See her, as she sits alone among a fray of scurrying students
Pass her, and she will ask, in a soft voice, if you have change to spare
Ignore her, and she will hurt but flash a smile anyway
Listen to her, and she will tell you her story
The Smile Lady takes the Metro bus 33 near her home in Culver City at noon. Then she catches the Metro Expo Line and transfers onto the Metro Blue Line at the Pico station. She steps off the train at Fifth Street and walks onto Long Beach Transit bus 92, which takes her to her final destination: California State University, Long Beach.
It’s a three-hour trip one-way. She doesn’t own a car. She fell asleep once while driving and crashed it.
She makes the trip out to CSULB three or four times a month; it’s just one of the many schools she visits regularly. Sometimes she stands outside of grocery stores, too.
Though students call her The Smile Lady, her real name is Grace Cabral. She’s a self-described woman of God. She’s a woman with a smile that tries to break free even while her lips are still speaking.
To her, the three-hour trip is nothing, a small pilgrimage of love. Eighteen years ago, her friends’ house burned down. They were a family of six. They lost everything.
When Feed the Children, a non-profit, helped them get back on their feet, the Smile Lady knew what she had to do. This inspired Grace to volunteer for the charity. She hasn’t stopped since, rain or shine.
Maybe she’ll retire in a year or two, she says. She admits she’s been slowing down in her age, used to do this almost five days a week back when she was young.
She gets to CSULB around 3 p.m. and sets up in her usual spot, the breezeway adjacent to the Liberal Arts 4 Building. She used to stand, but started sitting after she broke her leg nine years ago.
She’s never pushy when asking for donations. She knows many students are hard up for cash. She doesn’t want to pressure anyone, she understands. Every penny helps, she tells them.
“Bait,” she jokingly calls the ‘I <3 Your Smile’ stickers she hands out. She pays for them out of her own pocket, but she doesn’t mind. She says they help brighten a bad day.
Sometimes students will pull their phone up to their ear and pretend to be getting a phone call as they approach her. As soon as they pass by, she sees them put the phone away.
It makes her heart sink. She can’t help it. When she first started, she had to keep from crying after every rebuff. She’s learned not to take it so personally. She just wants to do good. She just wants to help families like her friends’.
She said for the most part though, CSULB students are kind, more generous than at the University of California, Los Angeles, she says with a smirk. That’s why she keeps coming back. Students who have come to recognize her wave every so often.
When 6 p.m. rolls around, she starts packing up, ready to face the three hours of transit that lie between her and her home, smile intact.
**Photos by Michael Ares