Wednesday, March 30, 2011
Mary Ellen Winter: Homeless Lady, Angel, or Both?
by, Mark Baker
It's unique how the aging process mellows us and gives us a perspective that often is quite different than the ones we held in younger years. A good friend got me to thinking today when on Facebook, she posed the question, "What 10 Things do you value most in life?" Intrigued, I took a notepad and jotted down the ten things in my life that mean the most to me; the list included of course our Lord & Savior, Jesus, my wonderful Woman, Annette, my three Sons, Family and Friends, etc. But as I neared the end of my list, somebody came to mind whose impact on my life I couldn't ignore and even though I spent less than two and a half hours with her, her impact on my life was profound and life-changing in nature.
It was 1999 and I'd been sent by my employer, a large Life Insurance & Annuity Company, where I worked as a Business Analyst to San Diego for a Technology Symposium & Convention at the Marriott Marquis Hotel & Marina. It was my first time visiting San Diego and while I was interested in seeing some of the sights of this most beautiful city in my personal time, I wanted to show my boss what a responsible steward I could be with company funds. So after reaching my suite, realizing I was quite hungry since leaving Michigan that morning, I called Room Service to ascertain what a Club Sandwich would cost me. Learning that a Club on Rye with Chips and a soft drink would be approximately $18.00, I declined as I noticed the small fridge in my suite's kitchenette, which I decided I could stock myself and eat from much cheaper than using room service. I secured my luggage and stopped by the front desk on my way out; I asked a Bell Hop which direction I might find the nearest grocery store and he gave me directions to a 'Safeway' a few blocks away, so off I went.
As I walked along, I couldn't help but notice how beautiful and clean San Diego was, and although a large city, it wasn't the least bit intimidating like I'd found LA, or San Francisco before it. Before long, I saw that I was approaching the Safeway from behind the store and as I rounded the corner to the front entrance I noticed a homeless Lady sitting at a little round table in front of the store. For whatever reason, I hesitated as we made eye-contact and I said "Good Afternoon Ma'am." She smiled back and retorted, "Good Afternoon young man." It was somewhat awkward in that I was entering the store and there was a guy right behind me that kept me from stopping as I entered. However, there was something very odd and unique that came over me as I met that Old Lady. I was (and am) generally a very observant person, but I noticed was completely AWARE of her during that brief moment. She had a large two-wheeled cart next to her that had three large plastic bags stuffed into it containing whatever homeless people put in such bags. She wore brownish nylon slacks and a San Diego 'Sea World' sweatshirt under one of those old '70's style green parkas with a fake fur snorkel with an orange lining. I noticed that her shoes were a men's pair of old Converse 'Chuck Taylor' black canvas high-tops, which looked especially odd in that she wasn't wearing any socks which was very evident as her slacks drew-up her thin pale ankles as she sat there. Her face was clean and she wore a vibrant, sincere smile and her blue eyes sparkled with life and brilliance. Those sockless ankles however would become very symbolic over the course of the next two and a half hours...
Anyway, I entered the store and quickly busied myself with gathering some staples for hunger-free high-rise bachlorhood for the next four days: Orange Juice, Milk, 'Grape Nuts' cereal, Apples, Bread, assorted lunch meat, cheese slices, Fruit Juice Boxes, and assorted snacks and spray starch to touch-up my clothes. I didn't give the old lady a lot of thought as I shopped, and as I checked-out, I assumed she'd left as I couldn't see her sitting beneath the window at the front of the store. As I exited the store, I caught her in the periphery of my right eye as she indeed was still sitting at that table. There was a brief yet awkward moment as I stutter-stepped, then hesitated not able to decide if I should just turn left outside the store and head back to my Hotel or turn toward her. Something inside me told me to turn right which I did. Again we looked at each other and again I said "'Ma'am" feeling rather awkward standing there holding two large bags of groceries which I sat down in order to extend my right hand to shake hers. I introduced myself, "Mark Baker, pleased to meet you..." and she responded with a wide smile saying, "Mary Ellen Winter, not Spring" offered with a little laugh that came from her heart. I asked her if I could join her at the little table to which she stated, "Set Down, sit down." All this was very strange for me, because I had no idea why she'd caught my eye to begin with, but seeing myself as a nice guy, I'd said hello, now I was feeling rather odd, in uncharted waters now sitting down with a homeless woman whom I knew nothing about in front of a grocery store in a town I'd never been to before, while my hungry stomach growled at me. But there I was.
She opened the conversation by asking, "What brings you to San Diego Mark Baker?" I responded, what makes you so sure I don't live here with a chuckle? She said, "well Mark Baker, your too pale to be from here and you're wearing a tie, and NOBODY wears ties in San Diego unless they have to; your dressed too formal for a tourist, so my guess is your here for business, am I right?" I laughed and said "Wow, you got me figured out, I'm staying around the corner at the Marriott while here for a technology convention, and I'm pale because I'm from Michigan and I'm wearing a tie because I'm square." We both laughed together and from there on, it was easy, like I'd known her a long time. Over the course of the next half hour or so, I came to learn a great deal about Mary-Ellen Winter and how she'd come to be a homeless lady living in San Diego.
