It was December 22, 1985. It was snowing, and the sky was dark, heavy with more snow to come. A growing wind carried the snow through the 10 degree cold, down the trash filled New York City alley where Meg Windsor was stiffly pawing her way out from under the deep pile of paper, old rags and cardboard where she had spent the cold winter night. She had been lucky to find this place near a vent from a building where warm air escaped, and with the papers piled high shielding her from the wind and snow, she managed to keep from freezing.
Meg was 68 years old, and felt so cold and hungry this morning that she was sure she would never live to see 69. She didn’t feel old—just tired—but when she saw her reflection in the store windows, she saw the mostly gray hair peeking out from the moth eaten knitted cap, her pale blue eyes and lined face, and knew time was catching up with her. She would look at herself and wonder how many more days she would live.
Shaking off the papers that clung to her outer layer of old sweaters—most gleaned from trash cans, one given to her by the Salvation Army- she gathered up her meager belongings, which she had lain on top of to keep some other homeless person from stealing them while she slept. She put two much-used shopping bags into the empty grocery cart that miraculously still stood where she had parked it the night before and cautiously left the alley, alert to see if anyone was watching her. Shivering in the cold, she set out to make her daily rounds of restaurant and other trash cans to see if she could find enough food to sustain life another day. She had a few blocks to go before she reached the busier downtown area where begging and scrounging for scraps and other throw-aways had a little better yield. She didn’t like to sleep near there, though, as it was where most of the bag ladies and other homeless people hung out, and she would never feel safe closing her eyes.
As she trudged along the street of pawn shops, hole-in-the wall crummy bars and second hand stores, her thoughts wandered.
Bag lady! God, she had never in her wildest dreams imagined that she would come to this! She had just had this thought when something in a window jammed with cheap second-hand goods caught the corner of her eye. She stopped and backed up a couple of steps to take a look.
There was a big old doll with painted head, arms and legs and a cloth body filled with sawdust that dripped out of a small hole here and there. The paint had fine crazing lines in it, and even some tiny cracks around the gray tin eyes. The doll’s hair was still there but stood wildly tangled in a terrible mess—yet in the hair on one side was a tarnished brass barrette with a tiny rose made of pink shells on it. Meg stared and her thoughts ran wild. Bag lady—Christmas—1927…
How different things had been then! Her father was a man of wealth, and six year old Meg was his darling. He had bought the biggest and prettiest doll he could find to put under the Christmas tree for her that year, setting the doll in a fine wicker carriage. The house was a wonderful elegant house in upstate New York, surrounded by landscaped grounds.
When Meg had found the doll—this doll she now looked at in the window—under the tree that year, she was happier than she had ever been. She had taken the then-shiny brass barrette with the shell rose from her own hair and fastened it in the dolls hair, where it had stayed—even until now, more than half a century later.
Meg’s heart beat fast and she felt a lump in her throat. Her poor doll, it seemed, had ended up no better off than she—cast away by someone, somewhere, as junk, to end up naked and hurt in a cold store window on a New York City street.
As if in a trance Meg left her cart—something she never did—and went into the store.
The greasy looking dark man in grimy clothes scowled at her.
‘What’r ya doin’ in here?” he growled.
Meg’s voice shook as she answered.
“The doll in the window—how much is it?”
“What’s it to ya?” The man asked gruffly, “Ya ain’d got any money, do ya?”
Meg had to see the doll, to hold her. She lifted her chin and steadied her voice.
“Yes I do,” she lied. “Had a good week. Christmas time people are generous. Let me see the doll.”
The man looked at her for a moment, then grunted. Maybe the old woman did have a few bucks. He went to the window and pushed stuff aside, got the doll and handed it to Meg.
She took it shakily and cradled it in her arms. It was indeed her Mary, the doll she had named after her mother who had died when she was four. She smoothed the doll’s hair lovingly.
The man reached out and took the doll from her roughly.
“Ya want to play with it, pay for it first,” he said.
“How much? ” Meg asked.