The Lady In The Van


“For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me.” Mark 14:7

Ironically, while we were walking out of the theater after seeing this movie, a woman who appeared to be homeless walked up and said she was hungry, and wanted some money. One of our group turned away immediately because, she said, the smell really offended her. The other person in our group simply took a step back and put me between her and the lady on the street. So I said to her, 'How about I buy you a hamburger at the 'In N Out' right over there? And she said, “No, just give me the money, I can buy it myself.” Then she took a puff on her cheroot. So I replied, “No, I'm not going to give you money, but I'll buy you the food.” She said, “It doesn't have to work that way.” I replied, “It does for me.” The lady turned away, presumably to find someone else to ask.
Miss Mary Shepherd is “The Lady in the Van,” and her character is a bit like the lady we met on the street afterwards. Older than you'd expect a homeless person to be, and not exactly brimming with social graces. Looks a little rough around the edges. Seems to say exactly what's on her mind, even if doing so might not endear her to the people who may be trying to help her. Neither genteel nor gentle. But there's something about her fierce independence that's endearing, because she doesn't appear to be fawning or wheedling to get what she needs. She's just genuinely who she is.
Maggie Smith is remarkable in this role. Of course we already know that she's the Grand Dame of acting, but those of us accustomed to seeing her play the part of landed gentry in the “Downton Abbey” series are still a little surprised by the range she demonstrates here. She can still zing the one-liners, but here is a common touch, a kind of populist pride that somehow carries its own brand of fiery dignity. Though Maggie Smith herself is in her 80's, she can play dottery, and make this memorable character appear even older, even more infirm, and even crankier.
The other primary character in the film is Alex Jennings (Alan Bennett), a writer, who lives in a nicely-appointed brownstone in a more prosperous part of London, which makes the appearance of The Lady in the Van even more off-putting, because, well, they don't usually see “those kind of people” around their neighborhood. And Mr. Jennings is not, by disposition, a do-gooder; in fact, for a while he steadfastly refuses to help Ms. Shepherd. But his common decency won't allow him to refuse her request to use his loo. And eventually he relents and allows her to park in his driveway, where she occasionally leaves certain unmentionable deposits. Mr. Jennings fusses about it all with his alter ego, the one who actually labors at the typewriter all day. He even condescends to speak to the social worker about Ms. Shepherd, though he adamantly maintains that he is not her caregiver.
Can Miss Mary Shepherd possibly survive in the middle of all this aggressive indifference? She can, and she does. Eventually, they make a post-mortem plaque for her, on the fence above the driveway, that this is where she lived for 15 years. Eventually, they found out more about her----that she was a concert pianist in her youth, that she was once a nun, that she actually has a brother living in the City, and that she has her own reasons for “living under the radar.”
“The Lady in the Van” is not exactly an endearing character. But she is unique, you might even say, iconic, and maybe even unforgettable. And how many people get an Ascension scene at the end?

Questions for Discussion:
  1. What did you do the last time you encountered a beggar on the street?
  2. What services does your city provide for the homeless?
  3. Do you envision yourself bodily ascending to heaven, as Jesus did? (Acts 1: 6-11)

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen is the Interim Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, Athens, Texas