She shared with me how she'd been a school teacher in Missouri for 27 years, had a teaching degree from Oklahoma and been married for over 30 years to her late husband who'd died of cancer. She moved out to San Diego to live with and help take care of her older sister who was dying of leukemia and eventually passed away. One thing led to another and she only had a small fixed income from her husbands social security and her small teachers pension, but couldn't afford a home or apartment here. As we talked and the sun began to set, the way she dressed began to make sense to me as I felt myself getting chilled as we spoke; the sweat-shirt and old parka now were beginning to take on a new light; I was getting my first lesson that evening. However her bare ankles stuffed into those man-sized Converse tennis shoes kept bothering me.
At one point as I was telling her about my life and showing her wallet pictures of my three sons, we were interrupted as a San Diego Police cruiser pulled up to the curb in front of us. A female officer stepped out of the car and I was about to get my second lesson of the evening, that of 'stratification' and that we DO live in a cast-system here in America wither we wish to face it or not. As the officer exited her car, she at first glanced at me with a warm, friendly look, slight smile and subtle head nod and stated to me "Sir." Then I watched as her glance moved over to Mary-Ellen. In that quick a space of time, I personally witnessed her face change from friendly to cold and semi-hostile as she addressed Mary-Ellen, "You need to be moving-on now, alright?" I immediately, but politely interjected, "Officer, everything is fine, we're just talking here, we shouldn't be that much longer." She gave me an odd, confused glance and stated "all right, but SHE will need to be moving along soon," as she re-entered her car and pulled away from us. Lesson-3 was well on its way to my thick skull as I realized that that officer had viewed the two of us very different, even though she didn't know either of us. I didn't like the feeling even though I was on the 'acceptable-side' of that viewpoint. Lesson-4 beat me over the head as soon as the officer was pulling away and I was contemplating what I'd just witnessed when Mary-Ellen offered, "That's ok honey, she was just doing her job." Here I am fully expecting that this poor old lady would be spouting something not so nice about the cop who had just treated her rather badly (which I would have felt myself had I been in her shoes), but yet this kind old homeless Christian Lady reminds me that she 'was just doing her job.'
Now as the sun was nearly setting and dusk closed-in I noticed how very chilly it gets in San Diego after the sun goes away, yet there again, my thoughts went to her sockless feet and I mentioned it to her asking her if she'd allow me to go back into the store so I might buy her a package of tube socks I'm sure they had. She laughed at me and stated "No Mark, I've got socks, but they're hanging up outside one of my places." I told her that it really was bothering me and that I had a lot of socks back at my room and that the ones on my feet were clean and sweat-free and that I'd feel better if she'd please let me give her my socks. Again, she laughed at me and said she didn't want my nasty, stinky socks. At this point, we were running out of things to talk about and I WAS starting to get quite cold. Then she said, "Well Mark, it's been great talking to you but I better get moving before I get in trouble with the police." At that point I insisted that she allow me to give her some of my food-things and she very reluctantly did after I basically put them into her cart. Then after another awkward moment, where we were about to separate, something came over me that I've never experienced before, I felt a strong urge to pray with her, so I asked her if it would be all right for us to pray together? She didn't hesitate to say "Sure, I'd love that." So we held hands and I awkwardly offered-up a prayer to the Lord for Mary-Ellen stating how it was an honor to have met her and asking that He watch out over her, etc. Without missing a beat, she chimed-in and thanked our Lord for having met me and asked Him to surround my boys with His Angels and that He watch over me during my stay and on my trip back home, etc.
We said our Amen's and then as I was getting up to leave, I hear a skateboarder coming down the sidewalk behind me. I think nothing of it as San Diego is full of oddballs desperately attempting to extend their adolescence. Anyway, this late 20-something skate-boarder comes along right beside the table we've been sitting at for two and a half hours and suddenly everything slows down like slow motion as he passes us in his dread-locks with a 'JansSport' bag slung over his shoulder, partially unzipped. At the EXACT moment he's right beside our table, I watch as a perfectly clean pair of 'Russell' Athletic Socks fall out of his bag to the sidewalk one foot from our table. My first thought is to yell to the kid about his socks, but I resist and instead reach down and pick them up and bring them up to Mary-Ellen who I hand them too. Now expecting to see her face as amazed as mine, I get my last lesson of that night as I look at her and she takes my left hand with her right, squeezes it and with a bright smile and those brilliant blue eyes, says to me: "See Honey, I told you He takes care of all my needs, and He Loves YOU just as much." My eyes immediately filled with tears I could hardly contain as it hit me that He hadn't provided ME to be a blessing to her, but rather He provided HER to be a blessing to ME. I hugged her, said goodbye and returned to my palace on the harbor as she returned to wherever she called home that cool evening. I called my boys to tell them what happened and to a person they pretty much thought the 'old man' had lost it. I never saw or heard from Mary-Ellen Winter again even though I have paused to think of her and that odd night twelve years ago many times. I don't worry about her or her bare ankles, or me for that matter, because I learned that night that our Savior is ALWAYS with us.