Song of the Magpie

Sophie, an old homeless woman, sits on a crumpled piece of cardboard at the curb of a Tenderloin street in San Francisco. She is dressed in pants with a once-colorful skirt over the top, a cardigan, a shawl. Her hair is uncombed, her hands and fingernails dirty. She has an ancient knapsack at her side in which she keeps her belongings÷some clothes, paper, pens, and a small bottle of whiskey in a torn brown paper bag. She was once a writer and still thinks of herself as an artist. She talks to herself and occasionally addresses her dead father, whom she imagines is wrangling with her.

Here she is also talking to Walker, a middle-class woman her age who has been spending time on the streets and in the shelters of the Tenderloin, gathering information for an article she is writing about what it is like to be homeless.

(The following monologue by Sophie is excerpted from a longer theater piece.)

(TO WALKER) You want to know why they’re so nice to seniors on the streets? Is that what you asked me, Walker? I wonder what you mean . . . exactly . . . by nice? “Seniors first” on the lunch lines and at the shelters? Well, you sit down here . . . yah, you sit down right here next to me and I’ll tell you about nice. (SHE BRUSHES OFF A SPACE ON THE CURB NEXT TO HER. THEN SHE PULLS THE WHISKEY BOTTLE FROM HER KNAPSACK AND DRINKS. OFFERS SOME TO WALKER, WHO REFUSES.) It’s because we’re expendable. Our days are numbered. They don’t give us jobs. They don’t give us a place of our own to live in. We’re too old, too sick, too dumb . . . not a good investment. But it’s embarrassing to . . .

(TO HER FATHER) What?! . . . Why shouldn’t I be talking to her? . . . I did too make something of myself. You just didn’t notice!

(BACK TO WALKER) It’s embarrassing to see some old woman lying in a heap on a piece of cardboard on the sidewalk, so they have to get us out of there. People can’t stand to look at us. It’s too distressing. It makes them think about their Aunt Tillie. It makes them think about their parents whom they’ve abandoned to some old people’s home in Idaho. Or maybe they think: “That’s where I’ll wind up.” It’s too awful to think about, so they shovel us into the shelters. “Seniors first.” Don’t you kid yourself, Walker, into thinking someone’s getting all gooey about the poor old folks on the streets.

(TO HER FATHER) What?!….Where are you going? . . . No, stay here . . . Goodbye then . . . No, I’m staying . . . All I said was “goodbye.” Goodbye means goodbye, not goodbye forever, just goodbye for now.

(BACK TO WALKER) It’s a problem, Walker. (DRINKS) It really is a problem. Nobody knows what to do about it. They sit around on those big leather chairs down at City Hall and they think up ways to get rid of the problem . . . Like why not take a huge chunk of money out of every homeless person’s general assistance welfare check and build a couple of houses with one or two “affordable” rooms with that money.

Now there’s a solution . . . three-thousand or more homeless folks paying for five-hundred or so places to live in. What happens to the other two-thousand-five-hundred ones who haven’t got a penny left for food or a newspaper or medicine or a bar of soap, just for starters? Not to mention a shelter bed, which they’ve been promised IF they can manage to be at 39 Fell Street to sign up for a bed and at their treatment programs and at their job interviews all at the exact same time . . . Cause you have to remain in your treatment programs and get at least twenty contacts for jobs every month or you can’t keep what little money they are giving you. How do you wait for call-backs on a phone if you haven’t got a phone to be called back on? What happens to these young folks? How do they survive until they’re old enough to get shoveled into a shelter, “seniors first”? I don’t know whether it’s better to be young or old in this rat race . . . And does anyone down in that mausoleum ask us what WE think about the situation?

(TO HER FATHER) No, I am not going to do anything foolish about it, but jail’s not the worst place to land. Been there . . . Jail’s no worse than some of these places . . . free bed and food (CHUCKLES TO HERSELF) . . . Nobody’s listening to us anyway, so what good does it do to go down there and lay your body down in front of the mayor when he’s on his way to the WC to take a piss? . . . Well, thank you very much, I can take care of myself . . . I’m a grown-up. Perhaps you didn’t notice.

(BACK TO WALKER) My father. Interrupts. Always has, always will. Where was I? (PAUSES, DRINKS) . . . People hate us, you know. Everybody hates us. Did you notice that, Walker? Like that old woman lying on a pile of rags in front of that abandoned storefront on Turk Street. Did you see her? Covered with scabs, open sores oozing pus all over her arms and legs, thousands of little bugs creeping around in her matted hair. Was she alive? Was she dead? People walking by, stepping over her. Who would allow their mother to live like this? Or die like this?

