I had just driven by Palo Alto High School as the sun was starting its long summer descent on Sunday evening, and had just parked my car on the side of El Camino Real, which runs along the northeast fringe of Stanford’s campus, when a woman approached me.
“Hi, I’m Diane. Can I borrow your phone to make a call? I live just up the street here in the yellow van.”
Alone. Forlorn-looking. Late-middle age. She wore a decently-put together outfit that wouldn’t be much different from the sort of thing anyone might throw on for a Sunday afternoon. She needed to call her mother, or someone who she considered her mother. There was some confusion on that point, relating to a soured relationship probably with an estranged sibling.
We struck up a conversation, and I handed her my phone. She didn’t get through to anyone, but left a message. Her narrative was disjointed, only getting to the point in fits and starts. As she continued, and I stood nearby, I counted as she ticked nearer to the three-minute mark when voicemails are forcibly ended due to length. She got there, the call disconnected, and she abruptly handed me the phone.
“If she calls you back, would you come knock on my door later?” she asked. “Yes,” I told her. I never heard back from that number.
There was this whole little makeshift mobile home community that apparently had materialized at some point along this stretch road. I could see the attraction, with just a metal park fence separating Stanford’s campus and park area from El Camino Real, an arterial road. There was space to be outside, space to sit, food to walk to, bathrooms and a medical triage van not far away.
As I walked to find the Lime-E bike for my ride through campus, I passed by a family that lived in one of these RVs, the kids playing in Stanford’s park for the moment, the father sitting at the park table alone with his thoughts.
Dignified but desperate. I felt that the moment I met Diane, and the father had the same look. The kids were too carefree for the weight of their situation to bear on them, at least at the moment. Noticing a note on the ground, I picked it up to see the reverse was a Palo Alto Police tow warning for someone and someone’s home that was here, and now was not here.
These are some of the people on what Pope Francis calls the peripheries.
I was glad to have met Diane. What is there to be done for her?
I don’t know.