Nice shiny things
“You have nice, shiny shoes,” she said, in almost a whine.
I stop privately flexing my calves in line at the Chipotle and turn around. I sense something off almost immediately. Big fun sunglasses and lots of “fancy” jewelry, but take a second look: she’s not wearing socks, and it’s cold out. And the faux leather of her tatty purse has cracked and peeled so much it’s almost all gone. She’s thin under the coat. She’s slumped over—defeated.
I give her a big smile and say, “Oh thanks.” I don’t say what I’m thinking, which is: These? These are my fifteenth pair of the same exact shoe I’ve been buying since high school. They’re nothing special. Just Adidas.
She says it again, a little louder, in an impossibly high, girly voice. “Such nice, shiny, clean shoes.” They just aren’t, honestly. So I say, “Thanks, thanks again,” and try to giggle.
The line isn’t moving and I just know this is going to continue to be a weird interaction. Everybody else in here is 20, 30, I’m probably the oldest at 38. But she’s a lot older, or at least she’s dressed like it. This skinny old woman could be my grandmother, no sweat. What’s behind the sunglasses? I’m trying to monitor her behind me in the reflection of the glass so we don’t have to make eye contact again. She shuffles slowly.
I go on and get my burrito. I decide to order double meat, on a whim, for the first time ever. I’ve been working out, my arms need the extra protein to get even bigger. How much is the double meat, I ask? “$3.15?! Gosh. I won’t be doing that again.”
Something is holding her up behind me, but I don’t know what it is. She asks the counter help, “Are you ready? Are you ready? Are you ready?” over and over. Eventually they make a little salsa cup full of steak for her, same thing I got on mine. I hear her asking about a senior portion.
I’m getting my drink now and I’m just dawdling, because I want to hear what happens. Finally, the inevitable; they try to charge her the same $3.15 for “a side of steak.” She says, in her incredibly high voice: “Do I have to pay for it?” They tell her yes: “We don’t do samples like that.”
I feel so much guilt. I’m sitting here on my laptop trying to solve my biggest problems—the online dating nightmare and how to get to Europe this summer—and I’m currently eating food I didn’t think twice about ordering. Meanwhile, she’s trying her best to get this same exact steak in a pathetic little plastic cup for free.
Maybe guilt isn’t the right word; maybe it’s sorrow, because I didn’t put her here and haven’t taken anything away from her either. But the scale of this problem overwhelms me. I see hungry- and desperate-looking people every day in this city. I know they still exist even when I don’t see them and that some of them don’t even have shoes or faux leather purses. The rich people in this city waste so much money on their BMWs, on their dogs and their dogs’ socks and their dogs’ shoes, on alcohol, on cocaine, on travel, on pleasure. And the poor beg and cajole for life, if they aren’t forced to outright steal. How is all this going to end for Chicago? I think. Thank God my life is going in the right direction.
Somehow she’s got the steak. I don’t know if she paid for it or what. She’s picking it out of the cup with a fork as fast as she can. I notice for the first time that she has nice, shiny nails, which you wouldn’t expect on a desperately poor person, and now she’s sitting upright, not slumped like before. I realize I’ve been scammed, at least a bit. She’s not that old, she’s not that desperate. When she throws the cup away, she hustles across Broadway like anybody else.