Waking Up

July 7, 2015

My plan was to just go across the street from my Seattle hotel to a Starbucks, grab a quick bite, and sit and read for a bit. But as soon as I hit the sidewalk, the warm air and light breeze pushed me to walk farther. I kept going up Third Avenue until I found another Starbucks. It had a couple of large overstuffed leather chairs, kiddy-corner beneath tall tinted windows—a perfect spot to enjoy the sun and a skinny latte while I read. I could not remember the last time I had sat in a Starbucks without my computer. I relaxed into my book as others came and went in the nearby seats.

Karen sat down in the other leather chair when my mocha was almost gone. Three years ago, before joining Open Table Ministries, I would not have noticed her. She had a faded purple coat hanging off her shoulders. She had a walking boot on her right leg, which was covered with flaky skin. She had a hospital ID on her right arm and wore what looked like a hospital top, but both looked worn, like she’d been out for a few days at least. She set down a double-bagged paper QFC shopping bag. She had ordered what looked like an iced coffee, but didn’t drink from it for a while. She slumped into the chair, eyes closed. When she had summoned the energy, she gulped down two-thirds of her drink without stopping, eyes still closed, face twisted like it hurt to swallow. She then reached into her bag for some whole-wheat bread. No butter, no meat, just bread. She pulled it in chunks, not whole slices.

After a couple of minutes I leaned over and said, “Excuse me. Since you drank that so fast, maybe you’d like another? Is it iced coffee?” She nodded, glancing cautiously toward me for just a moment. When I brought it to her she let it sit on the side table for a while. Every movement—reaching into the bag, chewing and swallowing—looked slow and painful.

Then it was like the caffeine had suddenly done its work. Her eyes opened. She looked over at me, then away. I made eye contact, then kept reading. Then she began to talk of a man who was leaving tomorrow, who had decided to give her a $10 bill to remember him by, but who gave it not directly to her but instead to his brother, who in turn gave it to his girlfriend. This was most unfortunate, because the girlfriend was a witch and had burned the bill. There was also a ring she’d had since she was a child, engraved with her name on it. The ring, too, had also made its way to the witch, so now it was cursed. The witch drew satanic symbols on money that she didn’t burn, and once Karen had come upon one of these bills and walked through a store holding it as far from her as she could. She spent that money fast, before it cursed her. Karen has an apartment, but many people have died in it, so she puts a cushion by the door at night and she huddles in a corner, behind police tape, so she won’t die there too. The man who is leaving has also squandered her inheritance—millions lost, she told me.

Karen spoke in turns with sadness, mild anger, irritation, and resignation. When her energy eventually waned, I gave her a $5 bill with the assurance it bore no symbols or curse. She looked at it and said she waited to hear what “the president” had to say to her. First, “Here we are again.” Then, “Well, Karen, it’s up to you.” I wished her well and returned to the sunny sidewalk.

Karen is the kind of person I would not have noticed before I started sharing meals with homeless people in my community. She is the kind of person whose life is so easy for someone with as much as I have to ignore. She is the kind of person who reminds me, when I make my self available to the moment, how varied and rich life is.



  1. Such a beautiful recounting of a chance encounter. BSox Rocks.

    • Thanks as always for taking the time to read it, KL. You’ve written some pretty great blog posts too … though you’re no longer in the South …

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