Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Days of Miracle and Wonder:* Why I Give Money to Strangers

Last week, I was in Penn Station, waiting to board my train after four days in the city, and a man caught my attention. He was leaning on the wall outside the waiting room. (If you've been to Penn Station, you know there are no chairs outside the waiting room, only places to lean.) He wasn't particularly disheveled. He was wearing regular work clothes, jeans and a jacket. He asked me for change, because he was hungry. He said, I just want to eat.

Of course, I said. Everyone needs to eat.

I had a twenty and some ones, so I gave him the four dollars. I happened to be cash-poor (read: credit-ok)1 and I wanted to hold onto my twenty.

I've been told I'm a sucker. In fact, I've been lightly lectured, corrected, or generally 'splained-to about not giving money to panhandlers. But I did. And most often, if I've got small bills handy, I will.

Here's the thing: I don't know if he wanted to eat. He might have wanted to buy a beer. Or whatever else you might buy with four dollars -- which isn't much. It was enough for a sandwich if he was hungry.

Everyone needs to eat.

As a kid, I grew up on food stamps and medicaid. My clothes were home made, or they were cheap. My junior prom dress came from a thrift store and my teachers pitched in to pay for my AP exams. I never looked disheveled, and I was never quite hungry. But I understand an empty pocket.

But recently, I had a conversation where some big assumptions were being made about people on welfare or food stamps, that they're all just cheating the system. Just getting what they can, for free.

If you've ever checked out of a grocery store with food stamps, there's no swell of pride there while you separate your groceries into what you can buy and what you can't buy. Not much happiness in pulling out a WIC check or a Medicaid card, either.

because douchebaggery like this exists
I answered, I actually know people who are on assistance, and they're not cheating. I was met with some incredulity, until I explained a bit further -- which I won't do here. Because it's a lousy thing to have to explain -- why someone gets assistance. It's not  my place. And honestly, it's not yours, either. But I know, there's a general assumption that people on welfare are also driving nice cars, they're wearing designer clothes, they're using iPhones and they have the top level of digital cable. And here's what I'm telling you: sure, those people exist. And no, they are not the majority. Half of the people who benefit from food stamps are children.2

And I know, you can give a man a fish, right? Or you can teach him to fish. But no one is learning how to fish while still hungry. Recognition is a form or respect; it's a form of love. If I stop and acknowledge someone's pain, someone's hardship, with a couple of dollars, it's very different from telling them how to go about getting their own dollar. All that says is, I know better than you. And if you were like me, you would understand that too. I've given in more organized ways, and less organized ways. I've given more. And I've given when I'm sure the reason the person asked for money was not what they told me.

Before the Penn Station incident,  I passed a man sitting on 2nd Avenue, begging. He rattled a cup, and he didn't ask me for anything when I passed.

He said, Hello Sweetheart, and I turned back to say hello.

He said, I like your smile. He was grinning.

I said, I like your smile too. And truth be told, right then I loved him.

Jesus, disguised as a homeless man
Years ago, a man who panhandled regularly outside The Cathedral in downtown Syracuse, a big guy who usually wore a heavy tweed sport coat and had shoes held together with duck tape, asked Geoff for money, and Geoff gave him five dollars. He hugged Geoff, even while Geoff held a still baby Liam. He told Geoff he loved him.

Love might be the greatest thing you can offer the world, if you can't give it a few dollars.

I know plenty of people who refuse to give money to people who ask for it. You never know what they're actually doing with the money. Who are they to rely on handouts? Why should you just give it to him?

Why should you just give it to him?

On the way to Penn, in the taxi, I passed Saint Francis of Assisi on 31st Street, a small, beautiful
Not the actual Manhattan statue, but very similar.
church stuck in between taller buildings. In the window, the image of Francis, with birds. On the sidewallk, outside the church, a bronze statue of the saint, cross-legged on the cement, with his hand out, asking.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not telling you to give money to strangers, or to anyone for that matter, and I'm not telling you how to. I'm just telling you why I do.

Because you don't know who he is.

Because really, there's a fine line between the man with the cup and the rest of us, you just can't see it. With a handful of different choices, he could be you. He might be your brother, or your mother, or he might be something divine that you're just too tired to see.

* Don't cry baby, don't cry.
1. I'm still reaping years of not making enough money and yes, still using credit cards, for the worst reasons: when I don't have the cash.
2. Source: department of agriculture: of course, with a government shut down, good luck finding any actual information there.