Today I was walking home from the store with my kids and youngest brother in law in tow along with my shopping cart. I saw a guy walking out onto the median in the middle of the street holding a cardboard sign that read "Hungry, homeless, every little bit helps." His skin is a testimony to a life lived outside, deep brown and leathery with a myriad of deep lines marking it. He is tall and gaunt, a forlorn scarecrow precariously balanced in the midst of the rushing traffic. I know him, though I don't remember his name. He gave me money once.
Back in February when the Baby was a mere two months old I was standing with my shopping cart outside of Albertson's as the Girl pretended to ride on the mechanical horse parked next to the door. I never put money in those things for my kids, I let their imaginations furnish the excitement for a few minutes after grocery shopping before we begin the walk home.
I watched him dig through the ashtrays looking for cigarette stubs to smoke and then I turned back to the Girl. A minute later I heard his voice "Could I just, would it be okay if I paid for the little girl to ride the horse?"
Surprised I turned around as he eagerly approached us a few coins in his outstretched hand. He was obviously aware of his social status and I could see him restrain himself and approach with caution, more sideways than head on. I got the feeling he was trying not to scare me. I didn't know how to respond but he had already completed his approach and held the money out to me. "Please, I'd like to give her a ride."
"She doesn't really need it..." I faltered and then realizing I was not going to say no I looked him in the eyes and shrugged, "Sure, thank-you."
He counted out the exact change and then laid it on the box where the coins are inserted. "Here, could you put them in."
He was careful not to touch me and I was reminded of the scene in Ben-hur when they take food to the lepers and step back after they put it down so that there can be no chance of accidental contact. I picked up the coins and placed them in the machine. While the Girl enjoyed her rinky dink horsey ride I found myself wishing that she would get really excited as a way to thank him for his kindness but she was shy and a little nervous and quietly watched him as he stood nearby. He was talking, telling me how he liked to give to other people how important generosity is. I thought maybe he was trying to get me to give him some money. He went on talking about his mother that lives nearby, about how he's almost finished classes at a local school and the Girl went on riding and I only understood half of what he said and wondered if any of it was true.
He introduced himself and I shook his hand and told him my name as well.
"Do you have enough formula for your baby?" he asked.
Again I was surprised and blurted something like, "I don't need formula, I breastfeed my babies."
He nodded dismissively and persisted, "But do you need anything for your little one?"
I started to wonder if he thought that I was homeless too and began trying to explain that my husband had a job, he makes a decent wage, we have a nice place to live, everything we need and some of what we want as well. This shopping cart cost $50, I'm just walking with the groceries, I don't need any help. He was a lousy listener, but the subject changed again and his friend appeared and he introduced us. I shook hands with his friend as I had with him. I wondered if I was safe.
We wrapped up the conversation and I encouraged the Girl to dismount so that we could get going. He stood in front of me holding out a few crumpled dollar bills. "Here I want to give this to you."
"I can't take that from you, I would feel bad, you need it more than I."
"Oh, I've got money don't worry." he responded. He reached into one of his many pockets and displayed a large roll of bills. Apparently it had been a good days begging.
He pressed the bills into my hand as I protested and said, "If you don't need it then get something for the little girl."
Like a lifting fog I realized that he simply wanted to be generous, maybe he wanted to feel normal as well. Perhaps he was even feeling a little bit celebratory and wanted someone to join in his celebration. He understood something that few people with far more do. Giving is its own reward.
I could see in his eyes that to deny his gift was to deny him his dignity as well and rob him of some joy, and so once again I thanked him and promised to buy her something great. And then he waved goodbye and we walked away.
A few weeks later as we walked past the drugstore next to Albertson's, once again on our way home from grocery shipping, we saw a baby doll sitting outside on the clearance rack. It was a little black baby girl in purple and pink and the Girl dragged me over to look at it and then picked it up and hugged it, box and all. It was $3. So I went into the store and pulled those crumpled bills out of my pocket to pay for the dolly. I told her that it was a present from the man who paid for her horsey ride. She named her doll Victoria, and carried it every where we went for a while, until it went missing, hoping to show it to the man who gave it to her.
Today when we saw him he didn't notice us, he was too busy working the cars. I wonder if he remembers us. I'll probably always remember him.