It’s true what they say about living in a big busy city. It makes you numb to all kinds of weirdness. It takes a lot to get a double-take out of its citizens. Forget eye-contact, you’re dreaming. The other day, midweek midday, I was walking down Queen West (I know, stop right there) hauling a bagful of some old clothes to sell at a consignment store (’cause I’m thrifty like that), and I passed right by two women completely topless doing some kind of man-on-the-street interviews with passerby. I believe they had a camera man too. I just thought ‘meh another day another weirdo’.
Later that same week, though, I saw something that stopped me in my tracks. There is a mosque two blocks from my place. I’ve been in there once, just out of curiosity, and attended Friday prayer. I kept my hijab on most of that afternoon, I remember, just to check out how it feels. It felt like I had cloth on my head all afternoon.
So, there I am walking down the block in front of the mosque, and I see this black robed figure, head to toe in black except for a slit for the eyes, sitting on the ground by one of the windows. One of her hands is outstretched, and in her palm are a few coins. It was bizarre and truly unexpected to see a completely covered Muslim woman sitting begging outside a mosque. I could barely keep up with all the explanations sprinting through my head. My immediate thought was that she must be a new immigrant, had some kind of falling out with family or a nasty husband, and run off to the only place that seemed safest. But then why not go in? For that matter, why were the mosque-people not taking her in? Was she being shunned? Why? Perhaps they had offered to take her in, and she had refused, for her own complicated reasons. Why wouldn’t she go to a women’s shelter? Or why wouldn’t they direct her to go to a women’s shelter? Bottom line, she’s their responsibility, not mine, right? Else why install herself at their doorstep?
All that happened in the space of about half a block of me walking, occasionally turning back to look, make sure I hadn’t imagined the scene. I hadn’t. She was still there, a small mound of black fabric, one thin hand turned palm up to the sky and passersby.
I visualized all kinds of ways I could rescue her. I could go there and ask her if she needed a place to sleep. And take her to my place, and have her sleep in the living room, on condition that during the daytimes she couldn’t stay there by herself. We’d leave together in the morning, and in the evenings she could come back to sleep, for however long she needed to. Then I remembered. I don’t really have any movable valuables in the living room, but there are three knives in the kitchen, not to mention some hardcovers on the bookshelf. Plus, my bedroom door doesn’t lock. What if she tries to kill me in my sleep? Well, one would think I would wake up quite soon after she gets started, but what if I spring into defensive action too late?
Right on the heels of that, my urban-cynic (the red horned one with hooved feet and a pitchfork that lives on my other shoulder) kicked in full gear. How do I knew she is even Muslim? Or that she’s even in real trouble? Maybe she is a total badass and put on the robe and head covering as a disguise, as a way to get naive people like me to offer up my place Airbnb style? How to know if it’s even a ‘she’? Maybe it’s an actor, or some righteous prick doing some kind of social experiment.
This line of thinking helped me to keep walking away the second, third, etc. time that I saw her, one of those reinforced by a friend who I purposely took on a walk down that block just to see if she was there and to confer as to what we (yes, at least now it was a ‘we’) should do.
The next time I saw her (what’s that now, fourth?), there was a light rain, and she was using a piece of cardboard as a cover. Someone had given her a five dollar bill. The blue matched the blue of her dusty rubber slipper that showed under the hem of her robe. That gave me an idea. I would buy an umbrella and give it to her. I would just leave it at her feet. I tried to think of where one could get a cheap umbrella. I had no more success than I had when I had tried to think of where I could get a cheap umbrella for myself, every time during the past year when I had home-repaired my banged up dollar-store umbrella that my purse zipper had even taken a bite out of. I came up just as blank as I had then. That’s the annoying thing about umbrellas, the bad ones start falling apart after one use but somehow you can’t manage to lose them, and the good ones last forever…just with someone else since you lose them after one use. So, neither possibly-fake-panhandler nor cheapskate-urbandweller got a new umbrella. The rain stopped, the day ended, and life went on.
Today, I saw her again for the first time in a while. She was standing in front of one of the recessed windows of the mosque like some kind of dark spectre. When later I return down the same road, if she is still there, I will do something. This is it. Not sure what that will be. Money? Food? Conversation? A place to sleep during the daytime when I will be wide awake? The other day on my way back from the grocery I left a banana for someone, but he was face-exposed and fast asleep on a grate, plus he was white so for sure no one was obligated to have his back, plus it helped me feel superior to the couple who were sitting by the window in the sushi restaurant right in front.
Umbrella it is. I have this old one I’ve been trying to lose.