Miss Mary is an aged homeless woman on South Beach. You can usually find her on Washington Avenue between 9th and 14th Street. Our office is between 12th and 13th, so we see her every day. She is a tiny woman, bent and incredibly wrinkled. I'd guess she's at least in her 70's, if not older, although life on the streets ages people so quickly. But that's not what this post is about... until now, this description would fit thousands of homeless across the US and abroad.
Miss Mary is remarkable in several ways. I've never heard her speak... I don't even know what her native tongue is. She will occasionally make cooing sounds as she reaches for Buddy and Tanner, our two miniature daschunds, but I've never heard her say a single word. How is it possible to live on the streets if you don't ask people for money? Here's Miss Mary's remarkable method:
If you're out early in the morning, you'll see the municipal street-sweepers... but you'll also see Miss Mary. She has a beat-up broom and dustpan, and is invariably engaged in cleaning the sidewalks of Washington Avenue. She sweeps for much of the morning, but I often find her sitting in a shady spot before the heat of the Miami mid-day. I'm not sure if she's worn out, trying to stay cool, or both. I think maybe it's exhaustion, because I seldom see her sweeping from the cool of the day into the evening.
You'd think that would be a problem for someone whose daily food comes from passers-by, because in Miami Beach, very few people ever see Miss Mary sweeping in the morning. Here, most visitors rarely get up much before noon. And in the evenings, she's just another incredibly tattered, ancient woman sitting in a doorway or on a park bench, while the panhandlers around her ply their trade. But here's why she doesn't starve:
She might get support from visitors only infrequently, but shop-owners all along Washington can regularly be seen putting cash in her hands in the morning as she sweeps. I often wonder what it sounds like when she wakes up, because the locals regularly tuck cash and change into the folds of her ragged clothing as she sleeps on the sidewalk... almost certainly, she arises to the peals of coins falling to the pavement.
It's clearly a stroke of luck on her part rather than a clever scheme, but what she's doing is providing a service without asking for payment to people who see her doing so repeatedly, and who benefit from it. And so they reward her regularly. She didn't ask to be appointed "citizen street-sweeper," nor did she get a permit from the city, or ask for anything in return. Rather, she simply found a need and filled it. This might have sounded like lunacy back in the days of the Organization Man, but it's increasingly sounding like a good idea today, whether or not you're homeless.
But one more thing... if you're from Miami Beach or traveling there, you might want to visit this stretch of Washington sometime soon. Because the vigor of Miss Mary's sweeping six years ago when I first moved here is fading to the reality of today, when she can increasingly be found curled up in a corner somewhere. So make her acquaintance while you can. She'll never say a word to you, but you'll be the better for it.
Just to put a face with a story, here's Miss Mary as I found her while walking home late one recent evening. That's her ever-present broom leaning against her cart, with which she'll be sweeping the streets in the morning.