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The question that might change your life

by Optimus Outcast

My stomach lurched at the sight of her. Speeding down the exit ramp of the 101 freeway, amid the collective rush to get to the next destination, I saw a woman standing on the corner, holding a sign. Food or donations were desperately needed. Not long ago, I had stood on this corner in the exact same spot, holding my own sign. As hundreds of people passed by without a glance, I felt humiliation and hopelessness. It was a terrifying experience.

My job as a studio development executive is to find, and tell, stories. If I am carrying out my life in a privileged bubble, I have to question if this allows opportunity for unusual insights. It’s easy to lose touch, to see from one angle, to get too confident. The experience on the exit ramp had an impact on me in some ways I can explain and some that I haven’t yet been able to articulate. If you and I were to meet and ask the perfunctory, “How are you’s”, I may hold your gaze just a moment longer. Are you really doing great or just giving the obligatory answer? We would give each other those caricature air hugs that make it easy to move on so business can be discussed. But now I find myself stopping… Asking questions… Everyone has a story.

I had seen this woman before. Having glimpsed the desperation that sentences the unfortunate soul to the exit ramp, I now often say hello to those who inhabit that space. The first time I passed the woman I asked how she was doing. She sighed, the police had been harassing her. On another day, I asked again. Her daughter had been ill and she was relieved to have found a hospital that would offer free services. (The poverty level in California for a family of four is $23,550. California has the highest rate of poverty and homelessness among all the states according to the U.S. Census Bureau latest study in 2012.) The third time I approached this woman I asked her name. It was *Grace.

Telling a story is sort of a magical process in which creativity is an act of making something out of nothing. In order to pull this off, there is a particular skill required — the willingness to explore a different point of view, an alternate life, and/or an unfamiliar universe. Whether we agree with a character’s principles or mirror the same thing in our own lives is not the point. Movies provide permission to vicariously, and safely, play out our intrinsic questions. When the lights go up, we haven’t actually put anything at risk. But to get to this end result — the experience of escape — it may mean may we have to explore some unsettling questions.

The fourth time I passed by Grace I handed her a few bills. I smiled at her, but didn’t ask a question. I didn’t know what to say. This grim reality was beyond comprehension. So I just drove away. No, I sped away. Blasting the music in my car. There were no answers to this. If I went fast enough, maybe I could outrun the questions in my head. But the perplexities were beating louder than the blasting music. Suddenly, I hit the brakes, hooked a u-turn and headed back to the exit ramp.

I parked on the side of the road and found myself walking towards Grace. Hesitantly approaching her on the exit ramp, I held out my hand and introduced myself. As she shook my hand, I asked if she might like to go grocery shopping. She looked shocked and said nothing. I felt like an idiot. Me, in my business attire, asking a complete stranger, on an exit ramp, to go to a store with me. Embarrassed I said, “I’m sorry if this is awkward. If it’s a bad time for you, I could offer some money if that would be more helpful.” Grace swallowed hard. Then replied, “I’d really like some groceries.”

We walked to my car. Grace was not a homeless person. She was staying with a friend while she tried to put her life back on track. She is probably somewhere in her late 40’s though the way she wore the verdicts of life on her face made it hard to determine. We tend to think of people in dire need as being dirty and unkempt, yet Grace was always clean and neatly dressed even if her she wore the same clothes over and over. Each time I had seen her at the exit ramp, she comported herself with a determined, if sad, politeness. Now, she was sitting in my car.

My car is a two-seater so the interior is compact. And if I’m being honest, I would need to admit that it was awkward and uncomfortable to have this complete stranger in such close proximity. This isn’t because I felt unsafe. Or because Grace is someone who spends her days doing something that is the worst fear for many of us. It is because it’s hard to maintain the barriers with someone who is right beside you. We could not do the obligatory how are you’s and the fake air hugs. These were now two worlds between which the border had been removed.

We went to Von’s, grabbed a cart, and started making our way down the aisles. Grace moved slowly, carefully considering the abundantly stocked shelves. She was hesitant to put anything in the cart that was not on sale. And at one point, she placed a container of laundry detergent back on the shelf. I followed behind her, silently moved by her conscientiousness. We discussed the small victories of finding the things you like on sale and commented that it doesn’t happen often enough. Despite this, we decided to put the Tide back in the basket. And bit by bit, we eased into a conversation. She didn’t look at me as she talked. Eye contact is difficult when the conversation gets real with a loved one, much less a stranger. Exposure can be intolerable. She wasn’t the only one who felt that way.

