It’s a beautiful thing — Clark Kent and I both working from home. Believe me — the furry family of three we provide shelter and clean up shit for is never lacking for attention. Dog walking duties are semi-equitably distributed (with him picking up a bit more of the slack, for which I’m grateful).
And there came a day late last week, when I took the dogs out for their mid-day walk (which is usually Clark’s shift), where I met her.
Actually, it was two hers. And it was a block from my house.
Man, it was a brisky fucker of a Chicago mid-day. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, lemme see if I can fill you in quickly. A brisky fucker of a Chicago mid-day is the kind of day where you leave your house in the morning with a light jacket late for your train and by one block away you wish you had a hat and come block two, you’d mug a pair of squirrels so you could shove your hands up their asses and wear them as gloves.
These are also the days where your dogs refuse to take a crap within anything that could be construed as a “reasonable” amount of time.
Such was this day. A block away, I’m already doing the, “Are you going to poooooop, Penelope? Who’s a good girl?” coax, because over the past nine years I’ve convinced myself that it helps (it doesn’t, but let me have it). I’m shift from side to side and being impatient when one jerks the leash because he/she has stopped to pee. Brisky, y’all. It’s brisky out. And then while I’m mentally berating a dog named Hippopotamus for not being able to decide whether he’s going to gift his pee to THIS particular tree, she walks up.
Rather, they. Well, she walks and the little one rolls, riding shotgun in a stroller that would have given an AMC Pacer a serious run for the title of Shittiest Ride of 2016.
She said hello. I said hello and smiled. She spoke something to her daughter in a language that isn’t my own and her daughter smiled and sat, wrapped in a blanket that looked as if it once had been pink but now lingered in the color’s memory.
She asked if I lived here. I said yes. Then she said:
I new. I from Syria. New here.
And the first thing that came out of my mouth was welcome.
I mean, how entitled and privileged does it sound for me to say I’ve never met anyone from Syria before — refugee or otherwise? Especially in a city like Chicago, where those from nations near and far come to seek better.
And I asked:
Are you a refugee?
So I said, “I’m glad you’re here.”
Then she proceeded to ask me in the best English she knew, whether I had children and I said no. With a tilt of her head – perhaps to ponder my age and childless status and perhaps to consider what to say next – she stood still for a moment and I realized how beautiful her skin was. And in a flash, I thought how it had never touched by makeup and she was possibly one of the most beautiful women I’d ever met.
After the pause, she explained that she was looking for clothing for her daughter for the winter. And we stood there for a few minutes, trading gestures and searching for shared words in a language we both understood.
I asked her if she needed help — money, clothes. She said yes.
So I said I would help her.
I asked if she would follow me — she pointed to me and the direction I’d come from and gestured one of those “come along” waves.
So off we went.
We arrived at the back of my building, stopping on occasion for the dogs to pee (and finally bless the earth with their crap), for her daughter to pet my Small Dog and laugh, and for her mother to pull the used-to-be-pink blanket up higher around her daughter’s chin.
At the back of my building, I asked her to wait. I ran the dogs inside and asked Clark if he had any cash (he always has cash). He didn’t (which was weird). I looked in my wallet. No cash (which isn’t weird because I NEVER have cash).
But I did spy my big pink princess pig piggy bank on the bookshelf. You know, my luck jar. And by this time of the year, it’s pretty full.
Fuck yeah, luck jar.
I grabbed that. Spied 2 CVS gift cards I had sitting on the counter. Grabbed those, too. Ran into my bedroom and grabbed two sweaters I never wear. And a coat. This nice pink puffy coat with a hood I never wear anymore but it super warm.
And I went back downstairs.
And there they were, out the back gate, her daughter standing up and looking through the black gate like she might catch a glimpse of the puppies again.
I handed her the pink coat. Warm. For you.
And this. I handed her the bag with the pink princess pig piggy bank inside.
Oh. All? — her eyes wide, her arm suddenly having dropped under its metal-infused weight.
And then I gave her the sweaters.
Yes, also. For you.
So much, she said. So much.
You’re welcome, I said.
She held it all up and said help.
And there were tears in her eyes.
She put the pink coat on (it was a good color on her) and helped her daughter back into the stroller. She picked up the bag that now held the sweaters and piggy bank. She smiled.
And they rolled down to the end of the alley, around the corner and out of sight.
And this is what I think about when anyone talks about immigrants these days. And women in hijabs. And Syrians. Because what I see is a woman and her daughter, settling into one of Chicago’s most reasonable priced and diverse neighborhoods, asking for help.
Need doesn’t have a religion.
It doesn’t have a skin color, race, or home country.
But what it did have this day was a stroller and a hijab. A wide smile and the gaze of a curious toddler. And tears in her eyes when someone looked at her as a human and offered help when she asked.
And for purely selfish reasons, I wish she had spoken better English (or I, a lick of Arabic because wishing everyone spoke English — UGH). Because what I really wanted to ask her is what she thought of America.
How long it took her and her family to get here.
What her journey was like.
How old her daughter was.
Because that was my need — knowing.
But on days like this one, I think there’s a spectrum of need and need-to-know.
See, I don’t need to know about their journey to offer help when faced with need.
I simply don’t need those details.
Because what I can tell you is that every detail I needed to know was in the way she asked. They way she timidly waited that took my by surprise. The way her eyes looked slightly embarrassed for asking (and taking). And the way she looked at me for a moment longer right before she walked away.
That was the day I met her. Them.
And it was a good day. And less because I got to check my privilege and actually use it to lift someone else up — though that’s pretty fucking important when it comes to privilege.
More because she and her daughter are what I’ll think of now every time someone says the words Syria and immigrant and Muslim and hijab to me.
And I’ll think of her and her daughter right alongside the other strong, beautiful people of color in my life.
They’re my neighbors — neighbors in this richly diverse tapestry of a city I’ve found myself in, where color, country, creed, and cuisine weave together a blanket where you can’t help it but to see every human as human. Humans who wake up. Need. Seek. Chase. Toil. Laugh. Love. WORK. And all towards meeting those needs.
Because what connects us all — whether we realize it or not — is needing one another.
We never know just when.
But we will.
PS: If you made it this far, this is post 2 in my third annual 30 posts in 30 days to celebrate my birthday month. This year, it’s 43 Years in 30 Days. Wanna check out the series as it unfolds? Bookmark this link.