March 25, 2008

panhandling 2

This happened the night after I wrote my last blog, the one about panhandling.

When I stepped out of the pool hall, it was cold. Winter had stretched its bony fingers longer into March than usual and the ground was still covered with ice, and the streets were lined with dirty snow. A man stood just outside the entrance, where the smokers would stand if they weren’t allowed to practice indoors, but the man was not smoking. He was waiting for the comers and goers to see him, waiting to ask them for a little financial help.

I walked by him, didn’t look at him. If you look, you have to talk. If you talk, you have to give. There are rules.

He was a panhandler, and lately I had been thinking about people just like him, how homeless or not-so-homeless people like him are simply in pursuit of a bit of alcohol on the dime of some naïve patron. I didn’t like the rules. It’s simpler to walk by, to not listen, to not look. But he didn’t care about the rules.

“Hey, mannnn,” he said, “Please help me out. Help me out, mannn.” I tried not to stop, but failed. I turned and looked at him. He was thin with big eyes, had patches of hair across his chin, little islands of beard, and was huddled over himself, shrunk down to hold his heat better. He sounded desperate, as one who had long given up on saving face.

“What’s up?”
“I just need some money to get some groceries, anything, man. I haven’t eaten in days. I don’t wanna end up in the hospital again, man.”
I tried to gauge his honesty. I thought about him, and I thought about me. He sounded genuine. I thought about the cash in my wallet. His voice was humble, he sounded like he really cared. He might have been telling the truth.

“You were in the hospital?” I asked him.
“Yeah, for three days. Last month.”

I have never felt as wealthy as I did that moment. And feeling wealthy didn’t feel good. I thought about how unbelievable it was that anyone in Grand Rapids would go without a meal. I cannot remember ever missing a meal for lack of access. And I, at 24, was now the provider. This man was rail thin begging a kid half his age for some coin to buy groceries.

Part of me still knew, still thought he was lying. I wanted to help him, but I didn’t want to give him beer money. I thought about walking to the grocery store with him. I thought about giving him a ride. But I was alone, and that’s how stupid but well-meaning people get hurt and disappear and get found in a park somewhere when the snow melts.

“Man, I want to help you. It’s just that,” and now I can’t believe I said this, “Sometimes, people don’t use the money one what they say they will. Sometimes people use it for alcohol.” I spoke what was on my mind, trying to be honest, trying to tell him I was onto him, trying to guilt-trip him, too.
“I’m not going to buy alcohol. I just need some food.”

I had started the dialogue with him, and in some ways I felt the burden to teach him a lesson, to inspire him or something. I wanted to tell him flat out, “You can have a dollar, but don’t use it for booze.” I didn’t say it.

He never got hostile with me. I don’t think he was a hostile person, just someone in need. Still, I thought about myself, alone with this desperate stranger who could be all kinds of dangerous. As much as I wanted to help him and ensure that I wasn’t just buying him booze, there was just no way I was going to accomplish that right then.

“I’ll pay you back,” he said. I thought about how ridiculous that would be. Me, tracking down the poor guy for a dollar.
“No,” I told him, and I thought of a solution. “Hey, I’ll help you out, but this is what you have to do – just pay it forward, man. Help someone else out. Okay?” It sounds more righteous than it really was.
He nodded, and I pulled out my wallet and opened it toward me so he wouldn’t see how much I really had. I gave him a dollar.

I walked away and thought about all of it again. I had wanted so badly to call this guy out, like I was empowered to help him kick his alleged habit right then and there. All he needs is some truth, right? But here’s the thing: No one likes addiction. If anything, the guilt-trip does vastly more damage than good for people in his state. If he really was an alcoholic, someone at their real rock bottom without income, shelter, or food, what could I have accomplished? I can imagine walking away, and the poor, desperate guy just feeling worse about himself. That would really pull him out of the mire.