I did not grow up in a family that traveled. We camped on occasion, close to home in case in rained. Once, there was a promised trip to Disney “when the house sold”, but then the deal fell through and with it, the hope of visiting the Magic Kingdom.
My experiences beyond Northern Michigan were quite limited, and I grew up with many blinders to the world beyond what we called home. It wasn’t until late in high school, then college, that I was exposed to the bright lights culture of the cities that surround us.
Like most of us, I vowed my own children would have a different experience. Both my husband and I value open-minded dialogue about the rich diversity at the heart of living in America. There is a special energy in foods with foreign flavor, prepared by those with skin colors richer than our own, speaking words in a language not heard in a small Midwestern town.
Last week, we spent a few days in New York City. I expected my children to notice the black suits and hats customary to Hasidic Jews, women and children with their heads covered in bright scarves, and the multitude of skin colors and languages spoken in a large city. We talked about crowds and safety, and the importance of not running off. I held their wallets for safekeeping, and their hands as we pushed through a solid sea of human bodies to get to the center of Times Square.
By the end of each day, we were sweaty, starving, and completely over-stimulated. On the final leg of the two subway several block walk back to our hotel, we stopped for a quick drink and shoe tie in a less crowded stretch of sidewalk. After a steady stream of “Mom…. Mom…. Mom….”, followed by arm tugging and shirt pulling, I finally turned around to answer my 9 year old son.
“What…..?????” I spat out in an exasperated tone. “ I am out of water, we are NOT there yet, and there are no bathrooms until we get to the hotel. “
“No, I just wanted to know if I can give that man some money.” And then he pointed to a very dirty, gray haired man squatting in a doorway with his head bowed and resting on his pressed together hands.
I stopped, a million voices running through my head about never giving money to the hundreds of homeless beggars sleeping, sitting, and squatting in city doorways. And then I handed him as many ones as I had in my purse.
Yes, I let my 9-year-old son walk up to a homeless man in the street and put $3 into his cup. The man immediately opened his eyes, released his hands, and smiled the biggest toothless grin I have ever seen. He looked up at Jonas, thanked him, and then looked for me. “Bless you!” he yelled, and then went back to his close-eyed position.
I don’t know what he did with the $3 we gave him, and frankly, I don’t care. A gift freely given is just that. It wasn’t about the money – it was about the human contact. My son is likely one of the few people who actually noticed and acknowledged that man all day. It didn’t cost us anything to greet him in the same way we did the man who joined us on the elevator on our way out of our hotel, and I am betting that it meant a whole lot more.
Fast-forward two weeks to Chicago. We had spent an embarrassing amount of money shopping, eating, and staying in an upgraded suite at a boutique hotel. I was alone on the corner, waiting for my husband to meet me. I realized as I was watching for him that I had walked by the same woman sitting in a doorway several times without even a glance.
She was wearing all black, her head covered in a black and gold scarf. She was holding a sign, but I can’t tell you what it said – the same thing they all say I am sure. Out of work, need to feed her family, please help. I was about to keep walking, keep shopping, keep ignoring – and then I heard my son’s voice in my head.
This time, I walked up to her. As I dropped the money into her cup, I touched her arm and she looked up. Her face was clean, as was her sweater. I made a point to look into her eyes, and speak to her. I broke the rules. Her eyes were red, and she looked teary. I choked out a “Bless you”, before I let go of her arm and moved on.
The moment was over, and I went on with my day, but I had lost my taste for shopping.
Some people will say she manipulated me into giving her money, or that she should just get a job and work for her money rather than begging. Most won’t even give her that much thought – they will just step over her or walk past without even a glance.
She may be manipulative, she may use the money I gave her to buy drugs, or she may go home to her family with whatever she made for the day and pay her bills with it. Honestly, just like the man in New York City, I don’t care.
What I care about is that we live in a society where it is more socially acceptable to walk past (or over) someone begging in the street than it is to make eye contact, greet them, or smile. I care that there is a fellow woman who feels that her best option for work is to sit in the doorway of a store where the average shirt costs more than she will collect in a week. I care that a fellow human being is dehumanized to the point of non-existence.
While I can explain diversity in dress, language, food, and culture – I do not have a good answer for my children when they ask “why” there are people with no homes, no food, begging for less than we spend on a cup of coffee. It is simply something that they can’t comprehend, and if I am perfectly honest, I am not sure I want them to.
I can say that it certainly puts some things into perspective – for all of us. The tears over the empty “Slugterra” section at Toys-R-Us, the soda I wouldn’t buy at Starbucks, the “too crowded” hotel room, my angst over what I want to be when I grow up – and at least a million other middle class inconveniences that I am embarrassed that I was ever upset about.
I am not naïve enough to think that my few dollars made any difference in the lives of those people, but I do hope that each felt a little more human after our encounters. Maybe a glimpse of hope, of some compassion, a reminder that they are worthy simply because they are.