We were in The Haight, San Francisco, when I saw her. She was sitting cross-legged outside a tattoo parlour in frayed olive green trousers, a long-sleeved black top and beads around her neck. She was also barefoot, the soles of her feet black and grimy.
Every time anyone walked past, she would smile sleepily and raise her hand to beg, but she didn’t say anything. Very few people gave her money and if they did, it was mostly coins.
After about 10 minutes, which was how long I spent looking at tie-dye t-shirts in the shop next door, she got up and left.
We were on Haight Street and it was about three in the afternoon. My (then) boyfriend had gone off and disappeared into a dodgy-looking shop three doors down while our other friend was looking at colourful skirts somewhere at the back. Somehow she’d never struck me as the tie-dye type.
The t-shirts hanging in front of me swung to one side and a face poked through.
“Hey.” My boyfriend was back. “Found some good stuff. I even met a guy who told me his whole life story.”
“Really now,” I said.
“Really. Let’s go look for something to eat.”
We passed the tattoo parlour, some kids getting high by the corner, the jewellery shops with the tongue and navel studs, more kids, the smoke shops and the shops selling kinky underwear when I saw her again, the barefoot girl in faded black, her brown hair turning red in the sun.
This time she was standing outside a ’60s record store, once again reaching out pathetically, asking for money. “Please? Please?” she said as people walked by.
The three of us found a small pizza place across the street and I watched the girl as she continued to beg for spare change. “She’s not asking for money to buy food,” my boyfriend said in between bites. I asked him how he knew.
Chomp. “She would say so, right? ‘I haven’t eaten since yesterday, I need some money for food’, etc. She didn’t say that, so the money’s for something else.” Chomp chomp.
I thought about what he said. Do people really tell the truth when they beg? I’ve given spare change to people who’d said they hadn’t eaten since the day before or needed money for a train ticket home, only to see them buying cigarettes a few minutes later.
The girl, in her early 20s, was getting ready to leave. She looked around one last time, her arms lowered, her hands no longer reaching out for sympathy. I saw her shoulders hunch as she looked down at her bare feet and in that instant, I felt guilty and turned away.
When I turned back to look, she was already gone.
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