I am sitting in a Starbucks at the intersection of Battery and Clay on a hazy Monday morning. I’ve claimed a coveted seat beside the window, a station from which I feel safe. It is my second week at a new job. It isn’t going poorly, but it isn’t going well.
On the other side of the glass, a woman in a wheelchair wears an off-white jacket and gray and pink tennis shoes, a plaid blanket on her legs, stocking cap perched on her head. In her lap is a Subway sandwich, a coffee cup, a paper sack, and then nothing.
In one hand she holds a red folder marked with blue Sharpie. It reads “NEED $, Can you help?” There is a list of suggestions: food, gift cards, and a third I can’t make out. I don’t want to stare that long, don’t want to see her the way she wants to be seen. Instead, I sit sipping my latte.
I have been struggling with my own sense of power. I feel unseen shoved in a small stuffy office with a sticky second-hand keyboard and a printer that is always out of toner. I feel helpless. Useless.
The woman outside rips flakes of pastry from a butter croissant, tossing them to a party of pigeons. Three or four gather. A fifth stays all morning, even after the pastry is gone. Like the leper who came back to say thank you.
I take another sip of latte and stare into the screen of my Chromebook, the window through which I view a world where it is easy to hide what I don’t want to see.
One week later I am at BART. My hands grope for my wallet as I rush down the stairs. Why can’t I find my wallet? Three feet from the turnstile I remember I’d put it in my gym bag that morning. No money. No cards. I’m stranded in the city.
“Of course,” says the big man with the tan skin and dark hair, pulling two quarters from his pocket, handing them off with a smile. “Thank you,” I say. “Thank you so much.”
Weeks later, I cross the intersection of Battery and Clay and pass the woman in the wheelchair. Today she is wearing a dark green sweatshirt, no stocking cap. I drop a “good morning” as I move toward the door and she catches it in her tiny blue eyes. I ask if she’d like something and she wonders if she can have a gift card. I hesitate, explain that I’m paying with an app on my phone. I’m not sure if I can get gift cards. We settle on an extra caramel caramel macchiato.
“My name is Cindy,” she says, offering a thin hand.
“Amanda,” I say, taking it.
The light in Cindy’s voice surprises me on a morning I was planning for clouds. She marvels that I can purchase coffee from my phone. I marvel at it myself. We chat and I end up telling her about the day I lost my wallet, the day I was stranded at BART.
“What did you do?” she asks, as if she believes I might not make it.
“I had to beg for money,” I say, the words just slipping out.
“Good for you,” says Cindy. “That takes a lot of chutzpah.”
I say I suppose it does, doesn’t it? And I think chutzpah is somehow a balance for humility.
I go into Starbucks, sit down by the window, and open my Chromebook. I write about my experience with Cindy. On my way out I order an extra caramel caramel macchiato and pay for it with my phone.
Carroll, currently working toward her M.F.A. in Creative Nonfiction at Saint Mary’s, has worked with Diablo and San Francisco magazines, facilitated classes in memoir writing, and served as the creative nonfiction editor for MARY: A Journal of New Writing.