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Her Song

May 29, 2009

She caught me off-guard…this pretty young girl in her early twenties. With her hands clasped together in front of her, her shoulders raised tightly up against her neck, and her head tilted slightly to one side, she displayed a delicate waif-like disposition and spoke in a quiet, vulnerable voice.
Can I sing to you for a dollar?”
I was listening to my MP3 when she first spoke to me; I had to remove my ear buds to hear her clearly. But I still had trouble processing what I heard her say.
I’ll sing to you for a dollar…would you like for me to sing to you?”
At initial glance she reminded me of Nora Zehetner, the actress from the TV show Heroes (see photo below). Her voice even sounded a little like hers.


At first, I was taken aback by her offer; in all the many years that I’ve lived in Portland, Oregon I had never heard a request like this. As the initial shock faded, though, the years of selfish cynicism quickly reclaimed my perceptions and I started to notice the tell-tale signs: the pierced eyebrow…the hint of a black tattoo on her shoulder that crept up her neck…the pseudo-anarchist black T-shirt and torn jeans…the dark circles under her eyes that contrasted sharply against her pale complexion…and the reddish-pink pinhole-sized scars that traced a line up her inner wrist.
She was a drug user.
She wanted her next fix.
And she was willing to sing to me for a dollar.

There is an area of city blocks between Fifth St. and Broadway in Downtown Portland, Oregon that is called Portland’s Living Room…I call it “The Gauntlet”. Every single day, it is populated by a vast assortment of transients, vagrants, drug addicts, teen runaways, and every assortment of bohemian you can imagine…and then some. It is the kind of place that you will either develop a hardened heart…or you will lose a lot of money trying to accommodate the many beggars and panhandlers who will come up to you asking for any change you can spare. For better or worse, I’ve fallen into the former category.

My mother used to be a Multnomah County Sheriff’s Officer, working in Close Street Supervision, and I used to work with her in temporary positions as they opened up. You soon develop a thick skin and a jaded perspective about “the plight of the homeless” when you see them belligerently insisting that the Government should provide everything for them (this was an actual quote that I heard on too many occasions from too many different “homeless” people)…or when you see them take the money they acquired from panhandling to buy drugs or alcohol instead of food or orange juice. You start to realize that the vast majority of homeless are people in desperate need of more than a mere handout. They need the kind of help that pocket change will never fix.

There are plenty of places in town to get free food…there are several places in town that provide shelter and amenities to the homeless, including showers and toilets…and there are several places that provide treatment for drug & alcohol dependency. In fact, you soon realize that whenever you give a panhandler some money, the only thing you are doing is helping to feed their drug addictions. Thus you are doing more harm to them than helping them. You learn that your money, and your compassion, is better served by donating to the many homeless charities that provide such genuine help to them instead of passing a few coins from your pocket into their outstretched hands. And you soon learn to say “No” to them…as politely and as sympathetically as possible, of course…because, deep down, you know you are helping them better by not giving them the money.
You eventually hear the clever efforts by some panhandlers to obtain a handout:

-The request for bus fare (Downtown Portland is designated a “Fareless Square”; no bus fare is needed)
-The “my car broke down” scenarios, in all their various forms
-The negotiators who try to convince you that “it’s only a dollar; you can afford to give it up”
-Even the overly-aggressive panhandlers who practically demand your spare change or tries to intimidate you if refuse, no matter how polite you were.

In my many years in Portland, I thought I’d seen and heard it all. Until she offered to sing to me…for a dollar.

I looked into her eyes. She was such a pretty girl…and I mean “pretty” as in the definitive “pretty”. She looked like she used to be one of the “Nice Girls” in High School. Once upon a time, you could’ve even described her as “adorable looking”. Not right now, though…the drugs have started to take their toll. You can see the beginnings of her deterioration, like seeing the spots on an abandoned car that are just starting to develop rust. But most telling was the sadness deep in her eyes. She was lost. She was helpless. She was feeling defeated. And she was giving up. She was losing the hope that things can get better, that they can be better. She gave me a sweet little smile…but, as Harry Chapin sang in his song Taxi, it was a sad smile, just the same.

She, at least, was honest with me…she wasn’t claiming to use the dollar for food or for a hotel room or to fix a broken-down car. She just wanted a dollar.
I immediately knew where this money was going…and she also knew that I knew (if that makes any sense). But still she smiled at me…her offer to sing to me still in the air between us.

