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For the woman who has nothing

by Brian Clarey

It’s just a K-Mart. Nothing special about that.

In fact, one could argue that the merchandise at K-Mart is the opposite of special — mass-produced goods slapped together in some Asian sweatshop… filling row after row, aisle after aisle… nothing here is unique. Nothing is one of a kind.

And still I’m having the damndest time making my purchases, wandering around the place like a man who’s never set foot in a store that has pretty much everything a body could want, like some hoople down from the hills, like I don’t even understand what K-Mart is all about — namely, loading your cart with a bunch of cheap stuff to bring home and pile up with all the other crap you thought you really needed when you had some extra folding money in your pocket.

Hell yeah I’m snagging that logo jersey, and a couple GI Joe action figures, maybe a new crock pot and some of those high thread-count sheets wrapped snuggly up in a cube. Greeting cards. Lotions. Blankets designed specifically for keeping human flesh cozy while it’s massed on a couch watching TV.

Any American worth his salt can blow through a cool grand in a K-Mart in less than an hour.

But today I face a new big-box challenge: What do I buy for the woman who has nothing?

After my cover story a few weeks ago about the bottomdwelling folks out at the homeless camp [“Street Level”; Oct. 7, 2009], I got letters and phone calls from readers wanting to help Cotton and Don and the rest of those downtrodden souls. A pastor from a church in Winston-Salem wanted to bring his youth group out there. One guy wanted to donate a case of MREs, those subsistence-level meals given to US soldiers when they’re out in the field. But not even homeless and hungry people like to eat MREs, as it turns out. My Korean neighbor, upon learning that there was a woman out there from her home country, wanted me to take her there immediately. My wife thought we might have a kerosene lantern somewhere in the garage, undoubtedly bearded with cobwebs and sawdust beneath some longforgotten plaything.

One Greensboro woman who called on the phone sounded deeply affected by the plight of my homeless friends, insisted on doing what she could. Her help came in the form of a check delivered by US mail to my office this morning: 25 American dollars. She wanted to make sure Cotton, who has been on the streets for 16 years and in a wheelchair for nine, had what she needed to make it through the winter.

“Can you get her some sweatpants or something?” this nice lady had asked me over the phone. “I hate to think of her out there like that.”

So here I am, prowling the temple of American consumerism with somebody else’s money, shopping for a lady who lives in a tent out in the woods by the train tracks, downtown Greensboro’s worst neighborhood.

I’m trying to be practical — find something she can really use out there in her makeshift abode. I head over to the camping department, looking for a fuel lantern that will provide both light and warmth through the coming chill, maybe a stovetop or something so she can cook… what? Cotton ain’t gonna be doing much cooking this winter, unless by some miracle her food stamps get reinstated. And all the lanterns seem to be battery operated, or else they need to be charged in an electrical outlet. And that, as my old friend O’Malley used to say, is like fried chicken at Auschwitz: Not gonna happen. Not for Cotton, or anybody else in the straits she’s in.

I’ve got no use for the entire electronics department, for that matter. Housewares? Don’t think so. Ditto for the toy section, the jewelry counter, lingerie and accessories. You think Cotton needs a big leather purse? I don’t.

I spend a good minute fingering a stylish and delicate turtleneck sweater, ribbed, charcoal gray, before I come to my senses and look for something a bit more durable, something that can, you know, withstand the October winds when they make her tarp rattle in the middle of the cold, cold night.

Fleece sweats. Five bucks. I’ll take two, a top and a bottom. Turtleneck costs another Lincoln. Here’s a candle — I know she likes those, and this one has a picture of a guardian angel on it. How about a big-ass bottle of Mountain Dew and a pair of knitted gloves? And what the hell… I throw a deck of playing cards in there. Help her pass the time.

I sack ’em up and head downtown, making a stop to pick up a bottle of aspirin and a pouch of cheap tobacco — on my dime, because I don’t know of our benefactor is cool with the smokes — park in the gravel lot and make my way down that desolate road by foot as a freight train thunders up the Norfolk Southern Line.

With the rumble’s surcease I announce myself: “Yo, Cotton,” and she beckons me over to her site. I trudge over like frickin’ Santa Claus with a sack full of gifts, or maybe a Viking returning from plunder. I drop into her wheelchair and show her the goods. Sweats! Gloves! A deck of cards! All from a reader who was moved by your story! The one I wrote!

She looks at it and shakes her head, regards me like one would a stupid cousin or a relatively smart monkey.

“I don’t need any of this shit,” she says. Cotton don’t pull punches.

“I need my medication,” she says. “I need some food. I need my damn food stamps back.”

She pauses, bunches her sweater around her thin shoulders. A look of resignation wipes across her face, like a fire going out, like a shadow, like the fading rumble of the freights on the Norfolk Southern Line as they head for… someplace else.

“But I need my medication,” she says. She can’t do anything without it. She says she’s unable to muster the will to get up from her tatted mattress without it, can’t greet the day or even leave the camp. Can’t do nothing. And winter’s coming, she says. There’s wood to pile, conditions to assess. And this motley collection of tarps and blankets she’s living in… well, it’s not ready for November. Not by a longshot.

WhenI leave the camp, — which, I remind you, exists just a few hundredyards from the Melvin Municipal building —I do so with my sack full ofK-Mart goodies, minus the Mountain Dew, aspirin and smoke. Cottonhadn’t had tobacco in three days.

I also leave with her prescription for some pills that take a week for even the biggest pharmacy in town to get in stock.

I’vegot her expired Medicaid card, her Texas ID, her caseworker’s contactinformation and a ticket she got for trespassing she wants me to getfixed.

And as Iangle up that steep and rutted trail back to my car, I know I’ve alsomade a promise: At least I can help this poor broad score her meds.Everything else is like fighting a tiger with a toothpick.

Andso help me, I hope I still have that K-Mart receipt. And I hope theygive me cash instead of store credit for all that nonsense I bought.

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