There was nothing unusual about the day. January in Seattle: grey, drizzly, chill-you-to-the bone. The customary wind whipped my umbrella in all directions as I made the short walk from my office to the bank on First and Pine.
I was in typical midday mode, when hunger dictates that I be as efficient as possible running errands, getting in and out of the bank/post office/Bartell with a minimum of fuss. It was a bank day, which brought special annoyances, since the tellers were uber-chatty and the lingering-too-close security guard had a Davy Crockett-esque toupee.
Check deposited, I set off for my next destination: lunch. Setting as brusque a pace as my short little legs would allow, I mulled the internal debate of “falafel versus sushi” once again. As I stepped onto the wet sidewalk, I brushed by a man in a navy wool skull cap and puffy jacket. We caught one another’s eye, and he launched in.
“Excuse me, ma’am, but I’m trying to get enough money for a bus ticket to go home.” He looked directly at me as he made the inevitable ask. “Can you spare some change?”
“Hang on a second,” I said as I began to root around in my simultaneously annoying and beloved satchel. I knew I didn’t have any bills, but there were bound to be coins in here somewhere.
A woman brushed by us and as our eyes met, it took her a moment to replace the look of disapproval with the standard Seattle “I-couldn’t-care-less” expression. Perhaps she was a tourist.
I’ve had many a debate with people – including myself – about giving money to people on the street. But the author Ann Lamott silenced my internal quandary with a scene in one of her novels, the title of which I’ve long forgotten:
When the narrator, a 1970s tween, sees her mom give a dollar to the town drunk, she protests. “Mom! You know he’s going to use that money to buy alcohol!”
Her mom’s response? “Honey, when Jesus healed the blind man, he didn’t ask him what he was going to be looking at.”*
While I groped around in my bag for my coin purse, coming up with and discarding chapstick, matches, an old almond, I groped around in my mind for an attempt at small talk. “Where’s home?” I asked.
“What’s that?” said the man, and something in his voice made me look up from my baggage wasteland.
“I said, where’s home? Where are you trying to get back to?”
The man hesitated for a second, then, looking right at me again, broke out into a huge grin. “Ask me no questions, I’ll tell you no lies” he declared.
Fair enough, I thought, as I fished out the coins and poured them into his outstretched hand.
Our transaction finished, I smiled and said goodbye and he smiled and said God bless and asked me if I wanted to get coffee, and I said no thanks and I started off again, thinking about what had just happened.
Clearly, this man wasn’t trying to get home. I wondered where home was. Was there someone worried about him? Would it make it easier for them to know that in that moment, someone had responded to his need in a small way?
Ooh boy, that made me think about my dad. He reappeared for the final year of his life, and amidst the ferrying to multiple medical appointments and filling out mountains of paperwork, I didn’t have much to give him in the way of smiles. Resentment was manifest physically in the rigidity of my neck and shoulders as we sat in countless waiting rooms.
He never seemed to notice, though, and as his mind got hazier, he recited a handful of stories time and again as we waited. One came to mind as I turned mechanically into the falafel restaurant on Pine Street. The one about the girl at the Wendy’s drive thru, who would always call my dad “honey” and give him a large French fry – even though he’d ordered a small. This story annoyed me each time he told it: his implication that the twenty-something clerk in the window was attracted to him.
As I returned to the office with my falafel, hummus and pita, it occurred to me to be thankful for the Wendy’s woman. Maybe this is how it’s meant to work. She helped my dad, and I helped the guy in the Navy skullcap, who might have a resentful daughter out there, grateful for a proxy who can respond with compassion.
*Sentiment: Ann Lamott. Butchered paraphrase: me.