Some kids, I guess. Kids really hate us. They steal our shopping carts—the ones the cops don’t get to first. Just the other day a bunch of kids came driving through our neighborhood in some broken down old jalopy, a whole gang of them, and shot eight of us full of holes with their BB guns . . . Why would anybody do such a thing as that? Some folks say living in the streets is a way to get ready for the apocalypse. Might be right. We might be the only ones who survive. Us and the cockroaches. (DRINKS)

Dabius . . . my friend Dabius. . . Did I tell you about him? You probably read about him in the paper. Every morning over at the UN plaza, we’d sit on the benches, up by the fountain. And we’d talk. He was like some kind of a philosopher . . . or physicist or something. He said the most interesting things. Like one time he said…let me see if I can get this right…he said, “All we are is a limitless bunch of vibrating strings. Nothing else. Just vibrating strings.” That’s what he said. Made me think about . . . harps and violins. If that’s true, seems to me we should all be spending our lives just making music.

Then one night, in the middle of one night, they took the benches away from the UN plaza, unbolted them from the cement and carted them away, so none of us could sit there anymore. Dabius said, “Okay, that’s the last straw.” He moved over by the railroad tracks in West Oakland. Built a little shelter for himself. Came back once or twice to check in on his old buddies. Said he felt safe over there, cause the police never bothered him. Two young boys, fifteen, sixteen years old, came down there. Must have been they didn’t expect to find anyone there. Maybe they thought he was a . . . pariah or something. Pariah . . . that’s an interesting word, don’t you think? Means someone who’s despised by the whole world. Maybe they thought they were doing the world a favor. They found some old boards and a rusty metal pipe and . . . they beat him to death . . . What’d they do that for?

(DRINKS) It’s a terrible thing to delude the poor into thinking we have a right to live . . . cause we don’t.

(TO WALKER) I bet you wonder how someone like me ended up on the streets. That’s always the question everyone asks. I used to be a normal human being just like you. (LAUGHS)

(TO HER FATHER) What?! . . . Yes, I know you were disappointed in me. You and everyone else . . . If I had followed your advice, I would have ended up in the same pool of tears that you did.

(BACK TO WALKER) So what did happen? Did I go nuts or get too drunk too many times, or get evicted, or lose my job . . . well, yes . . . some, perhaps all of the above. You know, when you’re young, your brain isn’t always piecing things together quite right. Never thought I’d end up . . . here. (LAUGHS) Who does? (DRINKS)

So . . . Sophie’s story. Well, my mother grew up in the Irish tenements of South Boston. Married her boss. I was their only child. My father wasn’t very good to her. He wanted her to be something she wasn’t, and so she drank herself into a quiet stupor. I knew I wanted to be a writer, went to New York City, got a job writing for a two-bit local newspaper. Wrote novels in my little New York garret at night.

(TO HER FATHER) I did too! I got two novels published . . . Well, who cares? The ones who did buy them thought they were very good! I even got a story published in the Atlantic Monthly once . . . God!

(To WALKER) When is enough, enough? . . . Got married three times. Had three kids by the first two . . . Loved those kids more than I ever loved anyone else, but raising a bunch of self-centered, demanding, whiney little human beings by yourself is not an easy thing to do, and I was an artist, for god’s sake, so I wasn’t always so good to them. (DRINKS)

Children all grew up, had children of their own and went on their way. Don’t see much of them these days. Sometimes I think they’re paying me back for being such a lousy mother . . . Probably they can’t bear to think about me, living out here like I do. I don’t blame them . . . ‘cept on really bad days.

One time . . . oh, this was a long time ago . . . a very unfamiliar wave of grown-up responsibility swept through me and I told my father, when he and I were still buddies, “I’m going to quit writing and get a real job, so that no one will have to be responsible for me in my old age.” He said: “No, no, no, Sophie. Sophie, don’t do that. It’s not the right thing for you to do. I’ve got plenty of money. I’ve put away enough for you. You’ll be fine.” So I thought, okay, why fight it? Then he got married again. To the Queen of the Ice Brigade.

(TO FATHER) You know, Dad, I’ve been meaning to ask you this question for a long time: How could you let that slut talk you into leaving all that money to her when you said you were leaving it to me? . . . Well, she spent it . . . Yes, all of it. You think I’m living like this by choice? You know, I always imagined I’d have some nice little condominium to grow old in . . . But it didn’t happen quite like that . . . did it?

(BACK TO WALKER) It could happen to you, Walker, could happen to anyone. You’ve got a nice little place to live, got a nice job, and sudden as an earthquake, the owner sells, you’re laid off . . . No one wants your new book; no one wants to take writing classes from you anymore. Your story, my story . . . what’s the difference? The life you had is gone, passed. We act as if the past is real, but where is it? What happened to it?

