I picked her up on broad street just past the Chattanooga public library, the old warehouse district now home to tall high rise financial and corporate offices, at night the homeless came out, all the business men long gone in their BMW and Mercedes cars.
I had thought myself fortunate in having avoided an old black man on crutches, he opted for better odds by begging a group of three men going the other direction, headed back the way I had come, to the hotel probably. Headed out to get dinner I was feeling lonely and invisible, lets hope I stay invisible.
But half a block later she made her presence known by calling out from just behind me. “Hey, where are you going?”
I tried to ignore her hoping that she would go away, but she was persistent and said, “I’m 46 years old, I was born on march 11th.”
Still ignoring her, I quickened my step, “are you going to eat? I could sure use a sandwich” she said. Now she was right next to me, wearing a long wool coat, camel, and a green sweater under. She had on fancy sketchers, and high water black slacks. On her head was a colorful knit cap and peeking out were wisps of black hair and some fine braids that hung in a shock over her left shoulder. She had no top teeth, just about four bottom teeth that I could see, her face like one of those dried apple dolls, lips full but covered in dried saliva, a fresh pink scar on the bottom one, maybe from a fall or a fight or could be it was from exposure to the elements.
Walking along in lock step, as I got closer to the restaurant district, headed towards the river, I noticed people going the other way glancing nervously at her and me, wondering. “Yeah, I’m going to eat” I finally answered, I’ll get you something when I do. Knowing it wouldn’t be that easy I continued on.
Lonia as she later told me, started in on the hard sell, talking about her mother who was in the hospital, a daughter at home hungry, a funeral in California, running through a prescribed litany of sad tales designed to just get me to reach into my pocket to get her to go away. She finally worked round to her point, if I could just give her 5 or 10 dollars she could maybe buy something, a small gift for her baby for Easter.
Stopping I said to her, “I’ll buy you food, but no cash, you might just buy drugs.” Looking hurt, she said “I don’t do drugs, I’m a good girl.” Then she tried another tack, slyly offering to show me a good time if we could go to a bar and get a drink, not that she was offering anything for payment, that would be illegal, slowing I turned to her finally getting the drift, saying “I’m not interested in that, so if that’s what you had planned, no thanks.” She said, “I’m 46 and I’m no teenager, but I ain’t got no diseases, are you married?”
I turned and said, no bars, no drinks, food is all I’ll buy you. She muttered, no present for my birthday? I ain’t never had a present. You could just give me some money for a present.
I said, food nothing else. Now getting almost to the aquarium, she started to ask where are we going, we passed lots of places to eat, I kept going, so she started to whine about going too far, so still not settled on a place, I had hoped for Mexican, I slipped into the ice cream joint, thinking what woman doesn’t like ice cream? I ordered a scoop of mint chocolate chip, and asked Lonia what she wanted. She sulkily said, it’s too cold for ice cream. I said, strawberry? She again said its too cold for ice cream. So I said okay and paid for mine and walked out.
Lonia said immediately, as we left, where is mine? You said you were getting me some! I replied, you said it was too cold, she replied but where is mine? I said stop whining, I don’t like whining. She said, it’s no sin to whine, I said nope, but it’s getting on my nerves. What are you a saint? Never whined? I chuckled, no saint, not even close. That seemed to provide an opening so she asked, where was my hotel, could she come with me? I said no, once again. But unfazed Lonia asked if I would buy her a miniature of booze, they are not much more than a dollar. I replied that I had no idea where there was a liquor store. My mistake was not saying no, so she replied, tere is one right here, pointing to jack’s liquor, half a block up. Since you didn’t get me ice cream you could get me a miniature.
Thinking that maybe it couldn’t hurt, and my own mouth was craving a drink I said, okay. Inside she followed me, and talking to the lady behind the counter as if she knew her, she asked for vodka and I asked for Jim beam. Paying 3.20 we walked back out on the street. I immediately cracked the seal on mine, thinking I could use a drink. I said to her lets toast your birthday. And I said here’s to your 46th year, may you have many more, but try and get a job. We clinked plastic bottles and I downed mine. Lonia sipped hers then screwed the lid back on saving it for later.
When are we going to eat, she asked. I’ve walked a long way, you said you would get me food, now I have to walk all the way back. You should just give me some money. Stop whining, I said, I don’t like it. She said, well you gave me liquor, now I need to eat or I’ll get sick.
So we headed back away from the river back towards the library stopping at a hamburger place. I ordered us both a burger fries and large drinks. The guy behind the counter looking suspiciously at my guest, putting our orders into separate bags. Sitting down, she said as i stood there with my bag, I bet you won’t eat with me, just gonna leave with your food. I said, nope, I’m staying. Taking her cup I asked what she was drinking, coke she said. As I was filling her drink I noticed that she picked up a free ad rag newspaper and started to flip through the pages. I wondered if she was reading or just flipping.
Walking back to the table she looked up as I set her drink down and said, this looks nice, pointing to an add for a brew pub, a large mug of beer. No more alcohol I said, eat instead.
As we ate, I noticed that she had a good appetite, destroying the burger in short order. When I asked her some questions, she said, I can’t talk and eat. So I waited patiently until all the crumbs were gone and asked, how long had she been on the streets, she just shrugged then said, I’m not homeless. I said then where do you sleep? She said I’m looking for a place, then again seeing an opportunity to ask to come back to the hotel with me.
After some, more questions avoided or sidestepped, I finally stood up and said I was leaving, and that I sincerely hoped that she found Lonia someday and that she got off the street, making one last feeble attempt to get money she said, maybe a few dollars to get a taxi? I said, no, sorry, and walked out the door.
Half expecting her to follow I kept looking back as I walked back to the Marriott. Thinking, for once, that I was not feeling so lonely.
©The Autobiography of Mr. Perfect, 2013, written entirely on my iPhone.