midpoint (2006-03)

The truth of the moment

by Stephanie Piper

She’s a single, pregnant woman in a shabby apartment furnished with cast-off couches and used pots and pans. Someone has given her an artificial Christmas tree, which she has gamely placed in the window and strung with lights. She has combed her hair and dressed carefully and put on shiny, dangling earrings. The bed is made. The room is neat.

She moved in last week, and she is going to be on television today: pregnant, homeless woman gets housing just in time for Christmas. It’s a good story, a holiday story. It’s a true story, plain and simple.

The thing I have learned about stories like this one it is that they are, like the truth, rarely plain and never simple. The facts can be distilled into a two-minute feature on the nightly news or a 20-inch article on the local page of the newspaper, spiced with a few good quotes or sound bytes. Then the cameraman will pack up his equipment and the notebook will snap shut. The TV van will pull away from the curb. The single, pregnant woman will stand in the middle of her living room and wonder how she is going to support the child who will arrive next week, how she will keep him safe and warm and fed. How she will stay healthy. How she will be, in fact, the soft-spoken, well-groomed person who appears in the television story. How she can keep the strings of this neatly wrapped package tied.

In my 20-something years as a journalist, I wrote a lot of these stories. I asked the questions and filled narrow spiral notebooks with the answers and cobbled them together into Sunday Spotlights and Holiday Heartbeats and Living Features. And then I went on to the next assignment: the Spring Fashion Section, the Prom Package. Sometimes, a year or two later, I would glimpse the single mother or the homeless veteran or the recovering crack addict I had written about across a crowded mall or on a street corner. I would see them before they saw me, and I would look away quickly, before they made the connection. I wanted them to stay put. I needed them to stay in the story.

Now I have learned that most of the time, people do not stay in the story. Now that I stay behind in the shabby apartment or the shelter waiting room, stay after the reporters leave, I see how life sweeps in and the strings on the package come undone and the paper falls away. I see that there is a whole person there, flawed and needy and full of possibility. There is a whole other story waiting to unfold. On good days, the next chapter looks promising. On bad days, it looks irretrievably bleak. Most days, it could go either way.

I have watched people throw away opportunity with both hands and I have watched as others stride ahead and then slip back, disappear, re-surface, fall apart. I have watched knee-walking drunks turn into solid citizens. I have stopped predicting outcomes. On good days and bad days, I have not stopped being amazed.

Today is a good day. The story has legs, as we used to say in the newspaper business. Donations of baby clothes and diapers and strollers and car seats have poured in for the single mother. She will have what she needs. She will bring her infant son home to a clean, well-lighted place. The people at the shelter where I now work will keep her in sight. That’s the truth of this moment. And for this moment, it is enough.