When I pulled up to a busy intersection this afternoon, I saw a young man standing in the rain, holding a cardboard sign. The sign was so dark with rainwater that it was falling apart in the middle and quite hard to read, but I wanted to know what it said, so I stared. The man saw me looking and turned away. As a reflex so did I, but not before I made out the main word: homeless.
I never know if people standing on street corners want me to look at them, especially when I can’t give them anything. But it also seems wrong to not look, pretending they don’t exist. I sometimes force myself to try and make eye contact, even when I’m not planning to give them anything. Then I usually wave or smile a little. It’s tricky though, because this type of behavior might lead someone to walk over to your car, expecting a handout. Not that I’m opposed to handouts -- I decided a few years ago that I don’t care what anyone does with five bucks anymore -- but I don’t usually have anything on me. Who does these days? All the more reason to pity someone standing in the rain, in need.
I was on my way home from Walmart though, and had three bags in the car with me. The light was red and I was the third car in line so I had a minute to look over and see if there was anything useful. Two boxes of Earl Grey -- one decaf, one regular. A bag of pretzels. A bag of chocolate chips. A bag of chocolate covered pretzels and a box of Swiss Rolls. (My daughter had to begin a quarantine today and had asked me to stock up on her favorite snacks.) A stick of deodorant and a package of dog treats. After looking down at the bags and looking back at the man, then looking down again and noticing he’d seen me looking down, I decided to give him the chocolate covered pretzels. He looked so miserable in the rain, and I thought maybe the treat would cheer him up. Now that I’m home it seems like the big bag of regular pretzels might have been a better choice.
Pity is not a word I like, in fact I hate to imagine someone having pity for me. I think what I would prefer is compassion. Maybe that’s why I try to interact -- just a little, I am an introvert after all -- whenever I see a homeless person. But today my main motive was curiosity. Why? Because the man looked so young. And handsome. Sure his hair was long and he had a beard, but his clothes were not torn or dirty. He seemed able bodied, and from the investigative look he gave me, intelligent.
I couldn’t put the pieces together, how was this man homeless?
As the light turned green I rolled down my window and held out the bag of candy toward him. He walked closer as I told him, “Sorry, this is all I’ve got right now.” He smiled and said, “thanks,” taking the bag from my hands with care. Then I drove off, tearing up as I made the turn onto the main road.
Why was I crying for this man I didn’t know and would probably never see again? I guess because he reminded me of someone I knew, like a brother, or a son. Not mine specifically, but someone’s. He was still fresh enough that he looked like he belonged to someone. He didn’t have the withered look of a man who belonged to the street. No, he looked like a college student performing some kind of experiment. And maybe he was. Maybe my tears were unnecessary after all.
But then I remembered the man I gave a Chik-Fil-A sandwich last year, the one hanging out in the Kroger parking lot who looked a bit like Willie Nelson. I cried when I talked to him, too, even though I suspected I wasn’t the only one giving him free food that day. And when I saw him there the next week, I didn’t bother to stop again. My suspicion had been confirmed; and I didn’t have any extra time or money that day.
Perhaps that’s where the tears come from, knowing how it feels to be out of time, or money, or even food. I’ve never been desperate enough to beg out in public, and for that I’m grateful, but we all know a little something about not having enough, right? Whether it’s compassion or pity or humility or pride or even love, we’ve all come up short from time to time.
And maybe that’s why it’s easier to look away from the men and women we see standing on the street corners, hands open in need. It’s too familiar to look at. To acknowledge the need in another human is to be forced to examine the need in your own heart.
After all, it’s only my car that keeps me from standing out there with them. The fact that I don’t have to walk to home; that keeps me driving straight there. It’s merely that I own a pantry for storing my goods, a pantry inside of a home, with bedrooms and closets, and a one-car-garage for parking. Take away my possessions and I’m no different than the man with the sign on the street. Isn’t that the scary truth I’m afraid to see in his eyes? Isn’t that what makes me cry?
I’m not writing this out to try and solve any problems or say anything new. I’m just processing a moment here with the internet, hoping someone else understands how I feel. If you’re the praying type, perhaps you’ll join me in remembering this young man tonight, wherever he is now. Thanks for reading these words today and caring about my life long enough to listen (virtually).
I hope you’re keeping dry and warm out there tonight, friends. Let’s talk again soon.