Her oversized, fur-brimmed hat, pulled down below her chin and neck, made it impossible to guess her age. But with her tiny body, fragile and waiflike, I tried anyway: a teenager, early twenties, perhaps? And more significantly, what was she doing on a downtown street lined with expensive gift shops in the tourist mecca of Newport, Rhode Island, a city known for its opulent mansions built in the ostentatious gilded age?
I sat on a bench, watching as people passed her huddled form with barely a glance. Expensive trinkets, soon to be bought and ignored, were far more important than this nobody. I wondered where she slept at night. This wasn’t a city with a homeless population, after all; this wasn’t a city where people with mental illnesses congregated. She appeared to be the sole representative of both worlds.
Like everyone else, I went about my touristy business, cruised along the harbor, smelled the ocean, visited Rosecliff with its 80-foot-long ballroom but couldn’t stop thinking about her. On the spur of the moment I phoned the police, not to have her picked up, but merely to have someone check that she was all right. When an officer said no one else called expressing concern, I went back to her bench, but, by now, she was gone. I admit I felt relieved; relieved because I was afraid of this light-as-a-bird woman with her blighted malady, which I presumed to be schizophrenia. Silly to be afraid of a bird.
The next morning, when she returned to her spot, I sat on an adjacent bench, determined to speak to her. First, however, I went into a nearby shop and asked the proprietor if she knew about the lady outside—“The lady with the hat; the sick lady.”
“Oh, you mean the one with the shopping cart?”
“Yes,” I told her. “I just want to make sure she’s okay.”
The sales lady assured me she was. In addition, she told me that she was quite nice.
With that information, I swallowed my foolish fears and walked up to this enigmatic pixie, with her head far down in her lap. “Are you hungry?” I asked.
She moved an inch, her hat still totally eclipsing her face. “N-no, I’m fine,” she said in a voice sounding older than the girlish one I had imagined.
“Are you sure?”
“I’m fine, but thank you.” She lowered her head back to her lap and disappeared.
I left her there, a solitary figure among the throng of passersby, but at least assured there must be someone watching after her.
And why did I care? If you think about it the answer is obvious: I have a son, similarly afflicted, who has been in her situation and could easily wind up that way again. And if he does … I hope at least one person will stop for a moment and feel concerned enough to ask, “Are you hungry?”