1 Shaktile

The Shopping Bag Lady Poem Analysis Essays

In the notorious section of midtown surrounding the Port Authority bus terminal, amid throngs of workers, transients, and tourists, lives a compact society of outsiders. Hustlers, hookers, three-card monte players, con men, drug dealers, jackrollers (thieves who specialize in robbing the poor of their welfare funds) work over their marks between Times Square and the Stroll, that strip of Eighth Avenue serviced by prostitutes and pimps. But there is another sort of outsider in the neighborhood, another group of resident streetwalkers, as inconspicuous as the others are often flamboyant. This is the swelling population of ''shopping-bag ladies,'' those solitary, impoverished women toting bags, picking over trash near the Ninth Avenue food markets, dozing in doorways, huddled among their possessions in the Port Authority's dreary public rooms.

Most of the thousands of homeless women in the city are invisible to the rest of us and something of a mystery. Unlike homeless men, who as tramps and bums have been widely studied, the homeless woman has inspired little research. (Curiously, the words ''tramp'' and ''bum'' when applied to women imply not homelessness as they imply for men but sexual activity.) And where little is known, much is projected. An image of the bag lady, however distorted, has begun to assume a symbolic place in contemporary consciousness, inspiring poems, pictures, plays, cartoons.

I think this new, somewhat nervous interest in the odd lone woman springs from a growing fear many women harbor for their own old age in a time when traditional family supports for women are breaking down and so many may expect to wind up old, poor, and alone. Accepting the bags as mysterious vessels and street life as bizarre, the stereotype of the bag lady is romanticized. Though she is often feared and shunned as a ''crazy,'' jokes and stor ies portray her as a tough, feisty, rebellious, independent, eve n secretly rich (!) eccentric whose peculiar madness is to prefer a free life on the street to the dependencies of welfare or the restrictions of responsible social life.

This picture is far from true. I recently spent a year as a volunteer in a program for bag ladies in the Times Square area. There I encountered women of every class, race, religion, family background; some ex-mental patients but many not; former teachers, clerks, housewives, waitresses, businesswomen; married, single; mothers, childless; old, young; drinkers, teetotalers; misanthropic, sociable; furious, chastened. None lived on the street by choice; rather, too poor or otherwise handicapped to obtain safe housing, they did whatever they could to survive outside institutions. Not personality but poverty (plus isolation and terror) unites them. A sudden crisis - a fire, crime, illness, death, eviction - may land a woman on the street with all her possessions.

Some bag ladies are conspicuous, but most, wary of attention, disappear in the crowd - especially since the shopping bag, that universal female sign in our culture, commonly adorns the arms of even comfortable women, who carry supplies for every contingency. But while most of us have drawers, closets, some even attics and cellars in which to store our possessions, the homeless - and those whose rooms repeatedly are robbed - have only their shopping bags. Compare their contents with your dresser and kitchen drawers and the mystery of the bags disappears.

Welfare? Many homeless women are simply unable to amass the documents or negotiate the bewildering bureaucratic maze of conflicting appointments required of welfare applicants. Others know from experience that the effort is futile. Even those who manage to get public assistance remain insecure. If their checks get lost or their money runs out before the rent is due, they may find themselves evicted; then, with inexpensive rooms vanishing through building conversions and inflation, they may find no other affordable housing. Or, what is affordable may be too dangerous. In hotels where locks r epeate dly are forced, fires frequent, elevators and stairs setups for mu ggings, the woman alone may view life on the street as actually safe r - especially when rent money could go for food.

Most street dwellers consider their state temporary; but given the hazards of the street, the condition of social services, and the ignorance of the public, they are more likely to deteriorate than improve. Street life is not conducive to mental or physical health. Some bag ladies would be called crazy by experts; but given the brutal conditions of their lives, even the seemingly mad behavior of some makes a kind of adaptive sense.

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Edited by Adam Davis. Skylight Paths Publishing, 2009.

Hearing the Call Across Traditions is a collection of readings that raise deep questions about service and its roots in faith. The readings explore the connections between faith, service, and social justice through prose, verse, and sacred texts of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, and more. The collection is a resource for faith and interfaith groups, service and volunteer programs, and other civic groups, and includes discussion questions for each selection.

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Table of Contents

Why do I serve?


  • The Drum Major Instinct, Martin Luther King Jr.
  • Why the Buddha Had Good Digestion, from Avadānaśataka
  • In Praise of Generosity, from the Rig Veda
  • Solidarity, Reciprocity, and Sanctity,  Abraham Joshua Heschel
  • A Handful of Dates, Tayeb Salih
  • The Subjective Necessity of Social Settlements, Jane Addams
  • Action and Non-Action, Chuang-Tzu
  • Isaiah 58:2-12
  • Three Poems, Shih Te
  • Luke 10:25-37
  • Miserliness, Hamza Yusuf
  • The River, Flannery O’Connor
  • Compassion, The Dalai Lama
  • The Joy of Giving Joy, Friedrich Nietzsche
  • Selfless Service, from the Bhagavad Gita
  • Surahs 93 and 107, from the Qur’an
  • Church, Tim O’Brien
  • Section 50 from Gitanjali: Song Offerings, Rabindranath Tagore
  • Between, Harold M. Schulweis
  • The Base of All Metaphysics, Walt Whitman

Whom do I serve?


  • A Good Traveler Has No Fixed Plans, Lao-Tzu
  • The Faces of Poverty, Dorothy Day
  • The Difference Between, Hafiz
  • The Man to Send Rain Clouds, Leslie Marmon Silko
  • If Not Higher, I.L. Peretz
  • The Same Inside, Anna Swir
  • The Problem of Old Harjo, John Oskison
  • Meditation on Compassion and Not Two, Thich Nhat Hanh
  • The Legend of the Lowly Devotee, in The Tiruvacagan
  • Ruth 1-4:22
  • The Mexican-American and the Church, Cesar Chavez
  • The Walk, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
  • The Shopping-Bag Lady, Linda Gregg
  • The Camel Driver and the Adder, Bidpai
  • A Rich Young Man on the Road, Valerie Martin
  • Say Yes Quickly, Rumi
  • His Grace, Mikhail Naimy

How do I serve?


  • God’s Grandeur,  Gerard Manley Hopkins
  • The Secret of Work, Swami Vivekananda
  • Reb Yozifl and the Contractor, Sholom Aleichem
  • First Days of Spring, Ryokan
  • Sitting with the Dead, William Trevor
  • Mercy: The Stamp of Creation, Umar Faruq Abd-Allah
  • Yajna, Welfare, and Service, Mahatma Gandhi
  • Reflections on Gandhi, George Orwell
  • Levels of Giving, Maimonides
  • The Buddha’s Last Instruction, Mary Oliver
  • North Light -- A Recollection in the Present Tense, Mark Helprin
  • Come Out and Give Something, Rumi
  • The Pure in Heart, Peggy Payne
  • The House, Gabriela Mistral
  • Proclamation of a National Fast-Day, Abraham Lincoln
  • The Yogi Dyes His Garments, Kabir
  • Why I Make Sam Go to Church, Anne Lamott

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