“They say goldfish have no memory; I guess their lives are much like mine. And the little plastic castle, is a surprise every time.”
~Little Plastic Castles
I remember clear as a bell one of my favorite moments dealing with a scam artist. I was leaving my gym in Los Angeles—a Bally Total Fitness—and walking toward my car. A man in his thirties approached and started talking.
“Can I ask you a question?” He asked.
“You just did,” I responded with a smile while not breaking stride.
He was momentarily stunned and paused to figure out what had just happened. By the time he recovered, I had gained several feet on him and he had to jog to catch up.
“I need to ask you something,” he stated, using a new angle.
“Go ahead,” I said kindly, still walking.
“OK, see, I live like twenty miles from here, and my car is all busted up, and I’m not sure if it needs gas or if I should be taking a bus or what…”
He paused to see if I would fill in the blanks with an offer of cash. Instead, I moved in a different verbal direction.
“That’s not a question,” I informed him.
Frustrated, he finally just blurted forth his intent: “Hey man, can I have a dollar?”
“Nope,” I responded, still smiling. “I’m leaving the gym; I don’t have any money on me, just my driver’s license.”
And that was that; each of us went our separate ways.
(Some-day, love will find him…)
As a rule, I generally don’t give money to panhandlers. I will donate food to a pantry, or money to a charity, but I don’t give directly to people. It’s the age-old adage, the one about giving a man a fish vs. buying him cable so he can watch the fishing channel.
Or something like that.
While in San Antonio, Texas, in line at a little Mexican restaurant, however, I did a one-eighty on my standard operating procedure.
I didn’t know the city or the restaurant; I had been driving, saw the place, suddenly realized I hadn’t eaten in seven hours, and pulled over. Wandering in and examining the overhead menu, I figured it was worth staying, so I got in line. Fairly soon after I arrived, a homeless man arrived and stood behind me. I didn’t think anything of it, until he got out his money.
He had one dollar.
One dollar, and some change.
I saw him look at the menu, and then down at the change in his hand. As he counted through it—the change in one palm and the index finger on his other hand shuffling through it for accuracy—I was asked to order. I picked a $5 enchilada platter. I got out my wallet and paid, and then looked at the homeless man.
“Hey,” I said. “You got enough there to get what you need?”
He was either startled or embarrassed, because he answered so quietly it was barely audible. “I think so. Thank you.”
I nodded and went and found a table to wait for my number to be called. The man collected a soda cup, filled it with iced tea and took a table on the other side of the restaurant.
My number was shouted out; I went up to collect my food. While returning to my table, I heard a gentle voice say, “Excuse me.”
I turned to see the homeless man looking at me with sad eyes.
“Does your offer still stand?” he asked politely.
“Absolutely,” I said, reaching for my wallet.
“I was only thirsty when I ordered,” he explained, “but I should probably eat.”
I gave him a couple bucks, he thanked me, and I returned to my table and stared at my food.
Though I had entered somewhat ravenous, I was immediately completely uninterested in my meal. I picked at it a little, then decided I had to leave; I no longer felt like eating. I didn’t want to be there, I wasn’t hungry, and something was wrong inside me.
I got up and walked my tray over to his table, and where I had ordered the enchilada platter, he had a simple, small bowl of Spanish rice in front of him. It was without doubt the cheapest item on the menu.
I set my tray down, “I didn’t really touch this,” I said. “I filled up pretty quickly.”
He looked up at me with his sad eyes, thanked me with his shy, soft voice, and I left.
I got into my car, pulled out my expensive and seemingly self-indulgent smart phone, and emailed my wife. I told her what happened, and that for reasons I didn’t understand, I felt awful. She did her best to cheer me up; her warm words filling a cold screen, trying to assuage my first-world guilt.
Safe in the cocoon of my car, reading “Why do you feel bad? You did a good thing!” I teared up and began to cry. It wasn’t sobbing, the tears just trickled out of me, an uncontrolled sadness doing its best to escape my guilt-ridden body.
I don’t really know why I felt so horrible, but the thoughts going through my head were: Should I have just offered to pay for his lunch while I was paying for mine? Did I give him enough money? What was he going to do for dinner?
Why didn’t I do more?
The last question is the one that haunted me.
I didn’t know anything about this man, or his history. He may have beaten his wife and kids at one time; he may have had a great job but abused alcohol or drugs and wasted away his fortunes and talents. I had no clue, and I didn’t care. In the moment I saw him, in that one moment he was counting the change in his hand to see if he could afford to feed himself, all I saw was a fragile human in need. A man searching for the most basic of all needs: sustenance. And that moment hit me in places I don’t like to admit exist.
My tears only lasted about twenty seconds, and a mere ten minutes later I was swearing at my GPS for taking me to a residential neighborhood and telling me I was at the location of a car wash.
You have moments in life that reach the core of who you are supposed to be and how you are supposed to think, and then they fade. Just like that I was back in the safe world of blinders and apathy.
I’d like to pretend that a moment like that changes a person, but I think it’s just a bump in the road, a momentary shift of consciousness. A bump where it is knocked into us how lucky we are. And the very next day, we are somehow left wanting. Our computer isn’t powerful enough, our television isn’t big enough… somehow our magnificent life pales next to the life we see in advertisements, where everyone is pretty, and everyone is happy.
How soon we forget.