A former public-school teacher, she was fluent in multiple languages and said she had a graduate degree. Born into the post-war prosperity of the 1950s, she was raised in an upscale San Francisco neighborhood, three generations of her family in the same single-family Edwardian, recently valued at up to four-million dollars. Her father had been a doctor. She enjoyed manicured gardens and brisk walks and lavender-scented lotion made with organic oils. She admired Brahms, both the man and his music. She was resourceful and charming. And she lived across the street from me in her car.
When I initiated our first conversation, her voice was almost dainty. She was always tidy and alone. No men or children, no pets, cigarettes, bottles, or trash. She did not look weathered, dirty, or intoxicated. She had a profusion of silver curls and often wore dresses, a petite purse swinging from her arm. Her gaze was direct, but rarely lingered. She smiled easily. For the most part, she drew no particular attention. When she was walking in the park or waiting for a bus or otherwise not near her car, nothing in her appearance suggested that she was one of San Francisco’s nineteen-thousand homeless people. One Sunday, I offered to buy her a takeout meal from a neighborhood restaurant—sushi, seafood, vegan, Turkish, East African? She declined, but said she would accept three dollars for gas, so she could run the heat in her car at night. I was already picturing the twenty in its envelope when she said, “Three, please. No more.” I included my phone number and offered to help.
Libraries and cafes were closed because of the pandemic, so I conducted internet searches for her: food pantries/free wi-fi/drugstore hours/tax help/videoconferencing instructions/how to delouse a car. She’d leave a large thermos behind a planter in my front yard and I’d fill it with hot water for her hibiscus tea. I also left the requested cleaning supplies and laundry pods. Our neighborhood, with its banks and boutiques and outdoor tourist attractions, is relatively safe, but still, I worried about her, exposed—vandalism, theft, tow trucks, the city’s famous fog, and hazards not even I, proficient in dread, could imagine. I also knew better than to ask how she ended up there. When she said she’d been a ten-year customer of our local supermarket (gleamy with a floral department and dessert bakery), I figured she had lived nearby. Her chosen parking spot made sense; the situation was hard enough without starting over in unfamiliar territory.
“This is not who I am,” she told me verbally and in countless other ways. She seemed more appalled by her situation than resigned to it, which gave me hope. If she was still new to living in her car, maybe she could soon get out of it. We communicated mostly by text and, but for a couple of rare exceptions, our conversations were short and logistical. She offered reimbursement for my smallest expenditures on her behalf and was careful not to be “too much”. The car made for rough sleeping and—typical of her levity—she likened herself to Hans Christian Andersen’s famous fictional princess, whose authentic sensitivity is “proven” when she rises, bruised and exhausted from a sleepless night on twenty mattresses and twenty featherbeds, under which a mere pea had been inserted as a test. Commiserating about insomnia, my new neighbor and I adopted the mutual nickname of Pea Princess, later shortened to Pea.
According to various studies, about half of our nation’s people living without homes are older than fifty and, of those, almost half became unhoused for the first time after that significant birthday. Bay Area unhoused people with a median age of fifty-eight had more trouble bathing, dressing, and eating than eighty-year-olds with housing. Visual impairment, depression, and serious falls are all significantly worse among older people experiencing homelessness. Almost forty percent reported suffering from psychiatric or emotional conditions, or post-traumatic stress. Researchers expect the elderly homeless to nearly triple over the next decade.
I was not the only neighbor to help. Others contributed food, lent her a book, and even crafted a complete resume from her handwritten drafts. Pea never referred to herself as homeless, but she cited a predictable conundrum: “To get a job, you need a place to live; to get a place to live, you need a job.” Without a reliable internet connection, uploading a resume was a challenge. She missed text messages and at least one virtual job interview because her phone and laptop were outdated. She told me she’d been hired for a remote job before the pandemic, but this too became technologically out of reach. Age was undoubtedly an obstacle. Despite her credentials and qualifications, younger job-seekers made tough competition in a town where more than sixty percent of the population over twenty-five holds a post-secondary degree and more than eighty percent of households had high-speed internet before the pandemic.
Re-reading The Princess and the Pea, I wondered how long the unaccompanied woman had been out wandering in the rain. Had she fled an abusive or otherwise untenable situation? Suffered a terrible loss? Where were the friends and family that might have provided shelter? Andersen didn’t answer these questions in his tale and, for the most part, neither did Pea.
