Credit Card Angel
By Maggie Airncliffe
The city was sweltering under a heat wave that just wouldn’t let up. Before 10 a.m. on the fourth day, the temperature was already nudging 30C. The prospect of another blistering day on the inner city streets was making me cranky. All I wanted was a shady spot on my little balcony, a good book, and a bottomless jug of iced tea.
At the time, I was unofficial ‘street mom’ to a group of kids trying to survive on the margins. Somehow they had adopted me when, on a whim, I’d stopped to offer them a basket of peaches that I’d picked up at the farmer’s market down the block. The fruit disappeared in seconds, but the impression they made on me lingered. The next week, I’d baked up a double batch of cookies, and gone back. Within weeks, I was spending most of my free time with them.
They’d come to accept my presence, true, but gaining their confidence was another matter altogether. The sheer physical, emotional, and psychological burdens of living on the street are enormous in and of themselves. But coping with the attitudes and judgments of the mainstream masses is an additional burden. The kids have grown accustomed to being treated as riffraff, the dregs and failures of society. Once they’ve run up against those kinds of prejudices countless times, it is difficult for them to believe that any other kind of treatment is genuine.
And here I was, about as mainstream as you could get, offering them fruit, cookies, and respect. Who could blame them for being dubious? The streets had taught them lessons most of us couldn’t even begin to imagine. They’d discovered that it was wise not to trust anyone too much, not to take things at face value, and not to let their guard down, especially with people they didn’t know. As a result, they tested me; repeatedly, and in ingenious ways. When they were finally satisfied – by some criteria I’ve never discovered – that I wasn’t a ‘do-gooder’, a cop, a rat, or a ‘holy roller’ come to save their eternal souls, little by little they started to relax and talk freely around me.
As I got to know them, heard their stories, learned about their struggles, hopes, and fears, I couldn’t help but develop a deep fondness for them as individuals, and a greater awareness and respect for the ability of the human spirit to survive, even in the most hostile of circumstances.
Perhaps that’s what motivated me in the broadest sense, but ideological insight is one thing, the reality is often another, much grittier matter. And as time went by, I started to feel discouraged, as if whatever I could offer was always too little, or too late. It seemed that there was an unending stream of new kids on the street every week, running from abuse, alcoholism, family trouble, or just plain running.
I was tired, I was burnt out. And on that particular morning the absolute oppression of the summer heat made me decidedly reluctant to head into the heart of the city. I had almost convinced myself that staying at home for the day wouldn’t really matter, when the phone rang.
“Hey, Mom, it’s Jinx.”
I was a bit surprised to hear his voice. Although most of the kids had my number, they rarely called. He seemed to be trying too hard to be casual, when he said “So, you coming down later?”
“Hmm, not sure yet. It’s pretty hot; probably nobody will be around anyway.”
“Ahh, ok . . . it’s just . . .” A hesitant pause.
“Well, it’s just that the cops did a ‘sweep’ last night and closed down all the squats. Nobody’s got anywhere to sleep.”
“Oh bugger, well…”
Jinx, independent, strong-willed Jinx, was a favorite of mine. He would never come right out and ask for help, so I wasn’t surprised when he said, instead, “We could use some cookies, Mom. Just to cheer us up. Y’know?” I could almost hear his cheeky grin through the phone. But then he rushed on, “But if you’re busy, you know, or . . . well, that’s cool.”
How could I refuse? “I’ll be down around three, how’s that?”
“Excellent! See you at the usual, then.” Click. He was gone.
The ‘usual’ was an unused parking lot with benches at the perimeter, and a few bushes that gave off the most half-hearted semblance of shade. Across the street from a cascading fountain where the kids could cool off and get a drink, it was the central meeting place. Some wag amongst them had christened it the Litter Box and the name stuck. Probably meant to be ironic, the name was also a tacit thumbing of the nose to those who treated them like the ‘waste’ of society. If they weren’t welcome in the mainstream world, they would create their own community within the confines of the streets. The Litter Box was their ‘town square’ of sorts. And although they didn’t actively discourage other people from stopping by, their simple presence – up to 40 pierced, tattooed, alternatively-dressed kids at one time – was often determent enough. Occasionally a hapless tourist would settle on one of the benches, take a quick look around, and beat hasty retreat. The rare accidental visitor who actually stopped to chat was judged ‘decent’ by the kids – ‘decent’ having the double connotation of being a compliment, and at the same time an expression of unexpectedly being treated, well, decently.
