Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Abigail Henderson ’14 is taking a leave of absence this semester do what she calls “A Semester of Service” in Philadelphia. She is keeping a blog as she goes and will share selected posts with The Daily Gazette on a weekly basis. You are invited to find out more and read the full blog at semesterofservice.
This morning on my way home, I stopped to get some groceries. I was very sleepy so I figured I would grab a can of soup which I was craving for lunch and then get home and take a nap. But fate/God/the universe had different plans. As I was walking down the block away from the store towards my home, a woman looked at me with sad, tired, and somewhat desperate eyes and said, “Excuse me, could you help me?” I asked her what she needed and she explained that she had tried to go to the church but the pastors weren’t there and no one had been able to help her and she had had heart surgery (I could see the scar) and she had a daughter at home and she just needed to get some food and she had been propositioned by a man who said he would give her 10 dollars if she got in his car but she ain’t never done anything like that and she wasn’t lying and she even had her disability ID and she could show it to me. I’m not really sure what order those things came in, but I could tell she wasn’t lying, and I didn’t need to see her ID. I didn’t have any cash on me, so I asked her if she wanted to go across the street to the grocery store with me and buy a few things and I could pay with my credit card. She said that would be amazing and that she was so grateful that she had found a Christian. (We can talk about that assumption later.)
As we walked down the street and into the store, we had pleasant conversation, some parts of it more comfortable than others. I asked about her daughter, who is six and the light of her life, and where she had grown up. She showed me the book she was carrying about a woman who had been assaulted and then found God and learned to trust men and believe in herself again. She told me I was an angel and that she would not forget me and that she was so grateful (those were the less-comfortable parts). I awkwardly muttered something about exchanging resources and how everyone can be an angel to someone else and how the world would be better if everyone just helped each other out.
In the store, people stared as we picked out her groceries. I’m still getting used to being the only white person in the room, so different from my mostly-white suburban upbringing, and it was even more on my mind as I walked through the store with this rather dark-skinned black woman. I always wonder what is going through people’s heads, and I spend way too much time on buses and in supermarkets thinking about it: Do they see my privilege? (Am I wearing my fancy coat or my oversized hoodie? Does my soft, white, unblemished skin give me away?) My gender? (Did that person just call me sir? That man has told three women now that they are pretty – Will he say the same to me?) My sexuality? (Does my short hair give me away? Are those two girls holding hands? Do they know I’m staring at them because I’m happy, because I feel a little less alone, even though our lives probably couldn’t be more different? Should I look away? Should I make sure my rainbow bracelet is visible? Is this pathetic?) — And those are just scratching the surface of the thoughts and questions that constantly race through my mind. (You begin to see why living in a city is so exhausting for me.)
In the store with the woman, the questions running through my head were: Do these people think we are related? Friends? That I’m doing my good white-person deed for the day so I can go home and rest easy? Will the cashier remember me from five minutes ago? Do I want her to? What does that say about me?
My mind was temporarily distracted from those questions as we picked out groceries — some cooking oil, some pasta, some vegetables, some potato chips, some juice, some meat — as much as she could carry home safely and comfortably (she lived in North Philly and was having trouble breathing because of her disability). Then we checked out and headed across the street to the el station. (“el” being short for “elevated train”, also known as the Market-Frankford Line in Philly). It wasn’t till we were riding the escalator up to the station that I realized I didn’t know her name. I turned and said, “I never introduced myself. I’m Abigail,” and she replied, “I’m Shirley, it’s nice to meet you.” (Isn’t it funny how we say “nice to meet you” automatically even when it doesn’t always apply? And the handshake — so strange and formal…). When we got to the top, I realized that I couldn’t buy her a ticket to get home with a credit card, so I told her to stay with the groceries and I would go get some cash from an ATM. She said that I was her angel again and I felt uncomfortable again. Getting the cash took a while, and by the time I got back, she was on the other side of the ticketing booth, saying that someone else had gotten her through but that she didn’t want to leave without me knowing what had happened. We hugged goodbye over the turnstile and she repeated that she wouldn’t forget me. I told her to have a good day and added in a “god bless” because it felt right. As I walked away, I tried not to think about whether or not I had done things as best I could, whether or not I should have bought her a weekly transportation pass, whether or not I meant it when I said “god bless” or just meant for her to be happy, whether or not I was an angel, and whether or not I should pray for her to get home safely.
Thank you so much for this post, Abigail. You have captured very eloquently the awkwardness of doing community service from a position of privilege.