that the only way to confirm was to ask. No matter the outcome, the basket was addressed to me and it was my duty to reply with my own thank you for this act of kindness. It would be in the email that I would ask but not without making it clear that this may be slightly tasteless and down and out whack if I was nowhere within reason for having to ask this.

After carefully composing my email, I send it, all with the vision of seeing the email being read by the reader thinking “come on Carla, you are good, but not that good!” Luckily the response came pretty quick. Indeed it was for the entire office and in hindsight, I don’t know why I wouldn’t have thought it could have been only that. Sometimes we want to feel singled out and special perhaps. With this confirmation, I took the basket out and placed in on the coffee table in the sitting area. Now that is was on display, I could see it in all of its glory. Neatly tucked in the basket laid sea salt caramels, biscotti, gingersnaps, chocolates, rosemary flat bread crackers, a jam, etc. In the typical food fashion in my office, once it is out, it is opened and the rest is a quick flurry of piranha like frenzy. The loveliness demolished to crumbs and untied ribbons.

Minutes after the feeding was under way, my dear friend/colleague that was in search of me walked into the office. She was not empty handed. She too had a brown paper bag of her own that was for me. No questions asked, not for the office. Some time ago, we had ventured out after work to catch up at the local brewpub (which we have to do more often). The brew I tried that night was exceptionally tasty and happened to be one of her picks as well. During the course of the evening, she mentioned that she buys it for her home. Inside the bag was that exact, a lovely 6 pack of Beazly Ale she purchased just for me. How crazy was this? First, I couldn’t thank her enough. It was extremely thoughtful of her. The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away. In a matter of hours I felt like an egomaniac, humbled and valued again all over these items presented to me, all of which were given out of kindness.

What a strange morning. It is not every day that I get one almost treat for me, then one real treat for me. There was a lot of work to catch up. All day, out of the side of my eye, it was like I was in a glass bottom boat, watching from my inside window, everyone coming to pick at the basket. I was quite amused by it all, especially knowing that the one person that tucked it away won’t get a bite of any of it. It will mostly be close to dregs by the time she returns next week. This office is a clearinghouse for food, between the always-hungry dudes, the underfed works study and the junk food junkies like myself, nothing has a chance here.

Ok, let’s fast-forward towards the end of the day. After lunch, I went to the restroom (I drink a lot of water). When I walked in, I barely noticed a woman in the mirror. Quite frankly, I didn’t pay much attention to her because there is always someone standing at the sink or using the mirror. She spoke to me as I went into the stall. Ok. No biggie. I responded. It was something like, “ Hello, how are you today?” I figured she was friendly and it may have been in response to my half acknowledgement. I paused a bit when she was still talking to me while I was using the bathroom. Male readers, I don’t know what happens in your restrooms, you may talk to each other or not. I don’t know. For me, my restroom etiquette depends on the context of the situation. I apologize if this is TMI, but I think women tend to continue to talk to each other if you know each other, but I didn’t know her. She also started to have a serious conversation and I didn’t exactly know when the prompt would be to flush the toilet. It would have seemed rude. “Blah blah, important speak, life story…” FLUSH. I couldn’t wait any longer because the idea of waiting for what would have been an appropriate pause could have had me in there longer than I intended.

In that short time in the stall, I came to some quick conclusions based only on the conversation. I truly didn’t look at her at all when I walked in, so her voice and the conversation was all I had to go by. When I walked out, I was almost on target. She was down on her luck and it showed. I washed my hands and again had to make some major noise with the hand dryer. Now, I was going to give her my undivided attention. It was obvious that she was in the bathroom to freshen up. At the point I came in the bathroom, she must have been applying her sky blue eyeliner because she was now finishing up. Make up does this funny thing for women, no matter the face; it gives you a little hope and glamour. On the floor nearby was a duffle bag. I didn’t see the need to look, but I could tell that whatever was in there was important to her. We shook hands and introduced ourselves. I fought my initial urge to leave because we all have a story and we all have the right to be heard.

It was literally 2 days ago, that I had a conversation aloud that I have to myself everyday about the people that I see everyday on the streets on my way to and from work. Even in my jadedness living in a city where this is common, it is always a difficult thing to witness. Homelessness manifests itself differently in major cities. Here, the high visibility of homelessness is evident at the intersections by the multi-corner panhandling. In the past, the faces looked the same at the red light. It was an older man, black or white. Then the trend was still older, but now some were disabled. Soon after, it seemed like the homeless population now included young white men that looked like college kids, whose signs read that they were veterans. Now, more and more I am seeing women, young women, who I feel even more empathy towards, because it much easier to say, that could be me. What circumstances have lead them to being out in the street with a sign asking for help and living in a tent on the side of the highway? Where are their family and friends? Have these bridges been burned? It was just last week that I changed my route because I saw one young woman that hit too close to home. It disturbed me enough that I couldn’t cope with how to process my reaction and the easiest thing I could do the next day was to avoid it.

This encounter I am now having in the restroom was my opportunity to act instead of avoid. Her story continued and she tells me about her life and how she panhandles. I asked her where, even though I assumed it had to be close by and it was. She panhandles up the street at the intersection leading to the highway. She and her 20-year-old son live in a tent on the hill and their goal for the day is to collect $30.00 a day so they can stay in a hotel room instead. I am pretty sure I know where their tent is and I think I may have seen them before when I was crossing the intersection on the way to run an errand at lunch. Also during the conversation she tells me that she is 40 years old and pregnant and has been clean for 1 year 11 months and some days. I was surprised by this news. I will turn 40 years old in May and life has aged her considerably already, she looked like she could have been 20 years older. 40 years of life has touched us extremely differently. That could be me. We have had the same amount of time on Earth to become whom we were standing in front of each other.

At the end of the conversation, we hugged. Not that she asked but I told her that I didn’t have any cash, but it happened that I could get her something to eat to take with her. The only thing she did ask for was something to drink, which I didn’t have. We did however have clean cups that she could use for water from the filter system out front and I told her I would be right back. I returned to the office and rooted around in the basket we just received for the rosemary flatbread. It was a sizable container and it wasn’t perishable so it should last a while. I grabbed a cup from the cabinet and went back to the restroom, almost daring someone from my office to say something to me about taking that food and giving it away. When I handed it off, I knew there was a lot more I could have done and almost felt guilty. Yes, even though I didn’t have cash, I could have gotten cash out at the atm conveniently in front of the restroom and or bought her food at the café steps away. I beat myself up way too much. I did what made sense to me at the time. I know the result of her being out there on the streets was more than the possibility of one day’s worth of money could have fixed had I given it to her, her help was beyond our one encounter. To me, if anything, showing that I cared, and that she was valued as a person may have been enough. Even today, that was all I think mattered to me. It was never the content of that basket, it was thinking that someone appreciated me and thought that I mattered enough. In the end, I got that from my friend, who so graciously let me know that she thought about me by getting that 6 pack of beer. She didn’t have to do that. That meant a lot. I know now where to look if I want to help and I will keep an eye out for her. I realized I never told her old I was. I imagine she would have thought the same about how different our lives were at 40 years old. At the time, the differences didn’t matter. We were two strange women having a conversation in the restroom. You can’t get any more ordinary than that.

*Shout out to :

Super generous curator

Best boss lady friend

Best brew friend who I need to spend more time with because I miss you

Best bbq boo for listening to my rants about guilt over my feelings about jadeness and homelessness

Woman in the restroom who reminded me how fortunate I am and how we all have a story

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