Initially, I didn’t share their sense that they were considered ‘rejects’ and ‘misfits’ but after two years of hanging out with them, I had started to change my mind. Watching passersby literally step over panhandling kids, hurtle abuse at them as they walked down the street, call them foul names, and treat them with cold disdain made it difficult for me to uphold the premise that at heart, most people were basically alright.
The dissembling of the kids’ squats the night before – tearing down tents, blocking off abandoned buildings – was aimed at ‘cleaning up’ the city in preparation for the visit of some foreign diplomat or other. It would never do to admit that this city, so clean, so beautiful, so prosperous, had a ‘homelessness problem.’ Better to just move them all out, and pretend they didn’t exist.
So my mood, as I walked across that baking slab of concrete to join the kids, was anything but positive. Two or three kids were drowsing on benches, but most of them were huddled around the few spindly trees, talking about the street ‘clean up’ and wondering what they were going to do for a place to sleep. Tensions were high, morale was low, and the kids were in a strange frame of mind – rebellious but hopeless at the same time.
Even the freshly –baked cookies I’d brought didn’t help dispel the gloom. I wondered if anything would ever change for the better. From behind me, I heard a voice call out.
“Hey, Mom! Guess what happened to Diamond?”
“Oh no,” I thought, “Not more bad news. Please!”
But it was something else entirely.
Diamond, a short, frumpy kid who’d lived on the streets far too long, had grown restless in the heat, and had gone off to the shopping center next door to take advantage of the air conditioning. Wandering through the mall, she passed display after display of beautiful, expensive things. But when she reached a store front full of gorgeous prom dresses, she stopped dead and simply stared. There in the window was the most wonderful dress she’d ever seen – floor length, blue silk, with tiny rhinestone straps and a cut-away back. Something pushed her to go into the shop, and ask if she could try the dress on.
The shop assistant, taking in her street rags, blue hair, and pierced cheek, looked at her skeptically, then reluctantly handed her the dress on its dainty hanger. Hurrying to the dressing room, discarding her torn combat pants and stained t-shirt on the floor, Diamond slipped into the dress. Then, ignoring the little voice in her head that was telling her how foolish she was – “you’ve never even had a date, you don’t even go to school, you’re sure as hell not going to any prom” – she came out of the dressing room to get a proper look at herself in the full-length mirror.
She couldn’t believe her eyes! The plump, squat, bad-postured kid was gone, and instead she saw a fairy princess reflected back at her – or at least what she imagined a fairy princess might look like. She couldn’t look away, but stood, mesmerized and rapt, at the image looking back.
Perhaps her innocent awe touched the other customers in the shop, who knows? But a voice behind her said “Wow, that’s really good, isn’t it? You look fantastic!” Diamond turned, and saw a young couple with a baby in a stroller, grinning at her. And then she realized that all the customers were looking at her. An older man smiled, nodding, as if to say “Yes, you really do look beautiful.”
Used to being treated like she was invisible, she was a bit overwhelmed by the unfamiliarity of the positive attention. But at the same time she felt ‘normal’ for once, and was reluctant to break the spell.
Only the saleswoman seemed unimpressed. “So, are you taking it, or what?” she asked, reaching out to turn the price tag face upwards so Diamond could read it.
Three hundred and eighty five dollars!
Oh God, the dress price was more than her living allowance from Social Assistance for an entire month. How could that be? Who can afford things like this?
“Oh, no, I just came in to look, really. I . . .ummm . . .might shop around a bit more before I decide.”
“Suit yourself,” the clerk said with a barely concealed sneer, turning on her heel and going back to her counter.
The disdain in her voice brought the silent crush of Diamond’s poverty back to settle over her like a transparent shroud. She took one last look at herself in the tiny mirror on the back of the door, then slid the dress off and returned it to its pink, padded satin hanger.
“Whatever,” she thought, “What would I do with a dress like this anyway? I’m stupid to even think about having nice stuff like this.” And making her way out of the shop, she stomped down the tiny voice that whispered “But I really, really, wanted that dress. Just this once . . .”
