This is a post about how I made an ass of myself.
And nobody knew about it but me.
So no one would ever have had to know.
Except that I’m putting it on the internet.
Which might make me an even greater ass.
The jury’s probably still out on that one.
So, I was driving, right? And I stopped at a light on Memorial Road and May Avenue in north OKC, and there was a man with a sign that read, “HUNGRY — GOD BLESS,” and I was at the front of the line of cars, and I thought, “Great.”
He wants me to give him money.
He’ll probably use it for alcohol.
I don’t want to give someone money for alcohol if they have a drinking problem.
I don’t have cash anyway.
Who carries cash nowadays?
Wait. I do have a couple of dollars.
But that’s my emergency money.
You know. Just in case.
(Of I don’t know what. But at least I have it.)
I’m not giving him my emergency stash.
I don’t have anything to give him.
Oh, look. There’s the guilt.
Because I’m supposed to help the poor.
And what kind of awful person am I, if
A. I automatically assume he’s an alcoholic, and
B. I don’t help someone who needs help?
But also, I’m a woman, and I’m by myself.
What if he’s dangerous?
(Not because he’s apparently homeless. Just because he’s male.)
Okay, I really suck.
But I’m still not giving him any money.
That was my train of thought in the second it took for me to pull up at the light and for the man on the corner to make eye contact with me.
He held his sign higher. And the words “HUNGRY — GOD BLESS” might as well have been divine fire from on high emblazoned across the sky, searing my retinas. But still, my retinas perceived the man, and my mind assessed him. About my age. Longish, dark curly hair. Bright blue eyes. Clean-shaven. (Clean-shaven?) Backpack. Old clothes. Pain.
He held his sign higher, and I held up my hands and mouthed, “I’m sorry.”
He moved on past my car, but not before he said something that I couldn’t hear but that was clearly — clearly — a derogatory response to my choice.
He probably just cursed me out.
He doesn’t know if I’m just refusing to give him what I have, or if I really don’t have anything.
At least he didn’t flip me off.
Dude, I’m sorry, okay?
I need my emergency money.
And then there’s the possible addiction thing.
Oh, God, I suck.
With both hands gripping the steering wheel and my eyes on the red stoplight, I sat there and looked at myself and didn’t like what I saw. The thing is, I’ve done this assessment in the same situation and with the same results countless times. It never changes, because I never come to an answer that makes sense to me.
Memory delivers me my old neighbor, Alex, who would come to my door asking for a couple of Euros to buy bread and cheese and meat so that he and his wife could have something to eat. Never mind that a couple of Euros isn’t enough to buy bread and cheese and meat, but it is enough to buy a beer, and if enough neighbors give him a couple of Euros, he’ll have enough to buy the number of beers it takes for him to get drunk enough (again) to beat his wife instead of fixing her a sandwich.
The specter of Alex and his wife haunts me at the traffic lights and the street corners and the mouths of alleys where men in disheveled clothing ask me for money and use God as their letter of reference. I do not know what to do with these men. I cannot know their hearts, and I cannot know the source of their pain.
I look into the bright blue eyes of the man at Memorial & May, and I don’t know what I can do for him that will allow both of us to leave this corner with guilt-free, satisfied smiles on our faces.
I’m thinking all of this as the man moves on past my car and I grip the steering wheel in miserable indecision and I look down and see a Walmart Great Value brand granola bar in the car’s center console.
I grabbed the granola bar and punched the window button, and I swear I leaned halfway out of that window, waving that white-wrapped granola bar like a white flag of surrender, with the Goodness of the universe as the enemy who opposes my bitter self.
“Sir?” I screeched out the window. “Sir! Hello!”
He was three cars back, but he came running. I prayed that the light wouldn’t change and that the drivers behind me wouldn’t be too irate, because I wasn’t rolling up that window or letting go of that granola bar until I could place it in that blue-eyed man’s tan, possibly grimy, but also possibly clean, and who cares about their condition anyway? hands.
When he reached me, he was saying something about not being able to run. I met his eyes and said, “I found this.” And I offered him the granola bar, and he took it, and he asked, “Did you hear what I said?”
I swallowed. Hard. “No, I didn’t.”
He smiled. He was already turning away, moving back down the line of cars. But he locked eyes with me one more time.
“I said, ‘I love your hair.’ God bless!”
I swallowed again, harder this time. “You, too.” It was all I could manage.
And then he was gone, and the light turned green, and I drove away and thanked God that I don’t have to be a slave to my assumptions. I don’t have to be an ass. If I’m an ass, it’s by my own choice. And I always get another chance.
Sometimes, that chance is delivered via a blue-eyed homeless man who loves my hair. We both left the corner of Memorial & May with smiles on our faces, and that’s how this story can always end.