She had no family, no friends other than her little dogs (and us). Dirt-poor, she lived in a neighborhood where drug dealers own the corners and going out alone could invite a mugging or other assault. The yard behind her rowhouse she barricaded with wires and fencing materials and locks on the gate, a fortress not easily penetrated by anyone attempting to gain entry in order to
harm her or her canine companions who adored her and protected her by yipping and yapping whenever someone walked by. We knew her for well over ten years and we called her Bag lady, not from disrespect or condescension but as an endearment; beyond a mutual fondness and good will, our relationship with her hinged on a plentiful exchange of plastic bags.
We first crossed paths with Bag lady when she was physically able to push a shopping cart through her grouping of alleys in search of aluminum cans to redeem for bits of cash. We introduced ourselves and told this pleasant woman about our work in the alleys; she identified her yard by pointing to it and, from that time forward, we had a friend in that area -- so did the animals. Bag lady always informed us when she knew about an animal in trouble.
I don't recall how many years ago
or how it started, but we developed a routine of leaving food for Bag lady's dogs.
Three nights a week we travel the east side of the city (the other three nights
we're on the west side), and before each east side trip we put together a care
package. Bag Lady had rigged her backyard fence so that she could hang a large
bucket on the inside. Leaving our offering meant having to reach through the wiring,
extra fencing, and other fortification to drop in the bucket plastic bags sometimes
filled with cans, sometimes dry food, sometimes treats and goodies for the dogs.
If she felt well enough, Bag lady
was up and waiting for us to arrive at her gate, and she would rush out the door
to greet us with a cheerful fanfare accompanied by her little dogs yapping at
full volume. She always greeted us in high spirits, thankful for our assistance
-- however small -- and she insisted on showing her gratitude by giving us something
When she had nothing else, she gave
us an assortment of clean plastic bags. Whenever she managed to set aside a few
dollars, Bag Lady prepared two snack bags with fruit she purchased; though her
interaction was with Dee, this special woman always prepared a bag for Dee's partner
as well. In spring and summer, Bag lady planted a smaIl vegetable garden in an
abandoned yard a few doors away. At harvest time she generously shared the bounty
with us, and you couldn't find a better tasting tomato than those the soil yielded
under Bag lady's careful tending.
We ordinarily reserve these pages
for stories and information about the work we do in the alleys and the animals
we handle, but Bag lady earned her place as an exception. She was a thoughtful,
thankful person for whom no obituary will ever be written eulogizing her accomplishments
and standing. Yet she accomplished something few of us can claim -- she rose above
her surroundings; her status as a very poor person did not prevent her from making
the most of what she had. Many people derive self-esteem from their homes and
pride themselves on their furnishings, believing that a pristine home ornamented
with expensive furniture and decorations somehow elevates them above the rest,
as if a house and its contents could attach value to a person. I never saw the
inside of Bag Lady's home, I didn't need to -- I saw inside her soul. A love of
animals, a thankful heart in the midst of poverty, these and a humble goodness
were the measure of a fine woman. Mere reflection of a bank account or credit
line, even the grandest house meant to dazzle all who enter could add nothing
to the light our Bag Lady brought to this world.
Recently, on two consecutive trips
through the east side, Dee arrived at Bag Lady's gate to drop off the bags of
dog food, but found no bundle of "thank you" bags tied to the fence. In itself
this was not enough cause for concern, so Dee tossed both little dogs a treat
and went on to finish the night's alley work. The receiving bucket inside Bag
Lady's fence was able to hold a substantial cache, so Dee did not realize until
the third visit that the bags she was leaving were'nt dropping to the bottom.
The bucket was half-full. Reaching into the bucket, Dee pulled out its contents
-- a week's supply of food Bag Lady had not collected. Something was very wrong.
Bag Lady relied on our assistance to provide for her dogs whom she rescued from
the streets and loved dearly. She would never willingly withhold meals from them.
With a suddden shudder, Dee realized in Bag Lady's absence, the two little dogs
had been outside and without water or food (other than the treats she tossed them)
for almost a week. Before leaving this time, Dee threw over the high fence enough
food to fill their empty stomachs.
Later that day we drove to Bag Lady's
neighborhood and tracked down a police officer. We explained the situation, our
concern that an elderly woman might be injured or ill inside her house. The police
office called the fire department. One look at Bag Lady's fortress of a fence
as well as the cluttered yard occupied by two excited dogs, and the fireman decided
to take his ladder through the adjoining yard which was open and clear. Leaning
the ladder against the house, he climbed up far enough to see inside the window.
No further investigation was needed. Bag Lady's body lay on the floor just inside
the back door.
The poignancy and sadness in learning
for certain that our Bag Lady was gone for good brought to bear a sense of duty
too. No one else would take over the care of her two little dogs who had been
outside and alone for days on end. Surely people noticed this, but no one took
action on behalf of either Bag Lady or her companions. Were it not for our fond
acquaintance with their owner, they would have died from thirst and hunfer in
full view of neighbors and passers-by. I like to think Bag Lady smiled down from
heaven that day; and though she could not demonstrate her thanks this time, she
could begin her final joyney with a peaceful spirit knowing we did not forsake
her best friends in this hour of greatest need.