Deciding to buy herself an ice cream to take the sting away, she was walking slowly towards the frozen treat shop, when she heard someone yelling “Wait, hold up! You, girl! Wait!”
Turning, she saw the saleswoman hurrying down the wide walkway of the mall, gesturing and calling out to her. Confused at first, she suddenly had an awful thought. “Oh, my God, she thinks I’ve shoplifted something!” She hadn’t, of course, but, doubting that anyone would believe the word of a street kid against that of the clerk, she was preparing to run, when the woman caught up to her and grabbed her by the arm.
“Wait, damn it! Will you just hold up for a sec!”
“I didn’t take anything.”
“Huh? You do?”
“Look, can we sit down for a second? I’m outta breath here.”
They sat on a bench, and the woman explained, “OK, so after you left the store, this customer who was shopping for a gift for his wife asked me to charge the dress to his credit card. So I did. Then, he says, he wants me to wrap it up all pretty, and go find you and give it to you. Isn’t that amazing? He bought the dress for you!”
She held up a carry bag and handed it to Diamond, who just sat, dumb-founded.
“But,” she asked, “Who? Who was he? And why?”
“Dunno,” said the clerk, “But one thing’s for sure. He really wanted you to have this dress.” Then with a laugh, she added, “Maybe your guardian angel, huh?”
When Diamond came back to the Litter Box wearing the dress and told us the story, the others grilled her. “What did he look like? Where did he go? Have you ever seen him before?” And when they learned that she didn’t have a clue who he was, they were captivated by the possibilities. “Maybe he’s one of those guys who goes around doing nice things for people anonymously,” said one of the girls. “Or someone really rich, with no one to leave his money to, so he’s trying to spend it all.” The speculations got wilder and wilder, with much giggling and hilarity.
But when one of the guys said “Well how do we know he’s not walking past here right now, and we wouldn’t even know?” we all got quiet. As if we were one single being, we turned towards the street, scrutinizing the people walking past.
Which one? That older fellow with the cane? Or perhaps that guy who looks like a business executive with his expensive suit? Or maybe that guy with the beard and shades who says ‘hi’ to us whenever he passes?
Then Jinx burst out laughing. “Know what? We’ll never figure out who it was. But what’s really cool is . . .hmm, maybe,” then suddenly shy, he mumbled “maybe all the ‘straights’ don’t hate us, after all.”
There was a dead-silent hush, as people thought that over. Me included.
It’s hard to define what changed that day, but something dark and ugly seemed to dissipate just a bit. Of course, the actual circumstances of their lives hadn’t changed. The streets are the streets, and in some ways that will never change. But amongst the kids who were there, a subtle shift in attitude occurred. And I know that more than one person was challenged to reconsider what they thought they knew about judging, as well as being judged, by appearance or class or any other superficial generality.
For my part, I determined to go to the shop and find out the name of the ‘credit card angel,’ as the kids had nicknamed him. I had some vague idea of contacting him, of thanking him, of perhaps telling him how much impact his gesture had on the kids. But some crisis or other broke out on the street, and I didn’t.
For a while, I regretted that. But over time I realized that I was glad I hadn’t. For often, when I’d meet someone new, the thought would flit through my mind that they could be the ‘credit card angel.’ And I realized something else – that simple act of kindness on the part of a stranger had restored my faith in human beings, because, in truth, any one of us could be an angel to someone else.
More than ten years have passed since that day, and although there are constant hordes of new faces on the streets, ‘my’ kids have long since gone: some didn’t survive, a handful are in jail. But most have been absorbed into the ‘straight’ world they claimed to despise, but secretly longed for; they’re pre-occupied with families, mortgages, jobs, and the usual worries and joys of being alive.
The Litter Box is no more, torn to bits to make way for a fancy parking garage. But whenever I pass the spot, memories and almost-images float through my mind, and there they all are again: a ragtag bunch of kids. And, inevitably, in amidst them, a glimmering flash of deepest blue. And each time, I stop and breathe a silent ‘thank you’ for the experience, and a blessing for a truly exceptional stranger.
Maggie Airncliffe Bio:
Maggie Airncliffe is a freelance writer and editor who believes in the transformative power of words. And dogs. She lives in a tiny urban space with Gus, a rescue mutt with purebred delusions, who believes that rolling in snow (and, sadly, mud) is not only his right, but his true vocation. Maggie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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