A true story.
“Can you help me…with some food?”
The query came from a Navajo woman with a cane in the Safeway supermarket parking lot in Page, AZ. I was just walking up to my rental car when she came up to me.
I thought for only a moment. “Sure. What would you like?”
The Taco Bell was just down the street. “I’ll take you there,” I told her. “Hop in.”
She walked around to the other side of the car while I climbed in my side. I put my Starbucks latte in the cup holder and tossed the lemon coffee cake I’d bought onto the dashboard. I had some things on the passenger seat and moved them for her. Then she climbed in, putting her cane between her legs and shut the door. She was conservatively dressed, looked clean, and didn’t appear (or smell) drunk. She had a round face with flattened features and half-opened eyelids. She looked almost Asian. I remembered that the Navajo were descended from the people who had crossed the Bering Strait into North America in prehistoric times. She looked to be in her sixties.
I started toward Taco Bell. It was 9:40 AM. “It’s not even 10 o’clock. Do you think it’s open?” I asked.
“No. I don’t think so,” she replied thoughtfully. “It’s open until 11 at night.”
“How about McDonald’s?” I suggested. “They make a good breakfast.”
McDonalds was down off the mesa on Route 89, about 2 miles away. I started down the hill.
“Do you work for a hotel?” she asked me. She’d obviously seen my rack cards, which I’d be bringing to the airport the next day.
“No,” I replied. “I work for a tour company.”
“Where are you from?”
“The Phoenix area,” I told her. “Wickenburg.”
“Oh, I know Wickenburg,” she replied. “I used to live in Glendale. Peoria, El Mirage.” She thought for little while and added, “I moved there when my husband died. Now I’m just homeless.”
I steered us down the hill. Lake Powell and the Glen Canyon Dam came into view.
“Can’t they help you at the Chapter House?” I asked. It didn’t seem right that the Navajo people would let one of their own remain homeless on the streets of Page.
“No, they can’t help me.”
The conversation died as we rolled down the hill. I suspected she wasn’t telling me everything. She was too clean and well kept to be truly homeless. She must be going somewhere at night.
“Do you have family in Page?” I asked her as I made the left turn onto Route 89.
“I have a son in Salt Lake City and another one in Phoenix,” she replied.
The conversation died again. This time she revived it.
“I heard that Chinatown got wiped out.”
I made her repeat what she said; I didn’t think I’d heard it right the first time. But I had.
“Chinatown?” I repeated. There was no Chinatown within 500 miles of Page, AZ. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“I heard it on the news.”
It came to me suddenly. “Oh, you mean Japan. The earthquake and tsunami.”
“Yeah, that’s it.”
By this time, McDonald’s was in sight.
“Can we go to Burger King instead?” she asked.
I saw the Burger King logo just up ahead. “Sure. You like that better?”
“Yes. They have a good deal. Two hamburgers for three dollars.”
I pulled up to the drive through at Burger King. The menu was on a board beside the talking box. “What do you want?”
“Two hamburgers,” she said. I think she was trying to save me money.
“Some orange juice to go with that?” I asked. I was thinking about getting something healthy into her.
“Anything else? Some fries?”
“No fries.” She was reading the menu board. “Maybe the sausage, egg, and biscuit,” she said suddenly.
“Okay. And two hamburgers for later?”
After what seemed like eternity, a voice came through the speaker. I ordered the sausage, egg, and biscuit breakfast meal and two hamburgers. The order taker asked if I wanted coffee or orange juice with that. I asked my companion.
The order taker read back our order. It came to seven dollars and change. She told us to pull up to the second window.
At the window, the order taker took my money and gave us the orange juice and a straw. Then she asked us to pull up and wait in the parking lot while they made the burgers. Because it was so early, they’d have to be made special. So I pulled around to the parking lot.
While we were waiting there, I asked, “Why did you come back here from Phoenix?”
“I wanted to come back to my reservation,” she said. After a while, she added, “My mother and father live here.”
“Do they live far from Page?”
“Yes. Very far. Thirty-six miles. You go down Haul Road and then you keep going.” She added the name of the town but I didn’t catch it. Later, I found Kaibito on Route 98 36.9 miles from Page in the right general direction.
“Maybe you should go live with them for a while,” I suggested.
“I been thinking about it.”
“I think it’s a good idea,” I said honestly. I hesitated, then asked: “Do you need someone to drive you there?” I would have done it to get her off the street. My morning was wide open.
“No,” she replied. “I can hitchhike.”
I knew that hitchhiking was a popular means of transportation among Navajo people on the Reservation. I’d picked up a hitchhiker once myself, when I was driving through the Rez with some friends. She’d be okay.
The order taker came out with her food and I handed it over. I backed out of my parking space and prepared to take her back up into town.
“Can you drop me off at McDonald’s?” she asked.
McDonalds was just down the road, near the Wal-Mart. “Sure.” I drove over and made the turn. “Where? Here or near Wal-Mart?”
“Here,” she said. “By the tables.” McDonald’s had some outdoor tables in the sun. “I can sit and eat here.”
“Okay.” I drove over to the tables and stopped. For a moment, she struggled with her bag of food, orange juice, and cane. Then she managed to get the door open.
“Do you think you can help me with some money?”
I was wondering if she’d ask and was prepared. I handed her a $10 bill. “Here you go. Use it to get something good for yourself.” I still wasn’t convinced that she didn’t have a drinking problem — alcohol is a major problem on the Rez. But I couldn’t say no. I have so much; she had to ask strangers for food.
She took the money. “Thank you.”
She got out of the car, closed the door, and stood still behind it. I shifted into drive and pulled away slowly. When I’d gone around the McDonald’s to the exit, I saw her sitting at the table with her breakfast and lunch.
I drove back to my hotel, just down the road.