A homeless man with no legs broke me of giving money to people on the street. I was new to Chicago, finishing my degree at Columbia College and trying to get my band “discovered” in the meantime. He stopped me on my way to class downtown and asked for some cash to stay at the YMCA. I did not have that much money. I had tokens to get the train to school and then home (remember that, Chicago?) and a couple of singles. He sneered at my meager offering and wheeled away to ask someone else.
The memory is seared in my brain, and it was almost 30 years ago. Not long after that incident, when I did have a job, and a little cash, a friend (who seemed to know more about homeless people and Chicago than I did) told me that I should never give money to people on the street. This solidified my ideas, and I made a promise to myself to only give to “organizations.” Sometimes I followed through, but mostly I was broke and saw myself as the charity most deserving of my hard earned cash. Youth is like that, I guess.
I carried this idea of “not giving” for a long, long time. Over time, though, I softened on that stance. It began with noticing the people who were asking. I realized one day sitting at a traffic light that I had conditioned myself either to “not see” the people or to “see and judge unworthy.” As I think about it, “not seeing” is easier. It feels better, less hard-hearted. If I notice you, if I see you, if I make eye contact, well then, we’re in relationship somehow. Paying attention is the first step; eye contact is a small agreement we make between us. I see you, and you see me, and here we are together in the same space until the light turns green.
The next step was offering a small outpouring of change from my car window one day, then another maybe a week later. And without fail, I found I was calculating the excesses around me. And without really thinking about it, I started to trim away those excesses, not all of them, not yet. It was cold one day, and a pair of cheap gloves were on the car seat next to me. I handed those out the window. Another time, I bought some “hand warmers” at the Walgreens while picking up a bag of chips for my son after his Fencing lesson. I handed those out when the temperatures went below freezing. I handed these things out arbitrarily, to whoever was first to ask, the first to be seen as I stopped at the red lights near the expressways. And it always seems to be there where the expressway meets the road.
Last week while picking up a cake at the Baskin-Robbins for my son’s birthday a man stood outside asking for change. The two women in front of me ignored him, and I nearly did too because I was in a hurry and all that. But I was in a habit now, I looked through my purse for some change but had none. The cake was paid for already. I had nothing to offer from my excesses.
When I got to the door he asked for some change, and I said, “I’m sorry, I don’t have any cash on me today.” He nodded his head, and he thanked me anyhow. “I just wanted to get a drink or something,” he said, and I said, “I’ll buy you a drink,” and he thanked me again, clearly surprised. I was surprised too.
I invited him into the store with me to pick out what he’d like, and I asked his name. “Luke,” he said. I introduced myself, and he said, “That’s a pretty name.” I thanked him and asked what he’d like. He ordered an orange juice. I asked if he’d like something to eat and he said, “yes, thank you, I am hungry.”
So I got my cake and I bought his food and we talked for a minute while it was being made. I found out that his brother lives in my hometown and that it’s been years since he’d seen him. His birthday was coming up. When the food arrived, he thanked me again, and I asked that he take care of himself. I said that I hoped he would see his family again soon. He said that he hoped for that too.
When I got to my car, I cried, and then I cried on the way home too just for good measure, and now I’m praying for Luke and his brother. And I pray for myself too, and for all of us who are in a position to help, to offer some change or a sandwich, kind words, or even at the barest minimum, to “see” those around us who are struggling. I want to be a person who sees and who gives– all the time, not just during Lent or when I have excesses, and that is an incredibly frightening thing to admit. Even writing it here makes me want to crawl into a dark closet stored up with all my stuff and never come out because giving like that, without care of “having mine” is a scary prospect. It hits all my “not enough” buttons. Maybe it hits those buttons in all of us who can help but don’t.
Pray for Luke. Pray for me. Pray for us all.