The future . . . now there’s something to obsess about. I wake up in the middle of the night, don’t know where I am. I’ve forgotten that I’m homeless. In my dreams I’m usually back in one home or another. My brain starts ngah, ngah-ngah, ngah-ngah: What’s gonna happen to me when I get even older than this? What if I get sick in the middle of the night? What if I throw up all over the street? What if I go blind? What if I lose a leg, break my hip? What if I get cancer? Who’ll take care of me? Who’ll be with me? I try to stop thoughts like these, cause what good are they? Death breathes down my neck, just like he breathes down yours, but he’s a little more palpable out here. When I think about dying alone on the streets, or in a shelter, some kind of . . . panic . . . grabs me right here . . . (SHE PUTS HER HAND ON HER THROAT, FEELS THE PANIC RISE, HAS TROUBLE BREATHING. DRINKS.)

Ah, Walker, Walker….You have no idea what it’s like. You walk around here talking to homeless people for awhile, and you see what you think there is to see. Then you go back to your sweet little home. You crossed over . . . good for you, that’s a good thing to do. But it’s a privilege to be able to do that, a privilege I don’t have. I don’t blame you for that. If I had a car and a hot tub in the back yard, I might not even think about what it’s like to live in a shelter. And if I ate yuppie greens for dinner every night maybe I couldn’t even imagine what it would be like to have stale macaroni and canned peas on my plate day after day. Maybe I’d walk right by the beggars jiggling their little styrofoam cups . . . Maybe I’d walk by in stony silence, the way you do, pretending I don’t hear them asking me for . . . what? A few coins?

I’m probably not so different from most of you as I like to think I am. Having too much, having too little . . . maybe they both lock us up in cages! How do we open them? How do we see each other? It’s terrifying to be face to face with another human being, really . . . kind of dangerous. Who knows what might crack inside of us?

Do you ever feel like someone’s knocking inside of your skull? Knock, knock . . . wake up! Or like there’s some kind of a wind howling in your ears: “Listen!” Is there anyone, anywhere, listening? You know, out here on the streets you can hear the wind a little bit better. That’s maybe cause there aren’t so many walls that might need breaking down. We’re nomads . . . we’re the remnants of the old nomad cultures, who used to wander around the earth with their camels and their goats . . . Once I read a book about nomads. It was written by this woman who went to live with them for awhile. She said it seemed to her that nomads were kinder, wiser, than the folks she knew who lived in their separate little square boxes. I don’t know whether that’s true or not. It’s not easy to be a nomad these days. You wander around the cities, looking for food . . . anything to ease the pain.

But there is this: living out here in the open, you slow down. You do. You slow down. You pay attention . . . to how things are, to how things are shifting all the time. And then sometimes, when there’s absolutely nothing left for you to hold onto, the veil between the visible world and the invisible world gets thinner and your heart breaks open. It’s said that our hearts have to be broken like the husk of an almond for the sweet nutty fruit to come out . . .


See that magpie over there, Walker? (SHE POINTS.) Interesting bird. She forages around in the streets just like us—for garbage, plastic bags, old pieces of cardboard to make a nest. (SHE PATS THE CARDBOARD SHE’S SITTING ON.) Did you know the magpie was the only one who refused to go into the ark with all the others? They say this is a known fact. She just flew up to the roof and perched there, jabbering over the drowning world . . . (LAUGHS) Over here, where we live, magpies wear drab black and white outfits, so they won’t be noticed. That’s cause human beings are so intolerant here. They kill magpies. But in other parts of the world people worship the magpie, and so they dress up in a magnificent array of brilliant colors. In Japan they wear azure. In Borneo, they wear a shimmering pale green cloak with a high neck. Their wings are black, diaphanous; they paint their lips in bright orange and wear a dead-of night black mask over their eyes. They’re like shamen, healers, wanderers, homeless. People bow down in front of them, come to them to ask their advice about how to live their lives.

So I’m going to sing you a song. This is a song to the magpies, and to those of us who are sort of . . . like magpies.

Thou who didst come to bring
On thy redeeming wing
Healing and sight
Health to the sick in mind,
Sight to the only blind,
Now to all creature-kind
Let there be light.

Spirit of truth and love,
Life-giving holy dove,
Speed forth thy flight,
Move on the waters’ face
Bearing the gifts of grace,
And in earth’s darkest place,
Let there be light.



Martha Boesing has written over forty produced plays, led workshops, and directed plays in theaters throughout the country. She was the founder and artistic director of At the Foot of the Mountain in Minneapolis (the longest-running professional women's theater in the country) from 1974-84. She has won several awards, including an NEA, a Bush fellowship, and the Kennedy Center's Fund for New American Playwrights. In the sixties she was a company member of Minneapolis' Firehouse Theater (an iconoclastic, experimental theater), and her work remains true to the ideological concerns of that time. She now lives in Oakland with her partner Sandy Boucher, close to her four grandchildren, and creates theater pieces for The Faithful Fools, a street ministry in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco.

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