When Being Called Normal becomes a Compliment, Or, Relationship Advice from the Street

I got to talk to Gorta, the puppy, at my volunteer this morning. She has grown in the two weeks since I saw her (I guess she was so chubby before … now it is evident that she is actually a she). I slipped her human mom a Ziplock bag of dog food, for which she was very grateful. The pup wagged her tail as she wandered from person to person, examining toes and shoes. She drank all the water from a large pit bull’s bowl; I refilled it. I stroked her soft back and she spun around with joy, trailing her makeshift leash — a severed electrical cord. I spoke to her softly and she turned her face to me so I could blow gently in her nose. My pups love that. She drank in the air I breathed, knowing me. It makes my Saturday morning full of love to see her.

Ms. Viv did not come early last week or this week, her desire to learn to pray forgotten. ‘Pastor!’ she called loudly as she dragged her wheeled shopping tote through the crowd. I cringe when she does it but there is no purpose in trying to get her to stop since she has decided that the name fits me. ‘Can I have some coffee?’

‘Cream? Sugar?’ I ask. She watched carefully as I followed her instructions to add just a little because she said likes the taste of coffee. ‘Don’t want to get too sweet, huh?’

She laughed. ‘I could use to get a little sweeter,’ she answered and hugged me before pulling her tote back to the line for the food take-away.

‘Y’all gave all the food to them crackhead m*&^erf%$#ers!’ A man griped loudly as he walked off toward the cemetery with some fruit and cereal. My friends get there between 8 and 8:30; he did not arrive until after 9, which meant most of the ‘good items’ were already gone. He was angry. I did not tell him when things start, actually hoping he does not come back. There are at least three organizations that give out hot meals in the park each Saturday, so he will not go hungry if he does not come to my friends’ ministry.

I did not see the men who gave grapes to the children last week and hope they are okay. It is a hard life, living on the street. It is a hard life not living on the street but only having enough to keep the roof overhead.

As the crowd dwindled, my gypsy friend came over and we talk. I asked her name and she paused. ‘You can call me God’s Servant,’ she said at first.  ‘I am superstitious and don’t tell people my name,’ she continued. ‘Asians don’t tell their names to strangers.’

I replied, ‘I should have said something like How would you prefer to be called since I get that. Plus, it is rude to just call Hey or something.’

‘Well, I have been coming for over a year I guess.’ After a heartbeat she added, ‘My name is Pinky.’ I tell her my name and her eyes light up. ‘I will always remember that because one of my favorite actor’s names is Andre 3000.’ Besides,’ she waved her hand and looked at the crowd, ‘I don’t associate with homeless people. I know some faces but don’t tell them my name. I am a single woman and need to be careful. But you’re married right? So you don’t know what I mean.’

She was surprised to learn that I am not married because she says I look married, whatever that means. I shared a piece of my history quickly — I was married. Twice. Now I am not.

She thinks I am younger than I am and had a hard time believing I am spitting at 50, just like her. ‘You look 10 or 15 years younger than me.’ Blinking and holding her chest, she said, ‘And to think you have gone through all that you have. It is amazing that you are so normal and can talk about those experiences like you do.’ I tell her that I am not ashamed of my past and that I tell it because one day my testimony might help someone else. She reminded me that she is not a Christian (the word ‘testimony’ got her, I suppose), to which I tell her that by sharing my story with her, she might encounter someone who it could benefit. This, she accepts.

‘You know, our men tend to beat their women,’ she commented suddenly. ‘So, next time — and third time’s the charm, you know — be sure to get you an Asian or a White man.’ I want to ask her what she means by ‘our’, since she has never identified herself as Black or Black-blended, but I resisted the temptation.

The day ended and we all went our separate ways. Gorta and her family are long gone, as is the man with the pit bull. Pinky pulled her shopping cart across the park and I drove away, remembering her words: so normal. Eccentric, strange, and several other things I have been called but normal? This was a first. My mind’s eye replayed the conversation as I headed toward my house: instead of fruit or staples, I left today having made a closer connection, gotten relationship advice, and shared spirit space with a cute puppy.

Being called normal when out in the street is certainly a compliment. So many who volunteer keep themselves closed off — they hand out clothing, food, or other items but do not connect. They do not make eye contact. They do not smile. Giving a hug or getting water for a homeless person’s dog is not a consideration. Their faces remain stony, week after week. Being called normal means I am accepted and that is the greatest thing I could ever want to take away.

By the time I got home, it was nearly 90 degrees F. I wonder where Pinky, Gorta, and the angry man will find shelter from the swelter.

Until I see them again, I will think of them all.