She always stood on the corner of 16th and Clark, as permanent and unremarkable as the chain-link fence and concrete barriers surrounding the parking lot behind her. Her clothes were revealing—not of her body, but of hardship. Layers of tattered, coarse fabrics piled her wilted frame, evidence of burdens too heavy to bear. Her jacket and long, brown skirt were shabby and muted—like the rest of her appearance. She held a cardboard sign with both hands, low, down at her waist. Her gloves were knitted. And they were torn. It was cold.
I saw her at least a dozen times that winter. We always parked in the lot across from the Scottrade when we went to Blues games, and our path from our car to the gates led us around the corner where she stood. She was noticeable to the point that most people swung a little wider on the turn, usually at the last minute, as if suddenly realizing what they thought was a shadow was actually a living thing. No one was ever rude, and she never made eye contact. She was there. And, briefly, they—we—were there. And that was the end of it.
I had always been one with the masses, streaming down the sidewalks and across the street, making sure everyone had his ticket, checking to see if our group was still together, pulling my coat tight around my neck to fend off the bitter wind. I would see her—I always saw her—and then quickly avert my eyes. I would look down. I would look across the street. I would look anywhere else. It was uncomfortable to look at her too long. No, it was rude. I think that’s what I thought: it was rude. We’re taught not to stare.
But that night, for some reason, I did. For the first time, I didn’t look away. I looked at her face. I looked at her hands. I looked at the clothes she was wearing and the sack she was carrying and the cardboard sign she was holding, low, down at her waist. I couldn’t tell how old she was—her face was so heavy and worn and wrinkled. I guessed she was in her mid-forties; she looked much older. Her eyes were open and facing the direction of the ground a few feet ahead of her, but they focused on nothing. Occasionally, she mumbled “God Bless You” to no one. She didn’t see me. But I saw her. She didn’t look like a shadow at all.
She looked very, very human.
I was mad at myself for not noticing her—really noticing her—until then. The season was almost over. I wanted to do something. I didn’t know what, but something. I made a package of simple necessities: some food, some toiletries, a scarf, and some new warm gloves. Hers were torn. As we walked from the parking lot at a game a few weeks later, I clutched the package and looked for her at her usual spot. She was there, holding the cardboard sign. And for the first time, instead of walking past her, I stopped.
“Excuse me, ma’am?”
She looked up, slowly but almost startled, like she hadn’t expected anyone to address her.
“Hi. I’m Amy. What’s your name?”
For the first time, we made eye contact.
“Sherrie, I made this for you. It’s just… a few little things.”
I held out the package. A few passers-by noticed the odd exchange with momentary curiosity before continuing on their way. Sherrie took the gift.
“Thank you. Thank you. God bless you.”
“God bless you. It was nice to meet you, Sherrie.”
“It was nice to meet you.”
The entire event took less than a minute, and soon I was surrounded by the clamor and pageantry of professional sports. But something was different. Sherrie had made something different.
I couldn’t wait for the next game. Once I knew Sherrie’s name, I could make the gift more personal. I baked oatmeal bars, gathered a few more daily needs, and wrote a card with her name on it, placing a few dollars in the envelope. It was small, but it was something. I was excited to see her again, to help, even if my contribution was trivial compared to the trials she was facing.
As chance would have it, we parked in the Kiel garage that evening instead of the usual lot. But I had a gift to deliver before heading into the arena. I made my way down the stairs to Clark, package in hand. I crossed the street at 16th.
She wasn’t there.
I walked the length of the Scottrade Center, looking for her in vain. Finally, I returned to the car, deposited the orphaned gift, and headed inside. It was the last game we went to that year.
I never saw her again.
Over the years, we continued going to Blues games and Cardinals games and concerts. Always I looked for her to no avail. But I thought about her. A lot. I thought about her at random times throughout the day—while I was tutoring my students or in the middle of a long run or setting the table for dinner. Other times weren’t so random: when I would see a man carrying his heavy burdens along the interstate or a woman curled up in the doorway of an old office building, seeking shelter from the elements. And whenever I thought of her, I would say a prayer for her. That she was safe. That, somehow, things were changing for the better.
Eight years passed, but my fleeting encounter with Sherrie was more than a coincidence.
When we talk about taking—or not taking—things for granted, many times we picture our blessings: family, friends, food, shelter, freedom. But assumption is a two-way street. Familiarity breeds acceptance of the good and the bad. At best, we take inventory of our surroundings. At worst, we become indifferent. Sherrie reminded me to keep my eyes open and my heart soft.
This past summer, I headed to Busch Stadium for the last of the three Cardinals games I would attend this season. As I walked down Clark, the glow of Busch Stadium only a block away, I saw a figure standing on the sidewalk. She held a cardboard sign, low, down at her waist. Immediately, I knew.
It was Sherrie.
“Excuse me,” I said. I felt it only polite to ask. After all, it had been eight years. “Are you Sherrie?”
“Yes.” She looked as surprised as I was.
“I’m Amy. We met a few years ago. I think about you a lot—I was—I’ve been hoping that you are okay. How are you?”
Sherrie began talking as if we were old friends reuniting after years apart. In some ways, we were. She had had her ups and downs, but lately life had been especially difficult. Several months before, the vertebrae in her back, weakened from years of malnourishment and burden, had crumbled. She had collapsed on the sidewalk and was rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery. She wore a brace that wrapped around her torso.
“The doctors said it would be two years before I’m back to normal.” She shook her head. “It’s only been a few months.”
I told her I was very sorry and that I hoped her body would heal quickly.
“I don’t know how much more I can take,” she said.
I felt unqualified, that anything I could say would be embarrassingly trite. But I didn’t know what else to do. I told her not to give up hope. I told her to keep fighting. That I would pray with and for her. We held each other’s hands.
“Thank you. God bless you.”
“God bless you, Sherrie.”
She was gone by the time we left Busch Stadium.
I was glad I had the chance to see her one more time, but I was upset by her circumstances. How many of those eight years did she spend asking for money? How many of those years did she have a home? What did her future hold?
I didn’t have the answer then, and I still don’t. But I do know this: every day, every run, every trip to the grocery store, and every walk down the street offers us opportunity to connect with those who are hurting, those who need encouragement, and those who simply need to be acknowledged. We are all human, after all, and we must never take each other for granted. Because there is much for which we should all be grateful, and there is much that we should all seek to change.
May our eyes only remain open and our hearts remain soft.
Amy L. Marxkors is the author of The Lola Papers: Marathons, Misadventures, and How I Became a Serious Runner and Powered By Hope: The Teri Griege Story. Click here to receive Amy's weekly article via email.