The FEMA Gap

Thursday, April 27th, 2006

“Sir . . . sir.”

Need has a tone of voice that’s hard to ignore, as badly as I might want to. It pierced my purposeful hurry this night. I had stopped at the store after work and was carrying two plastic bags of groceries — milk, OJ, cottage cheese — which were cutting into my hands. My briefcase was slung awkwardly over my shoulder and I felt tired, stressed, put upon.

Words can hardly convey how little I wanted to turn around just then and find out who was summoning me.

I live in Chicago, a city with lots of dark corners, a city of want spilling up from the margins. The want is perpetual, as much a part of the cityscape as Lake Michigan — always there, sometimes roiled up, sometimes dangerous. I resist it with a weary heart, having no clue what my relationship to it ought to be.

I turned around. A woman was standing in front of an apartment building about half a block behind me. I walked back to her, lugging my groceries and briefcase. She was skinny, scrawny, with a scraped-raw look to her face and terror in her eyes, which instantly made me forget about the weight of my own life.

The story tumbled out. Her name was Shadima. She was HIV-positive and three months pregnant, and was starting to bleed. She needed to get to Mercy Hospital as soon as possible.

This encounter happened last fall, when Hurricane Katrina and the FEMA-bungled aftermath were in the news, when the inhumanity of our social structure lay bare on the nation’s front pages, and suddenly I felt swept up in the middle of something life-or-death and Katrinalike. A sense of urgency overrode that layer of protective skepticism that normally helps me keep my spare change in my pocket and prevents other people’s problems from breaching my daily agenda.

“I can’t call 911,” she said. “The paramedics will take me to St. Francis. That won’t help. I need to get down to Mercy, where my doctor is.”

This hardly seemed time to quibble. I was instantly prepared to take her — to bridge the “FEMA gap” or whatever you want to call it, that abyss of meanness and indifference that separates a life of dignity and freedom of choice from a life of poverty. We used to have a social safety net, but I’ve seen it rent to shreds in the last two decades. I figured a bleeding woman has a right to see her own doctor.

Come on, I said. Follow me. I was about two blocks from home. She started spilling out gratitude and fragments of her life story as we walked. When we got to my house, I told her to wait on the front porch. I stashed the groceries. When I went back to get her, she was on her knees, praying.

I wish this story had a happy ending — you know, a crisp, bright, Hollywood feel-good sendoff. Baby saved, social gap bridged, understanding all around, and maybe a nice red ribbon for Yours Truly, for being such a good neighbor. Instead, I’ll likely feed the cynics with what I’m writing — the ones with the pat answers and the ready “sucker” label to slap on every would-be do-gooder. I can’t write a cynic-proof column about Shadima, but I’m only writing about her at all, six months later, because . . . I’d do the same thing again.

When I came upon her praying, with a focused desperation, oblivious to my presence, I lost perhaps my last protective objectivity, which explains why my suspicion mechanism never kicked back in when, in retrospect, it should have. The twists and turns of her desperation had such a compelling logic — and the ultimate goal was so urgent — I didn’t have it in me to override her requests and just say, “I’m driving you to the hospital now.”

First she wanted to stop at a 24/7 pawnshop in the neighborhood so she could pawn her wedding ring so she could afford to get home. Well, OK. But the pawnshop, it turns out, was closed. I said I’d give her money for cab fare home. That settled, I was ready to drive her to the hospital, but then she said — through torrents of tears and gratitude — she couldn’t let me do that. “I’m afraid I’ll bleed all over your car,” she said.

The upshot is that I gave her money for transportation to and from a hospital many miles from the neighborhood, a total of $80, pretty much what I had in my wallet. Compared to what was at stake, the twenties I handed her felt thin and meaningless — four yuppie food stamps, as I’ve heard them called, spit out earlier that day by the ATM.

She left in tearful gratitude, trying to press a gold-colored necklace into my hands as collateral, or something. I resisted, the necklace fell between the driver’s seat and the gearshift console. (It’s still there, unretrievable.) I saw her get into a cab.

Later that night, when I told my street-smart friend José about the incident, he gave me a cold glare and said, “I know this woman.” After I’d gone to bed I got a call from him. “I’m out in front of the 7-Eleven,” he said. “She’s here in the parking lot right now. She’s working.”

I went to sleep in total defeat, woke up at 3 a.m. flagellating myself for being conned, yet in awe of the thoroughness of her performance . . . or maybe Jose was mistaken, and it wasn’t a performance at all. What I know is that six months later, my wounded doubt, my sense of the ambiguity of giving, feels permanent. If I erred, it was on the side of trusting too much, and I plan to keep doing that.