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Sally Jones, You Better Watch Your Speed

How I cashed in on my friendship with a homeless woman

Kyle Thiermann

I recently made friends with Sally Jones. She is 75 years old, reads voraciously and lives on a patch of sidewalk on Lincoln Boulevard in Venice, California. 

We met one night outside Thai Yoga Massage. It’s a hole-in-the-wall parlor, and yes that’s what it’s really called. I was about to have a strong woman named Timo dig her toes into my scapula for an hour. As I locked my bike to a pole and threaded the lock through my helmet, I heard a voice call out, “Don’t leave that helmet there.” Sally was lying on the sidewalk a few yards away, her head poking out of her home: A blue tarp held up by a shopping cart. I took her advice and unthreaded the helmet from the lock.

Sally clutched a crime novel. “What are you reading?” I asked.

“Oh, this thing?” She slapped the book on the cold cement with the hands of a grandmother. “Don’t bother. It started out good, but it dragged on too long and the ending fell flat. You should read Running Man by Charlie Engle. Now that’s a book!” 

I was early for my massage, so I introduced myself and asked Sally to tell me more. She said it was the story of a man who hits rock bottom after a decade-long addiction with crack and alcohol. He finds running, gets sober and takes on the most extreme endurance races in the world.

“You need to read,” Sally scolded. “Otherwise, you’ll have no knowledge.” She spoke with a Brooklyn accent, drawing out her “a”s, so it sounded more like “knaaawlage.” I told her that my favorite author was David Sedaris because of his humor.

“I like funny books very much, Kyle. But don’t try to sell me on that self-help shit.”

A radio sat next to her. Sally’s favorite station is AM870 and she listens to Charlie Kirk, a conservative activist who comes on at 10 a.m. Sally encouraged me to tune in so I can find out what’s really going on. Sally is a staunch Republican, and over the course of our little chat I learned that Donald Trump was a good man, and that he would have won the last election if it hadn’t been for the powers that be. “I was so sad when Rush Limbaugh died,” she said. “I could have helped him with his sickness, you know?” Her voice trailed off down the sidewalk before snapping back at me, “You’re not a liberal, are you?”

A yoga massage enthusiast and David Sedaris fan who enjoys striking up conversations with the homeless? Of course I’m not a liberal. 

Sally’s world exists on either side of Lincoln. Every morning, she packs up her shopping cart and makes the harrowing jaywalk across this four-lane street, stopping traffic in the process. Then, she sets up at a table outside Whole Foods, reads and listens to the radio for most of the day. At sunset, she ventures back across Lincoln, sets up her tent and goes to sleep with the radio pressed to her ear. The next day, she does it again. 

Read more: Pollan and Coffee, Sitting in a Tree

Since that first encounter outside the massage parlor, Sally has become one of my favorite people in Venice. I often see her when I go grocery shopping. She asks how my writing is going. I tell her it’s going. She gives me dating advice. It’s often the best part of my day. “Be a gentleman, Kyle,'' she once instructed. “When I was young all the boys just tried to get into my pants, but then one came along and he just listened to me. By the third date, he had me.”

Sally doesn’t like her Brooklyn accent, but I tell her it’s cool. (“Knaaaladge”, “maaam” and “paaants”.) She ends her sentences with strength, unlike Californians, who fumble across the finish line with upward inflection? I once prodded Sally about finding a quieter street, but she shrugged me off and we left it at that. She’s been on the streets for 20 years and Lincoln is her spot.

One evening, I noticed that she sleeps with a single dirty blanket, her worn feet peeking out the end. Sally never asked me for anything, so I offered. She paused for a long moment, furrowed her brow, then requested a lightweight sleeping bag. The next day, I went to Target and skipped—skipped—down the aisles. Sally is a short little gal, so I decided on a child-sized bag that she could fit into snugly. As I paid at the register, I imagined Sally curled up listening to conservative pundits blame Democrats for the national homelessness crisis, happy as a clam. That afternoon, I walked to Sally’s spot, bag in hand. There she was, listening to her radio. “Sally!” I called, breaking her trance. Sally took the sleeping bag and thoroughly inspected it.

“I said a light sleeping bag,” she snapped. “You expect me to carry this?” There was no sarcasm in her voice.

It was like a gunshot had been fired and silence fell between us.

“Sally, this is a great sleeping bag,” I said. “And I know sleeping bags, I’ve been camping more times than you have, guarante–” I paused, feeling the words lodge in my throat like shards of glass.

More silence.

“Just leave the sleeping bag,” she said. “Someone else will take it.”

I walked home, defeated and resentful.  

A few days later, I ran into Sally again on my usual route to Whole Foods.

“Oh, look, it’s the evil man who tried to give me the 100-pound sleeping bag,” she said, a whisper of a smile in her voice. “Kyle, I need some help crossing the street, grab my hips and push.” 

I got behind her, conga-style, and on her command, I pushed. She shuffled one foot in front of another and we hurled ourselves into LA traffic. Every time I pushed a little harder to speed up the process, Sally would shout, “Ouch!” and I would back off. A growing line of cars began to form. One honked, but Sally just shuffled one foot in front of the other, eyes focused on the finish line. Lacking her resolve, I meekly mouthed “sorry” at the drivers subjected to our street performance. As the minutes ticked on, I thought to myself, “Is this how it’s going to end? Some rushed commuter looking down at a text, then BAM! Guacamole.By this point, some of the drivers were rooting for us. One woman was beaming ear-to-ear. About a week later, we made it to the other side of the street. Sally thanked me, then asked to see photos of my mom.

A few days later, I went back to Whole Foods. I have a mini-fridge, so I shop at frequent intervals. In the checkout line, a woman tapped me on the shoulder. She looked like she was in her mid-forties and had well-moisturized skin. “Excuse me,” she said. “Are you the nice man who helped that little old woman across the street?” I nodded. “Please, let me buy your groceries.” She then told me that she was an energy healer and offered to give me a free session. “It’s like reiki,” she said, “but more powerful.” 

Free food in hand, I walked outside and there was Sally Jones sitting at a table. Her shopping cart sat beside her with the contents of her life inside, her radio pressed to her ear. I sauntered over and told her about my good fortune. She let out a devilish cackle, beamed, then held up her hand for a high-five.  

Kyle Thiermann is a Patagonia surf ambassador, MUD\WTR's Head of Editorial and host of the Trends w/ Benefits podcast. Get more Kyle in your life at kyle.surf.

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