Some days the prison van doesn’t come. Some days it just takes them so long to get all their ducks in a row to transport the released women that by the time they finally make it to downtown Houston, we have given up waiting for them and have gone home. Other days all the women are picked up by family or friends at the prison gate and no one needs to be transported to the bus station. That was the case today but fortunately, we got word about that around noon, so we didn’t wait several more hours not knowing if anyone would show up.
We gathered up all the tote bags, toiletry kits, burgers, chips, and sodas that we had intended to give to the released women and started plodding down the sidewalk toward the parking lot where we had left my car. On the way, we did what we always do if there is leftover food. We began handing out the hamburgers, chips, and sodas to the homeless people who hang out on the sidewalk. Some of the guys are very familiar because they are there week after week. Others come and go and are less familiar to us. Today, I knew two of the men, but didn’t recognize any of the others.
Normally, I am very cautious about having my purse strap over my neck and my purse close to my body. But today I was weighted down with so much stuff and I was distracted. When we rounded the corner and walked up to my car, I reached for my purse to get my keys and it was not there. A quick search of everything in my possession made it clear that the purse was gone. I dropped everything on the ground behind my car and left it there with my friend Dyann and raced back in the direction of the Greyhound station entrance. I was sure my only hope of getting it back was that maybe I had left it in the station and some kind soul had seen it lying there and turned it in. It was a faint hope at best but I clung to it.
As I rounded the corner onto Webster Street I saw one of the homeless men familiar to me. I said to him, just because he was there and I was still processing it myself, “My purse is gone!” He said, “What does it look like?” I told him, and he immediately took off across the street, running inside the El Expresso Bus garage.
Meanwhile, I continued down the street and into the Greyhound Bus Station to look around inside and ask at the desk. Of course, I didn’t find it and no one had turned it in. I walked back out in despair thinking I would never see it again. I walked back down the street and rounded the corner toward the parking lot and saw Dyann waving my purse, standing next to the homeless man who had run into the El Expresso Garage.
Earlier, after we had distributed hamburgers and walked away, he had seen the purse in the possession of one of the women we had given a burger to. He didn’t think she had it before and asked her if it was hers. She claimed it was and he didn’t know for sure that it wasn’t. She left and walked across the street. When I came around the corner seconds later and said “My purse it gone,” he knew she had it. He cut through the El Expresso bus garage and cut her off on Main Street just as she was starting to rummage through my bag. He took it away from her and brought it back to me. Nothing was missing.
I hugged him hard and I didn’t want to let go. I thanked him over and over and gave him what little cash I was carrying. I never expected to get back my debit card, my driver’s license, my car keys, any of it. But good people are everywhere, even sleeping on the streets of downtown Houston.
The three of us stood there in the Greyhound parking lot for several minutes, talking, and he expressed how much it hurt to say hello to people and have them ignore him, like he was invisible, and how he appreciated how we always speak to him and offer him food when we have it, or at least a bottle of water in the summer, when the sun is beating down on the hot Houston pavement.
And I realized as he spoke that, in spite of his kind words, we are not always as nice as we could be. Sometimes we hurry past the street people, hoping we won’t be asked for money. They know our purpose there and we always say, “If we have burgers left over after we meet the ladies from the prison, we will give you one.” And we always do. And yet as we stood there in the parking lot talking, I knew I had not been as friendly as I could be. Here I was looking at the image of God, unshaven, ragged, dirty, my hero who had saved the day. And I knew that getting my purse stolen was a wake-up call for me. Not to be wary of strangers who might pick my pocket or steal my purse, though I will be more careful from now on about how I carry it. But my wake-up call was about seeing the humanity of everyone I encounter and seeing the image of God in every ragged man or woman who crosses my path. You never know when one of them will be a hero in disguise. Kathie Gallagher