I learned online that Pea was born into a vibrant ethnic community, her elders having immigrated to escape violence in their home country. For thirty years, I’ve been walking by the building inhabited in the 1930s by her grandparents and their adult children, a family that would yield medical professionals, educators, and philanthropists. A few blocks away, her extended family has owned a house for decades, and I would not be surprised to learn that Pea had occupied it at some point. She told me that tradition, family, and community were essential to life, though she was largely estranged from the community of her upbringing. Though her description of the defining incidents was a jumble, I heard the pain in her voice and just listened.
Meanwhile, more of my neighbors began to help. One offered to contact a local church. Others brought supplies unbidden, jump-started her car battery, and held her parking space when she needed to drive somewhere. Some transformed her food-bank items into hot meals, including a made-to-order lentil dish and a batch of enchiladas portioned and stored for as-needed consumption. Neighbors charged her computer, contributed gas money, and sprung for a night in a motel. One warned that Pea looked deeply angry. I saw those flashes, too, but attributed them to her distressing situation and, quite possibly, the personal fire that enabled her to endure.
Optimistic about Pea, I pictured her hosting a group coffee in a local café in the undefined future, showing us pictures of her living space with immaculate floors and a comfy sofa. She’d have a piano in her living room, a bowl of fresh fruit on the kitchen counter, and maybe an orchid in the bathroom. After an anomalous stretch in her car during the pandemic, she would have reunited with family, friends, and community. In addition to secure housing, she’d have better health, her diet and any medications updated, her energy no longer spent wholly on survival. She’d cite her recovery from the trauma of experiencing homelessness. Among the many who’d helped, my neighbors and I would be remembered fondly.
Perhaps, by now, you’ve guessed it didn’t quite go that way?
During the pandemic, our state and local governments offered hotel rooms to unhoused people to slow the spread of disease. Faith-based charities helped, as well. Looking back, I would understand that my mention of same to Pea incited her fears of losing the modicum of control she had over her life. At the time, however, she thanked me for trying to help, but was adamant that such assistance was “for people who probably won’t work again.” The city-sponsored Shelter-in-Place hotels featured a room, meals, bathroom access, laundry, social services, and a potential avenue into permanent housing; they also featured a traumatized population suffering from chronic neglect, insufficient mental and physical healthcare, and various forms of violence, past and present. Some hotels were in peripheral locations; others were on high-crime streets where overdose deaths are concentrated. Some were plagued with mold, vermin, plumbing problems, inoperable elevators, and notable filth. Pea chose her car instead and parked it in a familiar neighborhood on a street with gingerbread Victorians and stained-glass windows, windchimes and potted gardens and hopscotch games in colored chalk.
For three months, she and I were in touch almost daily. She set the frequency of contact, but if she was silent for more than a few days, I checked on her. Sometimes, we texted just to say goodnight. We sent each other virtual hugs and good wishes. In a birthday card, I wrote that I was glad to know her. She said I made her feel less alone. I welcomed our rapport as a counterbalance to the rising Covid-death toll and ferocious election season.
Plus, the timing was right. Fears of contagion set strict boundaries, and while the relationship was genial, it was also largely transactional: She needed something, and I tried to help her obtain it. Occasionally, the need was for understanding and encouragement, but more often, it was for ground cinnamon, plastic bags, or flattened cardboard to help smooth the sleeping surface of her fold-down seats. My role was not one of big-picture assistance, but of modest mitigation around everyday hassles. Due to the pandemic, I no longer had family travel, gal-pal lunches, or twice-a-week dance classes in sweat-soaked studios. Finishing a series of medical treatments, my energy level was too low for deadline work, but too high to sidestep a feeling of uselessness. Helping another human without leaving home seemed like a good fit.
But all the while, Pea’s conflicts with neighbors piled up. She scolded the people across the street for setting their overfilled trash cans too close to her car; concerned about her animosity and tired of looking at her wheeled abode, they called the police. She quarreled with an employee of the laundromat where she’d accessed free WIFI, and considered taking legal action against another business for the right to charge her electronics and use the bathroom. She complained, too, of maltreatment from a neighborhood group that had recently formed to distribute food to people in need. She had angry exchanges with a neighbor who had initially offered to help and then reneged. Another had tried to update her laptop, but that, too, had been problematic. Even a librarian managed to offend her by phone. Having alienated several people who had tried to help, Pea told me the residents on our block disappointed her. Certain that I, too, would inevitably disappoint, I started to gain at least a partial understanding of how a person of her intelligence, accomplishments, socioeconomic background, and large local family could find herself isolated and destitute.
