by Miles Beller
In one of the richest neighborhoods in Los Angeles, some four feet from one of the most trafficked freeways in the world, sat the woman in white. She had been here for two days, not straying far from a Sunset Boulevard on-ramp to the San Diego Freeway.
Living in Los Angeles, I have encountered a shifting population of home -less nomads on a daily basis; bodies huddled in shuttered storefronts clutching old suitcases and rusting shopping carts. And over the years I have become increasingly inured to these people, erasing them from my consciousness by practicing a willful denial. To avoid their solicitations, I have enlisted cell phones and MP3 players as props. I could multi-task my way to a digital re-move, an electronic device tethered to my ear by bluetooth or a wire. And if I did not have these devices, I would simply fake it, cupping my hands in such a way as to mimic a device's contours and function. Conveying a separateness from the homeless had become a way of life for me.
Yet now as my wife and I drove to the freeway, I was aware of a decidedly different feeling. I was gripped by something powerful and profound. Wasn't there something mythic and transcendent, in a woman in white hovering by a major motorway? Surely this was Dante and Virgil transposed to our day; the homeless as shimmering divinity in the toxin-belching present?
As we crested Sunset Boulevard, the San Diego Freeway coming into view, the woman in white suddenly was seen. Was she a numinous symbol of right and rectitude, defying an age driven to high-octane extreme? I tried holding on to her in these poetic terms. But all I saw was a sad, lonely figure slumped against the base of a freeway entrance sign, heartbreaking in her isolation and vulnerability.
After parking the car, my wife and I walked over to her. "I'm hungry," she rasped, her scratchy words a vestige of what once was a voice. The wind was picking up and below us whooshing cars continued their deadening din. I thought I caught her struggling to say something more. I leaned down, closer to the hard ground where she lay, and heard "Can you get me something to eat?" Yes, of course, I said. I asked her where she was from and if she had any family or friends here. She began answering but could not go on. Speaking was too difficult. She slumped back against the freeway sign, spent from trying.
My wife and I drove to a small restaurant across from UCLA packed with happy students, and bought a burger and fries and lemonade and a container of hot coffee. There had to be a place that would take this woman in, free her from her freeway exile. After phoning several public shelters, each time greeted by a recording instructing the caller to try again during "normal business hours," help was no closer. Frustrated and discouraged, I waved down a paramedic van veering toward the university's hospital. Could the driver and his partner help? I was promised someone would swing by to see her.
And sure enough, seconds after we returned to the freeway, a university police car pulled behind us, a large man in uniform with a kind face emerging. Together we went to the woman in white. She silently but gratefully took the burger and fries and drinks. The officer walkie-talkied his station about finding a place to take her in. But when someone radioed back, the answer was nothing could be done.
The next morning the woman in white still sat by the freeway. I parked nearby and then spent over an hour on a cell phone trying to get help. This time I reached some sympathetic ears. But as one employee of a government mental health agency apologetically told me, his bureau only had three field workers to cover all of L.A. County. He was sorry, but there was little he could do.
If, initially, I had been eager to "experience" the woman in white as a metaphor of sorts-a latter-day incarnation of a timeless classical ideal, it was a fantasy that now fully drained from me. For the lost, ill person curled up in the dirt beside the freeway was all too fully human. My first impulse had been to turn her into a device of fiction, an epic heroic presence above the mortal fray. Now as I leaned down and handed her breakfast, I realized I had been guilty of doing the exact opposite to the scores of homeless I encountered. And this was far worse. At some point I had stopped feeling the connection between those living on the street and myself. I had rejected the basic humanity binding us all. And so I had lost something of myself, of my own humanity. The woman in white by the side of the freeway mouthed "thank you" as she ate. And as I sat down beside her I found myself angry and sad as I starred at the vanishing cars.
Miles Beller is an editorial board member of Psychological Perspectives.