My mind raced as I looked at this mousy little girl standing before me. If I gave her the money, she would spend it on drugs. I’d be doing more harm than good…right? But she wasn’t like the typical panhandlers in the “Gauntlet”…or was that part of her “con”?
Remember when I said she looked like Nora Zehetner from Heroes? Her character on Heroes had the ability to persuade others to do her bidding….quite apropos, don’t you think?
What if I actually dared to accept her offer…and insisted that she sing to me, to perform for me like a lowly animal…right there in the street… for her dollar? How would she react if I declined her offer? What if…as I had done to so many other panhandlers so many times before…I told her “No”?

There was the slightest bit of anticipation that seemed to build in her sad eyes…a slight glimmer of expectation…as though she was hoping for something. Perhaps hoping for something more…something better…something other than just a mere dollar.
Immediately, I started thinking about what I could do to help her…I mean really, truly help her. Could she be convinced to give up the drugs? Was it still possible to convince her that she deserves better than this? Was there any hope of any sort of redemption? Maybe she just needed somebody to save her? Maybe she was hoping for somebody to reach out to her and guide her to a new life…a better life? Is it just possible she came up to me, offering to sing to me for a dollar, in the hopes that I could tell her…show her…that there is another way to live her life…a better way? Maybe that’s the reason why she spoke to me? Maybe that’s what she is really hoping for whenever she offers to sing to a person for a dollar? Maybe when she asks a person “can I sing to you for a dollar?”…what she’s really asking, deep down inside, is “I have a problem…can you please help me?”

I gave her a dollar.
She didn’t have to sing for it.

As she took the money, she smiled her sad smile at me and said “thank you”…but her eyes told me something else. Her sadness seemed to convey a message of disappointment. It was as if she was trying to tell me that her plea for help had gone unanswered again…that, once again, nobody was going to save her from this life. It was as if she knew that maybe it would’ve been better for her if I had said “No”. It was as if she had walked up to a stranger, as she might have done many times before, and tried to ask that person to please help her…to please rescue her…to please save her. And, again, they didn’t….they couldn’t…or they wouldn’t.
They just gave her a dollar…possibly for a song.
I, too, felt a wave of disappointment wash over me. I betrayed my own principles about giving money to panhandlers. I was enabling her drug habit. I was doing more harm to her than good. Worse, I didn’t help her…I couldn’t help her…I wouldn’t help her. I wanted to save her, I really did. Maybe it’s a “guy” thing, being chivalrous and all that, but I really do think that maybe she really wanted to be helped, truly helped…but nobody came to save her. She was asking me for help…and I gave her a dollar instead.
There seemed to be a mutual feeling of disappointment and sadness between the two of us in those brief remaining moments…disappointment and sadness over where her life had taken her…and disappointment and sadness that I did nothing more than give her a dollar.

She clutched that damned dollar in her fist…she actually clutched the dollar…then turned and walked away. I just stood there for another few seconds, watching her as she left. Possibly, she was going to find somebody else walking through “The Gauntlet”…somebody whose life seemed better than her own…and offer to sing to them as well…for a dollar.

I spent the remainder of that day replaying those events in my mind, over and over again…wishing I had handled things differently…wondering if I really could have actually done anything different. I cried that same night when I thought about her and her offer. In all honesty, I’m about to cry right now as I type this. I wonder how many other people had she offered to sing to in the past. I wonder how many more people she will offer to sing to in the future. And I wonder if anybody will ever actually hear her sing…and perhaps hear the message she’s trying to express within her song.
It’s been two days since I saw her, as I am typing this. I wonder if I’ll see her again the next time I go downtown…the next time I pass through “The Gauntlet”. I wonder if I’ll ever see her again at all.
I hope so.
I don’t really believe I can actually “rescue” her…I know that the only person who can truly help her is herself…and I have absolutely no intention to make her perform in the streets in front of me for drug money.
But, if there is a next time, I’ll try my best…somehow…someway…to let her know that I believe her life is worth more than a dollar…or a song.

And I hope that someday she gets the help she needs. I hope that she finds a new path..a better path…to a better tomorrow. I hope that she can put her old song behind her…and never again have to offer it up to a complete stranger in the street for a dollar.

That would truly be something for her to sing about.
And I’d sing along with her.

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