This story is based on an encounter with an elderly woman in Prague a few years after the fall of the Soviet Union. An inflation had destroyed the savings of retirees. This woman is selling her possessions to survive.
At the top of a wide stairway bringing subway passengers to a huge underground plaza stands an old woman. She is in her seventies and wears glasses with thick convex coke bottle lenses. She stands with three articles of clothing: a white sweater, a blue blouse with red flowers, and a green child’s shirt. She holds them motionless, statue-like except for slight turnings of her head as she scans for customers. I circle and she tracks me until her head can turn no more. In one hand, just under her chin, she holds the sweater and a penned label with its price. Her other arm is outstretched, bent slightly at the elbow, with the blouse draped over forearm and the child’s shirt held from hand.
Completing my circle, mind made up, I approach her, reach for the sweater, and put it on. Relieved of the weight she lowers her arms and stands there, a small figure in the marble plaza, waiting.
The sweater fits a little too tightly, but its cold, I need a sweater immediately, and so I say, “I will buy it.”
“You are so kind,” she whispers.
The old woman, now holding her hands in front of her waist, rubs them, looks into my face, eyes watery and magnified by the thick lenses. I am so surprised she speaks English, overwhelmed by the pathos I stand there with frozen smile.
It’s a beautiful sweater, white knit with three wooden buttons and long wing-like collars, elegant; it must fit her perfectly. After a pause, still in whisper, she continues, “I have been standing here two hours.” I hand her 200 crowns. She turns towards a man selling newspapers, the only other vendor and source of change on this cold September morning. With 10 crowns in an outstreched hand, her back now a little bent, she turns towards me again. I shake my head, refusing the change and she whispers, “It is so cold.”