Agency

4388767306_e392e9202dI am sitting in a Starbucks at the intersection of Battery and Clay, not far from the Embarcadero on a hazy Monday morning in February. I have procured one of the coveted seats at the wooden bar along the window, a station from which I feel powerful and peaceful. It is week two of my second editorial internship, and I’m trying to figure out why these first dozen days have been so demanding and draining, why the slowness of the Internet and the frustration of my editor’s apathy have been enough to shake my confidence and put me all out of sorts.

On the other side of the glass, less than five feet away, is a woman in a wheelchair with an off-white jacket and gray and pink tennis shoes. Her legs are wrapped in a blue plaid blanket. She wears an eggplant-colored stocking cap rimmed in rainbow chevrons with one fuzzy ball at the top and two more hanging down either side of her face.

In her lap is Subway sandwich, then a baby pink bag from Starbucks, the same shade of pink as the scarf draped around her neck. The bag is replaced by a brown paper sack, then a coffee cup, then nothing. In less than five minutes time, over a dozen people pass between us.

A woman with rusty red hair, glasses, and a newsboys cap carries a tray of danishes to her office. She offers one to the woman in the wheelchair who shakes her chevroned head “no.” The red-haired woman carries on, a black Macy’s bag slung over her should as she tramps across the cross-walk.

The woman in the chair retrieves the dainty pink Starbucks bag from a plastic sack behind her chair, her storehouse for the day. She pulls out a butter croissant and rips off flakes of pastry, tossing them to a party of pigeons. Three or four gather around for the feeding. A fifth stays all morning, even after the pastry is gone like the leper who came back to say thank you.

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In her hands is a red two-pocket folder, folded inside out and marked with blue and red Sharpe. In large legible writing it reads “NEED $, Can you help?” In the upper right corner is a bulletted list of suggestions: Food, Gift Cards, and a third that I can’t make out. I don’t want to look that hard or stare that long, don’t want to see her the way that she wants to be seen. Instead I sit sipping my latte.

Another woman stops to chat–tight gray jeans with a white floral print, light gray jacket and a bright red back pack.

I have been moody the past two weeks. Frustrated by how unappreciated and unseen I feel shoved in a stuffy intern office with sticky second-hand keyboards, plywood desks, and a printer that is always out of toner. It took me two days to set up my e-mail and two hours to get from the office to BART to my apartment back in Oakland. I feel powerless without a laptop. Powerless without my car. Powerless without anyone paying attention or affirming my work.

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I take another sip of the extra-hot latte that fills my reusable cup. I feel good about not wasting all of those paper cups. Good about the soy I am drinking. I stare into the screen of my Chromebook, the window from which I most often view the world, a world in which it is even easier to hide the things I don’t want to see.

I have been struggling with my own agency, with feeling dependent on the people around me to give me rides, to give me jobs, to read my work and contract my talents. I see the world as puzzle that I can never solve.

What world does she see? This woman who has so much less, who is very really dependent on the kindness of others? Who shares the small bit she receives, not with people but with pigeons. The woman feeds the pigeons, the bottom-feeders and scavengers of San Francisco.

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One week later I am at the BART station getting ready to take the train home. I scurry down the stairs, my hands groping in my bag in search of my Clipper card. I can’t find my wallet. How did I possibly misplace my wallet? Five feet from the turnstile it dawns on me that I put my my wallet in my gym bag when I went to workout in the morning. I took a carpool into the city and now I’m stranded without cash, cards, or ID of any sort. I have two uncashed checks that total $100, but they are worthless without an ID and useless 10 minutes after the bank has closed.

“Of course,” says the big man with the tan skin and the dark hair, pulling out two quarters and handing them off with a smile.

“Thank you,” I say. “Thank you so much.”

I watch the man turn to his buddy, smiling because I’m pretty or needy or both. “I wouldn’t give that money to a homeless person,” I overhear, and I sit on that thought while I wait for my train.

A month later, I am crossing the intersection of Battery and Clay, heading back to Starbucks to take command of my life. As I approach the green awning, I pass the woman in the wheelchair. Today she is wearing a dark green sweatshirt, no stocking cap, no blanket. Her hair is thin and stringy, shades of gray going white. I drop a “good morning” as I move toward the door, and she catches it in her small blue eyes. I ask her if she’d like something from inside and she wonders if she can have a gift card. I hesitate, unwilling to offer that much at this moment. I explain that I’m paying with an app on my phone and I’m not sure if I can use it to purchase gift cards. We settle on a caramel macchiato with extra caramel.

“My name is Cindy,” she says, offering a thin hand.

“Amanda,” I say, taking it.

Cindy is friendly and there is light in her voice, which is surprising on a morning I was planning for clouds. Cindy marvels at the fact that I can purchase coffee from my phone. I sort of marvel at it myself. We talk about it for a while and I tell her about the day I had my phone but not my wallet, the day I was temporarily stranded at BART.

“What did you do?” she asks, genuinely concerned, as if she believes I might not make it home.

“I had to ask other people for money,” I say, the words slipping out before I think about what I’m saying.

“Good for you,” says Cindy. “That takes a lot of chutzpah.”

It does, doesn’t it? I think, realizing that this is what Cindy does daily. That chutzpah is somehow a balance for humility.

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I go into Starbucks, sit down at my seat by the window and tap out the words that will later become this blog post. I feel like I have come full circle with this woman and this reflection. On my way out I order a caramel macchiato with extra caramel and pay for it with my phone. I do not feel like a better person, but I do feel like a person. I feel like Cindy is a person too, and that each of us has done something to give the other a small scrap of agency.

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