On an evening in March Jeannette Walls is riding in a taxi headed to a party when she sees her mother digging through a trashcan. Walls has not seen her mother for months and she is struck by the reality that the woman who raised her presently appears no different to passersby than any other homeless person on the city streets. Indeed, many of those walking down the street pass the woman without acknowledging her existence. From the confines of the taxi car, Walls observes the familiar mannerisms of her mother and is reminded of the woman who played with her during childhood and read her Shakespeare stories, the woman who was now rummaging through a dumpster in the East Village.
However, Jeannette quickly curtails her reminiscence out of fear that someone will notice her. Only a few blocks away from the party, she fears that her fixation on the woman by the dumpster would arouse suspicion. To avoid being seen she lowers herself in her seat and tells the taxi driver to take her to her home on Park Avenue. She cannot risk being seen by any other attendees of the party lest they discover her ‘secret’, that she is the daughter of a homeless woman in New York. The driver turns around and Walls, like the strangers on the street, passes by her mother without saying anything to her.
When Walls returns to her apartment she feels ashamed for hiding from her mother. She is also stricken by guilt for having furniture, antiques, and jewelry when her parents do not even have a constant source of food or a permanent residence. But Walls tempers her guilt by recalling her previous attempts to help her parents. Walls remembers that any attempt to reach out in the past resulted in stubborn denials from her parents who did not even acknowledge that they needed help. When her offers were accepted, Jeannette’s mother often asked for extravagant and unnecessary items like membership to a fitness club. Nevertheless, Walls is so ashamed of her behavior that she decides to invite her mother to lunch at a Chinese restaurant. However, communicating the invite is no easy feat. Walls must first leave a message at another woman’s house (a friend of her mother’s) and wait a few days for her mother to get the message and respond.
As predicted, during lunch Jeannette’s mother first denies that she needs help from her daughter and then requests electrolysis treatment. Frustrated, Jeannette insists that her mother improve the quality of her life but her mother quickly refuses, accusing Jeannette of being the one in need of help since her “values are all confused”. She accuses Jeannette of having “confused” values once again after discovering what happened the night Jeannette hid in the taxi. She says that instead of hiding her past and being embarrassed, Jeannette ought to instead tell the truth.
The memoir's beginning lays bare all of Jeannette's hitherto pent up insecurities about her troubled past. Though she has escaped the substandard circumstances that characterized her childhood, Rose Mary's appearance by the dumpster is a symbol that Jeannette cannot ever fully hide from her past life of poverty and periodic homelessness. The story and the fear of it being discovered could always be lurking behind any city corner.
The title of the section alone resurrects the lurking feeling of shame Jeannette felt before embarking on this project. Entitled, "A Woman on the Street", the section contains no direct reference to Rose Mary Walls nor does it outright acknowledge the relation between the "woman on the street" and the author of the book.
The discussion about values resurfaces throughout Jeannette's memoirs. Already, conventional understandings of "confused" and stable values are challenged when Jeannette meets with her mother. This foreshadows Jeannette's story and the actions of her parents which are not always so definitively good or bad, right or wrong. This initial discussion changes the framework for the reader, preparing her to enter a world in which the person rooting through the dumpster may have more secure values than the one living in a Park Avenue apartment.
The structure of Part I reveals Jeannette's secret while also telling the reader that she made it out. A well known journalist living in Park Avenue, the Jeannette Walls of Part I seems like she would have very little to do with the young Jeannette Walls of the following chapters, the Jeannette Walls who was sometimes forced to rummage through dumpsters for food or to eat maggot-infested meat when nothing else was available.
The structure also imitates that of more classical forms as Rose Mary functions as a muse, speaking to the writer and inspiring her work. Rose Mary's final words to Jeannette during their meal together urge her to tell the truth and to stop hiding. As if propelled by these words of her mother, Jeannette launches directly into the memoir, no longer afraid to be found out by her colleagues and friends.