The other day at work, an obvious street denizen stopped me and asked how much a sandwich cost.
He was about 5’4″ tall, dark, dirt stained skin, long scraggly hair making a greasy escape from his knit cap, missing teeth and wearing an assortment of ill fitting clothes that were almost invisible beneath his de rigeuer blanket.
He reached out to touch my arm and looked up at me, smiling and bright eyed. I could tell that even though he was uncertain that he could afford a sandwich, the prospect of first run food was exciting.
I walked him toward the Deli as he recounted a story about the previous business in the building where Green Zebra is located. Mentally, I was distracted by the bread and meat that I had thrown out at home earlier in the week. My mind showed me pictures of food bombs on my old car’s trunk from the leftover packages that I had set on my rooftop and forgotten before driving off, remembering the next morning when I wondered what the hell was on my car.
Not driving is a good thing for me.
Happily, I was able to offset those memories with better moments of giving my leftovers to people on the streets. Some were grateful, others bristled at my less-than-magnanimous gestures.
And I get it…who wakes up in the morning aspiring to meals of used food?
We arrived at the Deli case and talked about his possible options. He was animated, saliva practically springing from his eyes as he devoured the case with them. He asked how much the sliders were and when I told him, his hands unconsciously tightened around the loose bills he had been fretting over in them and he exclaimed, “I can afford that!”
I placed his order for him and touched his shoulder while I excused myself. He reached up to me with both hands – still holding his money and thanked me. He was so excited.
As I walked away, I caught myself wishing all homeless people were like him and then shaking my head at that ridiculous thought. I’ve struggled with my empathy for the homeless in the past.
At first I was afraid.
Good luck getting that song out of your head.
After I overcame my fear of homeless people I became frustrated. They were everywhere, I was living in urban areas – Belltown in Seattle, the waterfront in Portland – and they were just apathetic obstacles in my daily sphere.
I started availing myself to opportunities to help them as they presented themselves: cash or loose change as I could, the mixed bag of food left overs, donating clothes and food as often as possible.
Then I swerved back toward resentment. I was going broke just walking to work by giving out loose change.
Sometimes not driving works against me because it created a commute that was basically a beggar’s gauntlet.
I found a balance – of sorts – eventually. I would still donate money on occasion, but it was more of a “pay it forward” type thing. You see, I went through this period that I called The Rolling 20’s, where I literally found at least one $20 bill on the streets of Seattle each week.
Gotta love those bridge and tunnel drunks that came into Seattle to party each weekend.
I’d break up that $20 and dole it out throughout the week. It was a good system. I’d also toss change that I found on the streets into the begging hands I came across. I remember thinking what an offense it probably was to give change found on the streets to a beggar. Maybe it was more of an irony, or perhaps an indictment of the lack of initiative amongst the homeless. Or maybe that’s just me, overthinking my opinions on homeless people.
Or maybe they just didn’t have the grandmother that I did, who set a frequent example of how to avail yourself to these opportunities as the arose. She was always stopping to bend over for some street money.
Ok, that doesn’t sound right. I may as well be the one to call it out.
But, seriously, the woman found loose change everywhere. Parking lots, actual streets – while crossing them and not giving a rat’s ass about traffic, on restaurant and store floors…and she also displayed quite a bit of luck with finding actual paper money, too.
She called it luck. Maybe it was, since she seemed to have an excess of it whenever she passed a slot machine, too.
I just think of it as awareness, but, whatevs.
Anyway, my struggle with homeless people kind of ended once I stopped trying to paint them as a group and look at them as individuals. This is what happened when I put a budget on my handouts, I guess. I began to donate selectively versus reflexively.
I particularly enjoyed “donating” a $5 to the guy selling Street Roots on the corner of Rainier Square in downtown Seattle. Street Roots might be the Portland version of the homeless newspaper…but whatever it was called, I think they bought it for $.50 and sold it for $1 and I loved chatting for a few minutes a week with the old guy that sold it on the corner by my office. He helped bring me back around to accepting the presence of homeless people without resenting them.
Getting to know his story also helped me begin to think of them as individuals instead of “those people”.
The street paper in Seattle is called Real Change…I asked the guy selling Street Roots outside my store – Desmond – last night. Boy, he’s a character. He’s a glad-hander if ever there was one. He’s some sort of leader in the Street Roots organization here in PDX. He clarified for me that he’s not a writer, but puts in a full day at the office – which is close to my home, even closer to Old Town Pizza and CCs, so minor sure why I didn’t know that’s where it was before he told me – and then comes and sits outside my store selling papers and talking to the neighbors as they enter or exit. I don’t know what he does do at the office, but this guy is an amazing ambassador for the homeless people that sell the paper.
Anyway, somehow this turned into a long winded analysis of my changing views on homeless people over the decades when all I really wanted to do was tell a story that maybe didn’t make me sound like s total asshole for once.
This grumpy old man caraciture of mine needs a little humanizing sometimes.
And, yeah…you better believe I bought that guy’s sandwich.