The Encounter

Tuesday, February 18, 2014 9:24 PM

Then there is the case of the woman who dressed in cardboard and paper bags. Did she live in the bus station? Where did she go at night? These were some of the thoughts which ran through my mind. I have been meaning to write about her, but never got around to it. I encountered her long ago, say ten to fifteen years back. It is difficult to keep track of time, since it is flying and we are approaching a cataclysm. 

There is a well-groomed suburb of Miami called Coral Gables. It has a colorful history and Mediterranean architecture. A metropolis of noise, traffic and chaos known as Greater Miami has overtaken it, so that Coral Gables--"The City Beautiful"--has become a kind of oasis surrounded by the chaos. That is where I saw the woman, standing outside the municipal bus station. She wasn't waiting for a bus.

What was she doing? What was going on inside her head? She was not young, but she was not old either. Tall and statuesque with a dignified, almost unapproachable bearing. She was a mulatto. Her looks made me speculate that she had come from "the islands"--from the Caribbean, maybe Jamaica, the Bahamas, Haiti or the West Indies. But I was grasping at straws.

I never heard her speak. She didn't talk. Not to me, not to anyone that I ever saw. She stood in a shaded location on the sidewalk, leaning up against a wall. I saw her many times from across the street, but was too timid to make contact. It was her attire that gave me pause. 

She was completely covered in clean cardboard and crisp brown paper bags. Somehow, someway she had cut up pieces of cardboard and neatly attached them to her body, partly with clothes pins, partly with string and, I believe, scotch tape. If it was not exactly elegant, it was certainly unique. Maybe the cardboard was on top of a normal dress. You couldn't tell.

I was there in Coral Gables because I would drive over from the other side of town to eat lunch at an Italian cafe. I knew the owner. He was from Venice. The cafe was right across the street from the bus station, from her spot. She paid no particular attention to the restaurant. She was not looking for a handout. She stood there nonchalantly, day dreaming, and glanced about at random.  

For some reason known only to herself, she had woken up one morning and decided to construct her cardboard outfit, catch a bus, and take up a position outside the bus station, at a spot away from the crowds, from which she observed the passing scene. She had found her mission in life. Was it meant to be a kind of protest? Perhaps she never returned home.

How did this happen? Why would she do that? Adjacent to the cafe was a small print and stationary shop. I would often drop in after lunch, speak with the proprietress and buy a knickknack, a rubber stamp or some ink. We became friends and chatted about the weather and the state of world affairs. 

I inquired if she knew anything about the cardboard woman, across the street. Not much, she confided. She had heard that the woman was an ex-school teacher, quite intelligent, and not crazy, an eccentric. Maybe the police had told her this. Maybe she had actually engaged the cardboard woman in a conversation at some point. 

Being a photographer, I wondered what the cardboard woman's reaction might be if I were to ask if I could take a photo. I posed the question to my friend at the stationary shop. She gave it some thought and said that would be OK, why not? But I never got up sufficient nerve to do it. 

This went on for many months, years. Then they tore down the bus station, and replaced it with upscaled shops, restaurants, a high rise condominium and a parking garage. The cardboard woman decamped, vanished. I never saw her again. I certainly missed her. She was a phenomenon, a quiet, unthreatening and reassuring fixture.

Not having the nerve to speak to her, and perhaps thereby obtain a photograph and her story, I have little to show for the encounter. The mystery remains. It is inexplicable. Even the stationary shop has disappeared. The cafe became very successful, and expanded into the space. 

I suppose the lesson is, you've got to do it now. Don't be bashful. There is no point in not taking advantage of the moment. Once things change, they're gone. Do something to grasp the present situation. Document it; make it better, and learn from it in retrospect. 

--Copyright 2014 Patrick Foy--