With Pea parked across the street, I began keeping our drapes closed. Was it painful for her to observe grocery deliveries to our porch, a plumber arriving to fix a toilet, a silver-anniversary couple sitting shoulder to shoulder while eating chocolate sorbet on the front steps? At night, the indoor lighting would follow us upstairs to bed. Maybe she gazed longingly from behind her window covering. More likely, she had trained herself not to look.
Just as I, too, had tried to train myself.
Long before the pandemic, our neighborhood’s commercial sidewalks had people sleeping in doorways. Daily, I bear witness: dirt-caked hair, skin ulcers, gnarled toes protruding from tattered shoes, half-eaten pizza slices pulled from the trash, disturbed muttering and desperate moaning, bodies passed out in pools of fluids indeterminate. Some occasionally kick walls or shout obscenities, but the majority are too beaten down to excite fear. Or, for that matter, hope. In contrast, I told myself, Pea just seemed temporarily down on her luck. Here was a chance to help a person who could help herself as well, a chance to quell my own sense of hopelessness every time I’d leave my comfortable home—or just look outside. Mine was not a wholly unselfish motive: I did not want to see what I saw; I did not want to feel what I felt.
Then one morning, her car was gone. In those few seconds before I could begin to worry about her, I felt—to my shame—relief. Gone was the daily visual engagement with her grave circumstances. Gone was the optimism I kept trying to muster. Gone, too, was my initial assumption that her situation was new. By this point, she had mentioned a pre-pandemic reliance on public pools for showering, public libraries for computer time.
When I first saw her in her new spot down the block (away from the garbage-can conflict), I noticed that her complexion had browned. Her feet were cracked and swollen; toenails, long and discolored. I’d thought of her as full-figured, but now a clinical term came to mind, one that increased the risk of heart problems, diabetes, and stroke. Her gait was more labored than leisurely, her expression more weary than dreamy. It was not that she’d changed dramatically in the week since I’d last seen her, but that my internal image of her was no longer accurate—if it ever had been. I’ve known since childhood that hope can be a powerful tool. When it serves me, my straw turns to gold. When it doesn’t, I emerge from my imaginings, perplexed and disillusioned, lost in the woods.
When Pea texted that she’d been “got rid of” by one of my neighbors, I didn’t say much. When she was “dropped” by a different neighbor and wanted to discuss the misunderstanding, I declined to intercede. To this, she responded with “Do Not Disturb” and then a brief lecture on “words” and “excuses,” her final text to me. Per her preference (and, perhaps, by then, my own), I didn’t reply. After a three-week silence, she left me a small gift and a sweet note: “Thanks for everything. Best wishes.” A few days later, I saw her in the neighborhood. With a Street Sheet hawker and a couple of stroller families between us, I mouthed a socially-distanced “Thank you.” She responded with a note on my doorstep: “No more contact, please…Last warning.”
It was awkward to look past her on the street, but I had to accept that the stranger with an easy smile was now a frosty presence. I had known her only briefly and superficially, but how not to genuinely appreciate a person who quoted Shakespeare’s Falstaff: “Let the sky rain potatoes…”? She had called her brief motel stay a “spa weekend” and made gentle fun of herself for fussing over a favorite pen. She referred to a pink dress as her “Pea Princess outfit.” She relayed a comical account of a much-bejeweled woman trying to pass through a metal detector in a public building. Our connection had run its course, but a part of me missed a part of her.
After eight months of silence, I passed her one Sunday on the sidewalk and she said, “Good Afternoon.” She was carrying a bouquet and looking glowy. I returned the greeting, but followed her lead and kept walking in the opposite direction. The next day, her car was gone again. Had she found a job? Moved in with friends or family? Rocked a lucky break?
The story from the neighbors was somewhat familiar: A helpful person is wonderful until a boundary is set. That wonderful person who cannot cook that day or must prioritize work or won’t mediate a conflict with another neighbor becomes a betrayer.
