Inside the Outside
Excuse me, ma’am, can you help me, please? I got no money and nowhere to go.
I had a training class in downtown today, and spent my 8 hours in a beautiful, posh highrise, overlooking the city. I love days when I have to be downtown. I love downtown. I love highrises. I love posh. What I do not love is getting out of the parking lot, turning onto a downtown street and realizing my gas tank is on empty.
Because I work really close to home, I only have to fill up once a week. Driving downtown puts a crimp in my fueling style, and where a quarter of a tank will last me 3 days regularly, it will get me exactly to downtown period. So, I had to stop on the way home to fill up again. I pulled in to a 7-11 on the access road of the highway and circled to find a free pump.
As I went around, I saw a panhandling man standing on the curb. He was watching the people at the pumps, and approaching them one by one. I got out to refill my tank, and he waited until I had completed the transaction to walk up to me and ask for help.
I don’t have any cash on me, but I’m going inside in a second, and I’d be glad to buy you a water.
Do you ever think about all the events and happenings that had to line up for you to be where you are? I do. I think about the domino effect that behaviors and actions of my great-grandparents, grandparents, and parents had on my lifestyle. If my parents hadn’t insisted that I go to college, if they hadn’t been express about the importance of a good education, and if they hadn’t pushed me forward when I wanted to quit, how different would my life be?
If my dad hadn’t worked jobs he hated to make a salary, or if my mom hadn’t sacrificed careers to follow that Marine around the country, or if my grandparents hadn’t worked as hard as they had, how different would my life be?
What if my parents hadn’t taught me self-respect? Or what if they hadn’t encouraged me to be my own person, and not bow to peer pressure? What if they had let me run wild when invited? What if they hadn’t punished me when I made my wimpy attempts at rebellion? What if they had been just a hair less restrictive? Or just a fraction more demanding? What if they hadn’t shown me love? What if I hadn’t had the family I had? What if I had been born into homelessness, or hopelessness, or the horror that some children are? What curb might I be standing on because life got away from me?
–Do you want cash back with that? –Yes, please. Five dollars.
I wouldn’t say I am a soft touch, but I probably am. I looked at that man, and I saw someone’s son. There, but for the grace of God, go I and all that. What if it was my son who needed help? There is nothing in the world I would not do to help my son.
I’ve said before that I can’t stand to see someone hungry. I can’t tell you the number of times I saw my mother stop and try to feed people. When we lived in Virginia, we would sometimes stop at Hardees on the way to school in the morning. There were two children, about my age, who would beg there. My mother fed those kids for weeks before they disappeared. The manager told her that CPS had come for them.
I was raised to believe in feeding the hungry, and helping people who were less fortunate. And, y’all, it’s not like my parents were made of money. But that’s how they were raised, too. My grandparents fed people. My great-grandparents fed people. Mommy and Poppy, my mom’s grandparents, had a hobo mark on their fence, put there by wanderers to tell others that they could get a meal at that house.
The poor you will always have with you. –Matthew 26:11
There is a cynical side of me that thinks, “Panhandlers. Bah! That’s their job–they’ve chosen that job.” But what a crappy job to have! It was 104 degrees today. That’s hot. Who wants a job where you have to stand outside in 104 degree weather, debasing yourself in front of strangers, begging for spare change? Sure, you can set your own hours, be your own boss, and work wherever you like, but the healthcare benefits can’t be worth much.
I did think about that when I went inside the 7-11. For all I know, that man lives better than I do. Maybe panhandling is just his job. But you know what? His being there reminded me to be grateful for what I have, and he reminded me to step up what I am teaching Thor about consumerism and mindless consumption, and he reminded me that I make the choice to see people as human beings, or as annoyances. And, if that was part of the job description, he was doing it well.
I doubt he lives better than I do, though. And I doubt that’s a job he has chosen. I wonder what domino effects happened to bring him to that place?
It’s easy to say, “Get a job! If you’d just get cleaned up…” But where should the homeless clean up? And how can you get a job without an address? Or without access to valid identification? And why would you spend money on a State ID if that $25 could be all you have to last you for a month? That’s just the tip of the iceberg.
I don’t have any answers, but I do have compassion. My husband would probably shake his head and sigh at me, and pat me on the shoulder the way he does when he thinks I am being silly, but I am the girl who has chased homeless people down the street with bags of McDonald’s. I am the girl who used to pack an extra sandwich in her lunch, and hand it over to the panhandler who stood at an intersection on the way to work. And, I am the woman who will go into 7-11 and buy the biggest water bottle she can find, and ask for a little cash back at the register so a man can maybe pick out a hot dog, or a fried burrito, or something. And I am the hopeful fool who wants to believe that sometimes all it takes is a little help, and being treated like a person to make a difference in someone’s life.
Thank you so much, ma’am. Thank you so very much. And God bless you. God bless you, ma’am.
When I walked back out of the convenience store, the panhandler was talking to another customer at the gas pumps. That man handed over a $10. I handed off the water and the $5, and looked the panhandler in the eye as he thanked me. Saying, “You’re welcome,” seemed wrong and tacky, so I just smiled at him and went on back to my car.
There had been firetrucks and an ambulance at the 7-11 when I drove up. When I went into the store, they were loading up a man who looked like he was also a panhandler, who had collapsed from heat.
When I drove off, my panhandler was sitting by the ice machine, drinking his water. What he was going to do with the cash, I don’t know and don’t care. I don’t need to know. I just sent it off into my karmic piggybank, earmarked for my son, so that if he is ever in any kind of need, someone is there to care for him. And if he lives his whole life without ever once having to dip into that fund, it will be there for him to share with others.
Do to others as you would have them do to you. If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. –Luke 6:31, 32
I don’t write this for praise, or to toot my own horn. I write it because I think if we look at each other differently–if we look at each other like someone’s son, or someone’s daughter, as people who were once tiny, perfect, precious children–if we look at one another the way we are told that our creator looks at us–that can be the difference we need.
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