HAYDEN HOLLINGSWORTH: Life on The Median Strip

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Hayden Hollingsworth

We’re all going through the same frustrations of confinement with Covid-19 and one way I have found to relieve my sense of isolation and boredom is taking a midday drive. I usually pick a scenic route, avoid getting out of my car while wishing that the Blue Ridge Parkway was open.

Over the years I have developed a strategy in dealing with homeless people on the median strip with their pleading cardboard signs promising God will bless me for helping. If I see such a person and they are on the driver’s side in the direction I am going, my traffic light has just turned red, and I am stopped in the lane next to where they are standing, I have one of two choices: Look at them or ignore them completely. I keep money in my cup holder for such occasions and I am sorry to report that I don’t use it very often.

We have all been in this position countless times. We have seen the signs asking for help, God Bless you! and the like. The desperate strait in which the petitioner finds themselves usually is apparent by their appearance and, particularly in bad weather, it’s not hard to feel sorry for them. My next question is this: Do I have enough time left on the red light to get to my money? If I am not the first car in the queue I won’t take a chance on stopping and risking a rear end collision from the car behind me. I suspect I am not alone in addressing these situations.

On a recent outing, I had an encounter worth reporting. Preparing to make a left turn I was the first car in the protected lane, the light had just turned red giving me about four minutes for sitting there, and the person standing on the median with the sign was looking straight at me. That’s when things began to feel quite different.

The possible recipient of my largess was a young woman appearing to be in her early twenties. She wore a stylish straw hat, was impeccably dressed (spotless Nikes on her feet, very brief shorts) and carefully applied makeup. “Very attractive” doesn’t begin to do her justice. Then I looked at the petitioning sign: “I was once just like YOU but now I am desperate. Please Help!” The sign was not done with a slapdash Sharpie but neatly executed on a poster board She tentatively smiled revealing a brillant set of teeth. The whole tableau caught my breath.

Immediately a whole set of danger signals surfaced; I leave to you what they might have included. Disregarding them, I reached into my cup holder, rolled down the window as she approached the car, her smile now fully displayed. Without much forethought I handed her the money and said, “Share this with someone who needs it more than you.” Her smile faded and she said, “Thanks . . . but I can’t imagine anyone who is in worse trouble than I am.” She took the money, not glancing at the denomination and walked back to her post. The light changed and I made my left turn onto the highway.

As I settled in for my contemplative cruise I began to wonder how quickly that money might be up her nose, whether it would spare her a night of misery dealing with a stranger’s lust, if her parents knew where she was, how she came to such desperation. Maybe she was doing research for an essay in a creative writing class while waiting for college to resume. Now that would be interesting!

I will never know the answers to those questions and maybe I don’t want to know but ever since that brief episode I have hoped for the best for her. I have also wondered why I don’t have that much compassion for the more typical median strip resident.

Hayden Hollingsworth