I’m not sure if I believe in magic, but after being shouted at by a homeless lady I came away believing in curses. I don’t completely understand what happened, but what I do know is that in the week that followed, nothing went right. I was constantly late for classes, I got on buses going the wrong way, and my perception of time became notably warped. I’d waste whole days with nothing to show for it. On other occasions, I’d sit in a class and be convinced that an hour had passed, only to find that I’d been there for ten minutes.
I don’t believe I had done anything to warrant the sudden and dramatic shift in my fortune. I hadn’t even wanted to be in the cafe in the first place, but when student protests caused a local university to shut down, my student, a lecturer, suggested that we have our class at the Starbucks across the road. The mornings were still cold, and we took a table close to the window in the hope that some early morning sunlight would grace us with its warmth.
I find this particular student quite interesting. He is young, athletic, and intelligent. He lectures philosophy in the Law Department, and he is deeply interested in social issues. He is vastly knowledgeable about the plight of the poor in Chile, and has written theses on causes and results of this condition. He is an advocate for positive change; he aims to uplift and improve the quality of life for all.
As it so happened, we were discussing the very subject of poverty when an example of the issue slouched in through the glass doors. I knew this woman. She was homeless and filthy, and an infamous feature of Santiago’s inner city. Her stench preceded her wherever she went, and persisted long after she was gone. There was an obnoxious arrogance to her pitiful state, as if her life were a savage protest against the world that had brought her this low. She knew full well of the discomfort she brought upon bystanders, and she reveled in it. She would stand close to people, and linger, a smug grin on her dark brown face. I’d seen her being chased out of posh restaurants, undress in public, and snatch cups of beer off outdoor pub tables, cackling as she did so.
When she walked into the Starbucks that morning, I did all I could to make myself as invisible as possible. This was difficult, as I was conducting an English class, and the sound of English in Chile tends to stand out like a ringing cellphone at a ballet performance.
I don’t presume to know what the woman’s vices are, but I do know that her mind has been pummeled until has become completely un-tethered from reality. This makes her entirely unpredictable and terrifying. She scurried past my student and me, and went straight to the back of the coffee shop, asking for money at the various tables in a pattern that made no sense at all. At one point she went and sat down in a booth directly next to another customer and completely ignored him. She was obviously playing a joke on him, using her repulsive presence to unsettle the man. Moments later, he and his date got up and left. This behaviour went on for a while longer, the hag hassling people who wanted nothing to do with her. I suspect she was doing it more for sport than for money.
Eventually a barista appeared – the unlucky candidate selected to deal with the nuisance- and held the door open and demanded that the homeless woman leave. She left when told, but she traipsed out of the door at an unhurried pace.
Whenever I try to recall the type of clothing that the homeless woman wears, I can only conjure up images of brown rags hanging off of a hunched and rounded frame. But I have noted that on the occasions when I’ve seen her, she has always been wearing a different shirt. So somewhere she has a wardrobe of sorts, and she must have the presence of mind to change clothes once in a while. I suppose that when I see her I don’t see a person. I see terror and trouble and an aspect of humanity that I don’t want to believe could exist.
When she left the Starbucks I tried to relax, but I was still a little bit wound up. My student and I passed a few good-natured comments about the unfortunate state of homeless people in Santiago, and then got back to the lesson. I couldn’t really focus, though, because I was haunted by the thought that the homeless woman was still in the area, and my chest tightened when I noticed her stumbling back into the coffee shop a few minutes later. This time, she was doing the rounds closer to our table, and inevitably she stopped beside us with her hand held out, cupped and waiting. My student politely told her that we didn’t have money for her, and we tried to go on with our discussion. The homeless woman remained immobile.
It is something I appreciate about beggars in Santiago – that they don’t pester. Once you say no, they wish you a good day and move on. In fact, the homeless lady had been doing that with the other patrons, but this time she would not move away. I suspect she was mesmerized by the sound of a foreign language being spoken, so after a few awkward sentences I turned back to her and said, peacefully, “No tenemos dinero.”
For someone as undernourished and addled as she was, she moved with lightning speed. She shot her face closer to mine, her bottom lip pulled back in such a snarl that I could see the tobacco-black bottom row of her teeth, and without even hauling breath she screamed long and loud into my face:
I was stunned. Without truly hearing what she had said, I had done exactly as she’d asked. I had shut up, as had everyone else in the cafe who had instantly turned to see the spectacle. The homeless woman straightened up and turned away, her frazzled hair looking like a slow motion fireworks display. She sauntered down along the tables and screamed again.
And then she took a swing. With all her might, her right palm arced upwards and collided with her face at full force. It wasn’t us who had to shut up, it was the voices in her own head. The woman continued to stomp past the tables, repeating the command like some sort of chant: “Cállate! Cállate! Cállate!” Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!
And with each outburst she would smack herself in the face as hard as she could. The ritual continued until she had made her way towards the door, but she only left when the barista reappeared and ushered her out. I watched her stalk off, continuing the ritual of berating and slugging herself. The glass walls weren’t fully soundproof, and the sound of her cries continued even after she had left my line of sight.
I reached for my coffee, and had to use both hands to steady the cup. “Are you okay?” I asked my student. He didn’t answer me right away. Instead he tilted his head down and to the side, the perfectly round lenses of his glasses catching a ray of mid-morning sun, turning his eyes into a pair of white discs.
“You know,” he said presently, “in a way, she is our fault. She is the product of a society that couldn’t help her.”
I tried to commiserate, but my head was still buzzing from the assault. I felt violated and humiliated, and I didn’t know how to get things back on track. Fortunately, after five minutes of staggered discussion, my student mumbled that he actually had to leave the class early in order to show his solidarity in the protests that were happening nearby.
It was no doubt an awful start to a bad week. As things continued to go wrong, I couldn’t help but to attribute all the unfortunate events to the woman who had shouted at me. Surely she had cursed me. Everything I believed about good luck and bad luck had become inverted, and I couldn’t turn things around. I felt as if her scent had gotten onto me and wouldn’t wash off. It was in my clothes and hair and skin. In a final act of defiance, I told myself that at least the whole thing had given me grounds for a good blog post. But she hadn’t given me that either. There was no narrative arc. There was no resolution to the curse. Things started going badly, and then they slowly stopped going badly, but without any perceivable switch. Nothing concrete had broken the spell, it just dissipated. However, I will say this: If anything, writing this article has given me some catharsis. So there’s that.