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Roger and Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones are the only two characters in "Thank You, M'am" by Langston Hughes, and it is clear that they would each describe their meeting differently from the other.
Roger would begin his story by saying that it all started because he wanted to buy some blue suede shoes. No one at home really cares what he does, so he is out late one night trying to steal some money. He spies a large black woman and decides to steal her purse, but he has no idea that she will fight back like she does. Before he knows what happens, the purse strap breaks and he is flat on the ground, looking up at this imposing woman who gives him a kick in the rear. (Perhaps he wonders why he did not notice that before he tried to steal her purse.)
Next the woman picks him up and shakes him until his teeth rattle. She is angry and seems to think he is dirty--which he would have to admit is true. Roger wants to leave but the woman will not let him.
Mrs. Jones stopped, jerked him around in front of her, put a half-nelson about his neck, and continued to drag him up the street. When she got back to her door, she dragged the boy inside, down a hall, and into a large kitchenette-furnished room at the rear of the house.
At her house, the woman assumes he is hungry, but he tells her he wanted the money to buy the shoes. The woman is oddly silent, for once, as if she is thinking about things. Then she tells him that she has done things in her past that she is not proud of, too, really bad things; and she knows what it is like to want things she could not get. This makes Roger think about things, too.
The woman makes him wash his face and comb his hair as she starts to cook dinner. Then she does something that shocks and surprises the boy; she turns her back on him, leaving her purse on the bed and the door open. He could run, of course, but he does not want to disappoint her, which is very odd since he just met her--and he tried to steal her purse. He moves so she can see that he is not going to steal from her.
Roger is stunned that this woman gives him the ten dollars for his shoes. He wants to say more than thank-you, but his heart is too full and it is all he can manage. Though he never sees her again, this woman changes his life.
Mrs. Luella Bates Washington Jones is tired and just wants to go home at the end of a long day, and suddenly a teenage boy tried to steal her purse. That is not going to happen, and she fights back. He is a scrawny, rather dirty boy, but he does not look like a hoodlum. In fact, he just looks like he needs someone to set him straight. He wants to leave, of course, but she reminds him that he is the one who interrupted her life, so she forcibly takes him back to her house with her. He needs someone to care about him, even for a short time.
She is surprised to learn what the boy, Roger, would have done with the money he wanted to steal from her. Blue suede shoes? Though it seems an odd thing to want, she thinks back to wanting things in her own life, things she could not get. This boy is more like her than either of them realized, at first, and she tries to let him know that without going into any details.
She knows what the boy needs even more than a good face-washing and hair-combing; he needs someone to believe in him, to trust him. He needs to know that he matters to someone, even for these few hours, because clearly no one else does. She gives him the money and, she hopes, a chance in life.
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