Shirley Erskin, a member of the homeless community in downtown Austin, doesn’t much like to talk about herself. I have visited with her numerous times over the past few years, and I have come to accept that I will learn her story a bit at a time, in her time, at her pace, within her space.
At her unspoken invitation, I sat with Shirley for a while on a sweltering hot afternoon this past weekend at the corner of Sixth and Trinity streets. It was already close to 90 degrees on the first Sunday of June, and I told her I was worried about her as she gingerly lowered herself onto the sidewalk, resting her back against the wall of the business behind her and pulling her knees to her chest. She’s 66 years old and somehow gets by with asking for money and food here and there. She wears a mishmash of clothing — on this day, a too-big pair of men’s black, worn-out loafers, dirty yellow hospital socks, a short-sleeve white blouse, and athletic shorts hanging way too loose on her tiny frame.
She was fine with answering a few personal questions. Yes, as she had told me before, she was severely injured in a car wreck some years ago. She lost her right eye in the accident, and the long scars on her knees further bear witness to that day. The scar on her chest is from open-heart surgery, and she worries constantly about her high blood pressure.
I asked if there are any family members she could live with, and she just shook her head. “My mama and daddy are long gone, baby,” she said. Her son, Bobby Ray, lives in Odessa, but it’s clear that he lives there, and she lives here. That’s just how it is. And it’s clear from she says his name, cocking her head just a little, that she’s very, very proud of him.
I had never noticed her hands before. Long, gracious fingers, and she laughed with a surprising touch of joy when I asked if she’d ever played piano. No, she said, soaking up the compliment anyway with a spontaneous smile.
I left for a few minutes to buy her some water at a convenience store a short walk away. I felt defeated as I sat back down and handed the plastic bottle to her. How was she going to survive the heat, which wasn’t even bad yet by Texas standards?
Shirley’s a survivor. She’s tough, as I like to tell her. But Sixth Street is becoming an increasingly dangerous place. Drug use and drug dealing are rampant. The threat of crime is ever present. She assures me that she stays safe, that she knows how to stay safe. To a certain degree, that’s obviously true. I see her just about every time that I walk Sixth Street. But I worry. She’s making some difficult decisions for herself. And I worry.