When people stop smiling back

The sky was going gray, but the yellow hue of headlights and storefronts lit up their surroundings. The voice of the city was thick in the air outside, honks and humanity intertwining and squeezing through the open door to my left. There I stood, back to a wall of VHS tapes, in a completely foreign world.

When she staggered toward the door, body language clumsy and erratic, my first reaction was to look away. Maybe she’d lose interest, wander away from the dingy music store. She didn’t.

Two days prior, I boarded my flight to San Francisco. Along with five other student journalists and our adviser, Mr. Schott, I headed to the JEA/NSPA Spring National High School Journalism Convention. A first time flyer, I sat wide-eyed and completely not nervous (that’s my story and I’m sticking to it), and watched as my midwestern comfort zone disappeared behind the jet trails.

Upon landing, culture slapped my wonder bread-white (maybe toasted) self across the face. European friends reunited by the baggage claim, three Asian women worked the lines for the SuperShuttle, and we were driven to the hotel by someone of an ethnicity I won’t even dare to guess. Diversity was everywhere. Something else, however, instantly differed from my midwest-bred mentality.

The homeless population was dumbfounding. Most sat idly on the sidewalk, eyes lowered to the concrete. Some extended cups for donations. Others were more verbal, asking each passerby to lend them some change. The lucky ones had a cardboard sign.

The few who wandered were the real characters. Some sang, but the majority talked to themselves. Had conversations with themselves. Argued with themselves. They were trapped in a world that drugs, alcohol, or mental illness had created. From what I gathered from the first couple days, they were all similar in one way: they kept it to themselves. Except for her.

She caught my eye as she staggered up Ellis street. Her long coat, matted with dirt, swung forward as her body staggered to a stop. Rasputin Music, a store as shady as her, grabbed her attention. She walked in.

Her words ran together as she spoke to no one in particular. Her hands were stiff, fragile, and darkened with dirt. Her feet were bare, arthritic and dirty. She was old and sick, skinny as a rail, and she seemed far gone. Belligerent.

She scanned the opposite wall, layered with more VHS tapes, their boxes as tattered as her mind. “Stuart Little,” she yelled, her back to the group and I. The rest of her words were indistinguishable.

Swaying, she turned around. Three steps across the slick tile floor and we were face to face. She was fairly tall for a woman, the peak of her straggly hair coming up to my eyes. Her face was browned, her suntanned cheeks peppered with dirt. Deep wrinkles lined her face like rivers. Expectant of a reaction, she blankly stared at me. The uncomfortability was palpable.

That’s when I smiled. While I never uttered a word, a friendly “hello,” was implied by the grin.

Her eyes, a pretty, light blue, fell down to my smiling mouth. It was as if she hadn’t seen one in years. She examined it. Her eyes rose up my face until they locked with mine. Her expression suddenly morphed. Gone was the manic disposition. Gone was any sign of hostility.

Her cheeks perked up, her eyes opened wide. Her mouth opened and formed a smile, almost as if she had to reteach herself the motions. No teeth, but a smile nonetheless.

In that moment, I didn’t see a drunk. I didn’t see a junkie, a hobo, or a nutjob. I saw a human being who once had a life. She once had a family, loved ones, maybe even a car and a house. She once had hobbies, things that brought her joy. Smiles, back then, were likely commonplace.

In that moment, I saw a woman who developed problems. A woman who made one bad choice. She couldn’t put down the pipe, or she couldn’t drop the bottle. She lost everything, and that’s when people stopped smiling back. I saw a woman who needed it.

And then it was over. Like the flip of a light switch, all sanity returned to darkness. She backed up and said something unintelligible. The manic disposition returned. The worker soon kicked her out, saying “Hey, lady, out. Go.”

“Hey, hey, hey, I was just talkin’,” she managed to say, and soon she was out the door. I later saw her outside of a liquor store.

The days that followed were incredible. I explored a city that was littered with landmarks, topped off by a foggy, late-night trip to the immaculate Golden Gate Bridge. The convention helped immensely with the career I hope to succeed in. Along the way, I made new friends, a “San Framily,” of sorts.

The experience that is etched in my mind the most, however, is that split-second encounter with a homeless woman. A woman who knows all too well what it’s like when people stop smiling back.

See you next week, buddy.


Ever had an experience like this? Wondering what the heck turned me so serious? E-mail me at [email protected] or tweet me at @Pagano13.