“I ain’t got no family. Father’s dead. Mother’s dead. Never had any friends. What I got is God, and he blesses everybody – only some don’t want to wait. I’ll wait. Freezing my ass off, but I’ll wait.”
In November, the Washington Post published an op-ed piece called “Panhandling: the uncomfortable truths and lies.” But its true revelations weren’t about panhandlers; they were about us.
Above all else, it’s the ability to rationalize that makes the human mind unique. When we perceive the needs of others are in conflict with our own, we invent an ethical framework that allows us to deny them comfort without the scars of guilt.
You know what I mean: he’s a wino; she’s a con artist; those shoes look new. One fleeting thought and we’re unshackled from their pain. And once we’re free, they vanish into nothing.
“Baby, can you do something for me? It’s a big favor.”
I nodded, trying to look encouraging.
“You see, I’ve got this abscessed tooth on the left side –” She peeled her lip down to show me charcoal gums. “Hurts like a bitch. I gotta get it out, but I’m so hungry, honey. Ain’t eaten since yesterday.”
“Sure. How ’bout some soup?”
“Oh, that would be so great. Can you get me some chicken soup? And some rice? And some water?” She looked down, with a self-deprecating smile. “Am I asking too much?”
The kindness I did her was small that day, and outmatched by her appreciation. When I walked toward my building, she called after me to ask my name. She told me hers was “V,” because she’d lost the other letters.
I saw her every day after that, and I’d give her a dollar or two — even as I apologized to others and explained my rent was coming due.
A few weeks went by when, one morning, she wasn’t standing like she usually was — instead slumped against a pillar. I asked how she was, and if the tooth had been removed.
“No, I still got that damn tooth. And I got the worst headache today, honey. It’s like daggers. I’m so hungry it’s eating a hole in me.”
“Do you want some soup?”
“No, I’ll eat on the other side of my mouth. Can you get me some mac and cheese? And some lemonade? Oh, and a hot dog?” She looked down. “Am I asking too much?”
I walked with her down to the deli. I asked how long she’d been homeless, and what brought it on.
She kind of shrugged and said, “I had a job for a while, and this guy put me up. He wasn’t so good, though. Then I didn’t have no job, and I didn’t have no guy.” Her voice got quiet. “I guess things came apart,” she said.
We paused at the crosswalk as traffic rolled past. “I’m sorry,” I told her, and it was insultingly trite. “There’s no one around to help you?”
“I ain’t got no family. Father’s dead. Mother’s dead. Never had any friends. What I got is God, and he blesses everybody — only some don’t want to wait.” She smiled. “I’ll wait. Freezing my ass off, but I’ll wait.”
When I left her with her food, it was with a promise to bring her socks — warm ones. She asked about them after that, almost daily, but I could never remember the damn things.
She seemed more interested in talking anyway. It got to where I didn’t give her money every day, and purchased lunches were few and far between. She’d ask about my work, and reveal gifts from strangers like Wheel of Fortune vowels.
The “uncomfortable truth” about panhandling is not that most homeless people are liars, but that many of us want them to be. Beneath all our ego and superficiality, our core desire is to make human connections – and yet we deny such connections to those who most need them. He’s a wino; she’s a con artist; those shoes look new.
I hadn’t seen V in a few weeks. I thought maybe she’d found a shelter — or some Section 8 if she was lucky. I went out for lunch, and when I walked back, she was standing in her usual spot, grinning as I approached.
“Anything look different?” she asked, displaying her hands.
They were clean, well-manicured. She had on a spotless sweatshirt, brand-new Reeboks, and a charming winter cap.
I smiled. “You look great. What’s going on?”
“I’m living with this guy,” she told me excitedly. “I know him from Church. He’s in the choir there, and he told me I could stay on his couch, as long as I renew my food stamps and try for a job. Can you believe it? I can actually look for a job now.”
“That’s really great. That’s wonderful.”
“Never thought no one would need to help me with a résumé again, but them people at the shelter said they would,” she told me in a rush. “I’m gonna get my tooth fixed. And I got a place to put stuff. I can accumulate clothes now. And take showers. And when it’s cold outside, I don’t even know it.”
I smiled at the thought. It stuck in my mind as I wished her luck, and as I stepped on the elevator, and as I sat down at my desk.
Wouldn’t it be something if it was cold outside, and there wasn’t anyone who knew it?
– Andy Beres, Grant Writer & Communications Assistant