Minutes after my husband and I boarded the airport shuttle for Manhattan, a woman in the back row launched a deceptively casual opener. “Here on business?” Ms. Raincoat asked the guy beside her. Mr. Suit had no time to reply.
“I’m here for a symposium on helping the homeless,” she said in an everybody-should-hear-this voice. “I lived through it myself back in California. My husband left me with nine children, and after six months I was out on the street. I lost my kids.”
Nine children? Tossed out on the street? How had this woman turned her life around and ended up here? I ignored the blaring horns as our van zoomed away from the curb.
“Three years, three shelters, two low-paying service jobs. Even working at McDonald’s gets you only two rooms that cost $500 a month. It took me three years to climb out of the hole and get my kids back.”
An American broadcasting heart-rending details of her life story to strangers. As we whizzed by airport motels, I did what any Canadian would do—kept my mouth shut, pulled out a pen and scrawled dialogue on the back of my e-ticket.
“Maybe the churches should be doing more,” said Mr. Suit. Hmm. Maybe a Republican.
His lukewarm response didn’t deter Ms. Raincoat. “The homeless end up that way for three reasons. Financial, mental illness, or addiction. It’s not a simple problem. I needed more than a roof over my head.”
I tried to focus while our driver played chicken with an army of yellow cabs squeezing into the approach lane for the bridge. Irate honks and squealing brakes didn’t distract Ms. Raincoat from her mission. ”Giving people shelter doesn’t address the real issue. Hopelessness. Complete hopelessness.”
I glanced at my husband. He grinned and shrugged, as if to say: What did you expect? This is New York. Full of weird characters. I poked him with my elbow in a wifely way and narrowed my eyes, as if to say: Where’s your sympathy? Vulnerable people end up on the street in Montreal, too, you know.
I didn’t dare turn around to peek at Ms. Raincoat still preaching from the back seat. “Case managers work with the homeless on one goal: getting off the street. People on the street will do anything to get a spot in a shelter. They’ll tell you what you want to hear.”
“I guess it’s a problem in every city,” said Mr. Suit. Ah, maybe not a Republican. Just a captive listener.
The driver zipped across the bridge with the bravado of a speedway racer. With writerly compulsion I kept scratching notes. Was she a crank—or a bold crusader for social justice?
Ms. Raincoat picked up her pace. “Druggies have a lot of paranoia. Schizophrenics need their meds monitored daily to stop the voices. The destitute feel like the system has let them down, and the rules have no meaning.”
Marginalized people. Despair on the street. She knew what she was talking about. I grew dizzy as our crazed driver swerved left and right, cutting off cars. Ms. Raincoat’s fervour rose. “You’ve got to work on transitions. You need to help people get treatment or find jobs. It’s the only way …”
As she spread the word, Mr. Suit stayed as quiet as a Trappist monk. The shuttle pulled over on 42nd Street and two seniors in snow white sneakers got off, scurrying toward their hotel lobby without looking back. The driver pulled a U-turn across the six lane thoroughfare, and I grabbed the edge of my seat with both hands. We sped towards 6th Avenue.
Ms. Raincoat barely paused for breath. “My 10-year-old wanted to come to New York with me. He’s my baby. But in the end, I told him it was work. He’d have to wait until next time.”
Not even a mumble from Mr. Suit. The driver raced like a lunatic towards Avenue of the Americas. Sweat trailed down the back of my neck. Maybe we should have called an Uber. My husband gazed out the window at passing skyscrapers and ignored my twitchy scribbling. I wondered if we’d arrive in one piece and who was taking care of the nine kids back in Orange County.
Ms. Raincoat was still holding forth when the van slammed to a stop in front of the Hilton. The driver dumped our bags on the sidewalk, and my husband and I scrambled out. There I stood in New York City, knees rubbery, heart thumping, my Canadian sensibilities dazed by the breakneck ride and confessional bombardment.
I grabbed my husband’s arm and said: “How unbelievable was that?”
Karen Zey is a Canadian writer and Pushcart Prize nominee from la belle ville de Pointe-Claire, Quebec. Her work has appeared in both American lit mags and places north of the 49th parallel. Find her at her website or on Twitter.