“Mom, why do her feet look like that?” I ask. We are standing near the end of a long line for the circus at Bartle Hall. I am so young I am not excited for the circus because I don’t yet know what a circus is. I am more interested in the old woman sitting on a bench by the back of the line, wearing a yellow wool coat and a silk scarf wrapped around her hair and tied underneath her chin. I peer around my mom’s legs, staring behind her at the plastic grocery bags covering the woman’s feet, securely knotted at her ankles.
“Well…she’s homeless. The plastic keeps her feet from getting wet in the snow,” my mom answers.
“What does homeless mean?”
“It means you don’t have a house to live in.”
“So she sleeps outside?” I ask. I am too small to ask broad questions about humanity and homelessness. I only want to know where this particular woman sleeps, and as my mom has answered every other question I’ve ever asked, I have no reason to believe she wouldn’t know.
“Probably. Or she might sleep in a car. I don’t know.”
“Why is she homeless?”
“Well,” my mom begins, “sometimes people lose their jobs and can’t get another one. Maybe that happened to her.” For the first time, I am conscious of the connection between my parents having jobs and my family having a home. I thought they went to work because that’s just what all grown-ups do.
My mom glances back at the woman and for some reason she tells me, “Sometimes people are mentally ill. Sometimes it’s hard for people to get jobs or live in houses when they have mental illness.” She always talks to me like this, like I am a grown-up, too, capable of understanding the world and valuable enough to be told what’s going on in it.
We go inside and watch the circus and when I am older I don’t remember a single thing about the elephants or the cotton candy or the trapeze swingers. Only plastic bags in place of shoes.