I was the kind of person who would always go out of my way to help another, less fortunate human being. Even after my sour experiences of ingrates who actually got angry with me for buying them a meal, I still felt that if I had more, I should give to those who have less. I can’t bring myself to do that anymore and here’s why….
My morning and evening drive to and from work are riddled with people begging for money on every busy street corner. And we aren’t talking the regular street corners or the regular Mr. Browndread (so dubbed because of his sun worn brown, leathery skin and his black and grey dreadlocks he adorns), as we affectionately call the local guy who seems to prefer his lifestyle of living on the streets. He’s been living homeless for decades and is a part of the local community. The community offers assistance and he does just fine. As far as anyone can ascertain, Mr. Browndread has a psychological mental disorder (maybe caused by PTSD), but he’s harmless and we accept him for what and who he is.
But the new homeless appearing more and more each week make me think two things: Our economy has taken its toll and this is the result — there before the eyes of God go I; and I don’t trust them. Two different ends of the spectrum, right? Let me explain this thought process….
Sometimes we need to rely on our gut instincts. Instincts will tell us whether or not to trust, to believe, to help another. Our instincts are much like those of a child or animal: Children and animals have instinct down. It’s only when children grow up do they stop trusting it.
There are no less than five human beings at any one given time or day that I come across begging for money. It gives me reason to pause and ask, “Who are these people?” Let’s take each regular corner jockey one-by-one….
First, there is the Five Points intersection where this territory is currently under review for which corner jockey rules the roost. Should the mid-forties man who yells at everyone stopped at the red light gain this area, or should the twenty-something boy who claims he’s collecting “donations for college” be the one? The yelling man is very angry. I would be, too, if I had to resort to the corner for my next meal. But this man has no humility, no shame, no manners. I’ve observed this man argue with the wannabe corner jockey on the bicycle who promptly, within one day, took his territorial claim elsewhere — where? I don’t know because I haven’t seen him since. I’ve observed this yelling man’s attempts at chastising other drivers for refusing to roll down their car windows and give him money. I’ve even seen him give the finger to others who refuse to give to him. The closest I’ve come to this man is when he stood outside my car window while I was leaving a voicemail for a colleague. He stood there. Waited. Stared into my window. He moved on to the car behind me who was waiving a couple of bucks out of his car window. The light turned green and the two lanes began to move. This man kept yelling, “Lookie here! Twenty dollars! Look at this! You all can just f*** yourselves! I have twenty dollars now!” Although he didn’t look in my direction when he gave the finger to other drivers, I said to myself, “I’m not going to be bullied into charity.” Many other thoughts crossed my mind, for example, “I wonder what ails this man? What would help him to be productive and less angry?” But for now, I was laughing at the ridiculousness of this man asking for help and at the same time scolding the very hands from whom he’s begging. Interesting dichotomy.
The challenger, the twenty-something boy, sporadically chooses a different point at each of the Five Points intersection, but favors the corners that lead to and from the freeway entrance and exit about a quarter of a mile east of the Five Points. This boy’s cardboard sign reads, “Please make a donation. I want to go to college.” What?!? So do a lot of us! This boy runs up and down the traffic stopped at the red light and shoves the sign in windows, but doesn’t say anything. I refuse to “donate” to his college fund. Really?!? Why isn’t he asking for work to fund his college aspirations? Why isn’t he down the street where the day laborers are waiting for a job? Both these men have options and my instincts tell me to keep my money in my wallet. Seems too much like a hustle to me….
Now, there is another exit off the freeway where I see three different adults sitting with three different cardboard signs, each asking for assistance on different days of the week. One is a worn out older woman whose sign reads, “Disabled and cannot work. I am hungry. Anything is appreciated.” Another’s sign reads, “Disabled Vet. God bless you.” The third in rotation of the three reads, “I have five children and am disabled. I cannot work and am homeless. Please help.” These people seem like they need help. They seem mild and sincere. But are they truthful? I have empathy for these people. What happened where they feel they must resort to the kindness of others to survive? Why isn’t our society assisting these people temporarily so they can get back on their feet? How can I be a solution to this growing problem of people diminishing their self-respect to feed their children and themselves? I don’t have an answer to any of my questions. Should I feel guilt and shame if I don’t, or can’t give anything to these unfortunate? I barely get by myself, living paycheck to paycheck and supporting others in my life. The feelings of sadness, guilt, and even shame of having a job and working for a living overwhelm me sometimes. But why? Why should I feel bad that I worked very hard and physically labored (sometimes more than two jobs at a time), to get to this place in my life? Still, I have these emotions that battle each other every time I come across these unfortunate fellow human beings.
I’ve become hardened by these people simply by their own actions when I did show compassion. Here’s what I mean:
As I waited in the drive-through window of McDonald’s to get my partner’s meal (I’m not a fast food fanatic. As a matter of fact, my attempts at convincing my partner that he shouldn’t be wasting his money, were futile, thus waiting in the drive-through…), a man in his mid-thirties was asking for money for food. “Money for food,” I thought, “since I’m sitting here already, I’ll get this man a meal.” I asked the man to wait for me and I’ll buy him some food. I purchased the meals for my partner and this homeless man. When I came out of the other end of the drive-through, the man was gone. What was I going to do with this meal? I’m a vegetarian and refuse to eat fast food. I resolved to find the man for whom I purchased the meal. I was on a mission. As I drove down the streets searching for him, I finally see him in front of the liquor store with some other “homeless” men. I drove up to them and yelled out of my car window, “Hey! You said you were hungry. I got you some food!” He came over to my window. “Here. If you wanted money for a beer, I would’ve gotten you a beer! But don’t lie about being hungry for money and then leave when someone buys you food!” I was a little indignant about it; after all, he lied and I bought into his lies hook, line, and sinker. I gave him the bag of food and he thanked me and apologized for lying. Since that day, I stopped giving so freely, with one exception: the orange and flower corner jockeys and the mobile tamale cart pushers.
These salesmen and women are WORKING for their keep. There is no shame in selling oranges on the corner. You won’t get rich — each bag of oranges you sell for a dollar, you make ten cents — but you are working for that dime. These are the people to whom I give my dollars. I don’t ask for a product. I just give it to them. They deserve it. They earned it. I hope that my dollar makes a little bit of difference for these workers and their families.
The sign-holders, the beggars, the liars, the fake vets, the able-bodied…they can sell oranges on the corner to earn my respect and money. My instincts are telling me that we are not really this homeless and many of these corner jockeys are pulling the wool over our eyes and preying on our sympathies to make a buck. So, for now, I will keep trusting my instincts and keep my earnings closer to me and fight the guilty feelings I get when I drive by the sign-holding corner jockeys.
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