“I’m so sick of being mistreated!” Pea once texted me. And while people in her situation are indeed mistreated, I’ve come to see her abrupt reversals toward my neighbors and me as pre-emptive strikes before the personal connection would surely implode. Was it hard to simultaneously hold others’ offerings and limitations—sometimes able to help, sometimes not? Had the embrace-and-reject cycle long been a means of survival? Did a past trauma cruelly echo in distorted iterations? In any case, a friend aptly described my experience of Pea as heartbreak. While her stay-away notes initially made me angry, they quickly illustrated both how much help she needed and how unlikely she would be to accept it. Indeed, she had once lamented to me, with a shrug of genuine bewilderment, that good relationships always seemed to end.
Shortly after she’d wished me a good afternoon one day and disappeared the next, she left a handwritten missive on my doorstep, accusing me of making phone calls about her to City Hall and trying to control her life. She claimed she had alerted the police; I should stay away from her. Three weeks later, I received a typed Cease and Desist letter, composed, like its predecessor, as if by her sibling, but sounding very much like Pea. This version included surnames and said they had hired a lawyer because I’d damaged Pea’s professional standing, gained unauthorized access to her medical records, and plotted to have her “put away”. The certified mail cost her seven dollars.
I wish she’d bought herself a burrito instead.
Other neighbors also received Cease and Desist letters. What prompted such rage? Had a newly budgeted outreach team paid a visit? Had her car been cited per the restored 72-hour parking limit? Had the neighborly help only made her feel indebted because she couldn’t reciprocate? Had an undisclosed illness produced a new depth of despair? In any case, I’d contacted no department or agency about her.
No doubt, the imbalance of power was significant. The neighbors were comfortably housed and shared a history (some decades long) of sidewalk conversations, holiday parties, and casual favors. One is my weekly walking buddy. Another buys a huge bakery loaf and brings us half. We hold packages for each other, close garage doors mistakenly left open, and share extra cilantro. Long before the pandemic, several of us had joined forces to obtain a stop sign and prevent a street closure; zoning battles precede my time there, but they were won by a group of neighbors still on the block. Pea knew what she didn’t have. Among her complaints were my “unauthorized communications” with neighbors.
One neighbor was particularly surprised to hear about the Cease and Desist letter to me because only recently Pea had claimed she didn’t know who I was. This professed erasure saddened me almost as much as the hostile notes. All tenderness was seemingly gone or demoted from her recollections—our shared grandparent stories, a shared love of Early Music, my attempts to soothe after someone had called her a street person. Demoted, too, are my neighbors’ best connections with her, and perhaps, those from the previous block, the block before that, and beyond. While Pea’s view of us might be the least of her problems, I can’t help but note that despite her ability to attract people genuinely willing to help, she perceives only persecution.
Since its publication in 1846, The Princess and the Pea has been interpreted as a satire about the lengths people go to exalt themselves, the royal characters possibly referring to the elevated social status craved by the author. Other interpretations focus on authenticity or, in my view, recognition. The Princess asks us to look beyond the absence of her material trappings (retinue, conveyance, palace): See just me. Weather-beaten. Shelter-seeking. Worthy.
If Pea rejected some opportunities outright, if she quarreled with people to maintain control and agency, if she repudiated “unhoused” and its synonyms, she was perhaps yearning to be recognized for her essential personhood, not just her present circumstances. Perhaps, I, too, was seeking recognition, but from myself. It has never felt right to walk by people sleeping outside and yet I have done it every day for thirty-five years. No amount of bills pressed into palms or dollars donated to food banks would—or should—render homelessness a normal expectation. With Pea, I was a naïve and clumsy do-gooder. But would it have been better to walk by her every day and offer nothing? Do I regret having helped her? Was I prepared to accept the consequences?
Ultimately, I hope that Pea, like Andersen’s Princess, will knock on the right door. Barring a magic kingdom, this is unlikely to deliver a palace with evening turn-down service and a betrothal offer. Yet, I continue to imagine a future in which her authentic gifts—cultural, intellectual, and personal—will reign; it’s a fairy-tale ending, to be sure. While at nearly seventy, she has far exceeded the national life expectancy for people experiencing homelessness, I fear she’ll become sick or injured, or worse, die alone in her car.
More than a year has passed since Pea was parked on our block. In the early weeks after her departure, we would pass each other on the sidewalk without a glance, just as we probably had for years before we met. Once, at the foot of the stairs next door, she leaned over to fuss with something, then turned to look directly at me. Maybe it was a question. Maybe it was a dare. Or maybe she was just removing a pebble from her shoe.