As we rolled the cart methodically through the aisles, Grace told me about her life. She was born in Maine, lived in New York and made her way to the West Coast. There was a very bad marriage that left her and her two daughters destitute in San Diego. She had bought a car for $600 and, later, lost it because they couldn’t afford the smog certification. Then they were forced to live on the streets. Several medical conditions have a permanent bearing on Grace’s capabilities. One of these is arthritis which makes it very painful for her to stand on the exit ramp several hours a day. But she does.

Eventually, Grace lost her daughters. Each now lives in a different location while Grace tries to get her life back together. While she spoke of this evenly and with acceptance, the pain in her voice revealed a soul of shattered glass. She doesn’t like standing on corners but it is the only way for her to get a few dollars while she struggles to find the path that leads to sustenance. Despite all of this, having nothing, she is grateful to have the chance to start over.

Her dream is to take classes in horticultural and open a nursery. She knows the college that offers these types of classes from research she had done. She has always loved seeds and plants. A long time ago, she once had a garden and tending it was when she felt the happiest. “Plants don’t hurt people,” she said as she placed something in the cart. There was an extended silence that neither of us tried to fill. Then, for the first time, she looked directly at me and said, “I just want to grow things.”

We headed to the checkout line and put a basket full of frozen chicken, vegetables, detergent, mayo, yogurt and other every day necessities onto the conveyor belt. Grace was smiling. We bought those recyclable bags to hold the food and make everything easier to carry. She kept saying thank you over and over, even for those flimsy 99 cent recyclable bags.

We walked to the car and I popped open the trunk. The first thing I see? At least ten of those recyclable bags thoughtlessly strewn about. I paused a moment before loading the groceries. Never before had I felt both so careless and so grateful.

It was dark outside so we decided it would be best to drive Grace to the bus station so she would need to take only one bus to get home. Knowing this journey was coming to an end, and we would be going back to our worlds with our borders, we started to talk more. We talked about our fears. There were so many. The fear of starting over, the fear of love, the fear of doing something new, the fear of allowing others to see who you really are…

Then we discussed the worst fear of all – What if we don’t? Don’t start over. Don’t love. Don’t try. Don’t be yourself. We all have our own private lists.

We both were quiet for a moment. The reflections of city lights were pinging off the windows like the truths of life that reveal themselves over and over, daring us to react. This woman sitting in close proximity in my two-seater car was, suddenly, no longer a stranger. I was glad she was there.

I am aware that picking someone up off the street is unorthodox and not a good idea in many circumstances. But I also am aware that we live in a world filled with borders and barriers, full of landmines. We talk to our partners, moms and dads, sons and daughters, through locked doors. It’s hard to be open and feel safe with the ones we love, much less someone with whom we have nothing in common.

As we maintain these barriers and remain entrenched in our points of view, I wonder if this certainty breeds intolerance for a different perspective. And if this holds true, is this environment one in which we can plant seeds that will flourish? Have the permission to be unabashedly creative, even if we fail? Build that which has never existed before? And to all that, I ask — What if we don’t?

And then there is the person whose own story — the hope and dream every day — is to make something out of nothing. Sometimes this means trying to survive. The person who asks, “Can I just make it through today?” To get a few dollars, to make it a few more hours, and have faith that the next day will bring the seeds of new beginnings. Would I be able to do the same in such circumstances? I’m not sure that I could. And so I honor that person who has the guts to find a place to stand, in an outright search of their own life’s story, even as hundreds pass them by. We can make our judgments, but to me, this is a profound act of courage.

I pulled to the curb of the bus station and we collected Grace’s bags. We stood there for a moment. She thanked me, and said it was like Christmas. We looked at each other, no longer strangers. Then we hugged. Not the fake air hug, a real hug. I felt awed by Grace. I hope that I have the guts to find a place to stand. I hope I can figure out the way to make something out of nothing. I hope I will reach out to my loved ones, even when the doors are locked. I hope I will search the borders, despite the risks. I hope I can find that kind of courage. And I hope I will always remember to ask the question…

What if I don’t?

*In respect to individual privacy, Grace’s name has been changed.

Optimus Outcast

About Optimus Outcast

Optimus Outcast is a development executive at a film studio.

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