To be young is to be silly. It cannot be avoided. To be silly, though, is to be empty and ready to learn, which is something that, as an adult, I wish I could practice more often. The following is a particular incident that sticks out in my mind. It helped be become a bit less silly and a bit less empty, for my own good and for the good of unsuspecting homeless people everywhere.
Jackie and I pulled off the interstate. We had spent the morning at church and had been inspired afresh to be loving and helpful to those in need. As we pulled up to the traffic light at the end of the off-ramp, we noticed a man on the median to our left. He was sitting on an overturned shopping cart and holding a cardboard sign. He wore layers of worn clothing, dirty tennis shoes and a navy blue winter hat that couldn't restrain the disheveled hair beneath it. Next to him on the ground was a large pack - the sort of thing that I imagine in my fantasies of backpacking through
"Perfect." I thought. "A needy person! I can't even imagine how happy he'll be once we're through with him."
We pulled up next to him. Jackie rolled down her window.
"Hi!" we said, nervous, excited, and trying to appear cool.
"Hi," he responded. He seemed a bit suspicious, an appropriate response to the approach of teenage girls, but also intrigued and friendly.
"I'm Jackie, and this is Katie. What's up?"
"Well, I'm just trying to raise some money to get a little further south for the winter." The young man explained, humoring us - the same was written on the sign he was holding.
"Cool. Is there anything we could get for you? Food or something?" Jackie asked, gesturing toward the Walgreen's across the street.
Simply giving him money wasn't even close to the dramatic scene we were hoping for. We were going to do something great for him, something he would never forget, something he would tell his grand-kids about. I could hear the story-telling already: "I'll never forget those kind girls. They restored my faith in humanity and changed my life forever."
Before my fantasy was finished, he replied, "Nope. I'm fine. I actually just ate and I'm pretty stuffed."
"Was he serious?" I asked myself. "Does he know that he's homeless?" I looked at him and made a lengthy, mental list of all of the things he didn't know he needed.
We paused for a second, shocked and unsure of our next move. Of all of the possible outcomes, I had not anticipated this – that the needy would need nothing. Eventually, we decided that his refusal was probably insincere, and definitely unacceptable. We were going to give him the help he needed, whether he knew he needed it or not.
After some considerable pestering: "Are you sure? There must be something. Come on!" we finally abused the poor man into submitting to our charitable intentions.
“I guess a bottle of water would be nice,” he surrendered.
The light turned green, we drove across the street and entered Walgreen’s on a mission. We knew that he needed more than water. He was sitting on a shopping cart, for crying out loud! It was nearing Christmas and our romantically tragic assumptions assured us that there would be no gifts for him and that only we could rescue the poor, delicate soul from a loveless Christmas. We filled a gaudy red sock with various items, purchased the lot and were quite please with ourselves. A Christmas stocking for homeless man - what a lovely gesture! Possibly the loveliest.
After parking the car on the side of the road close to the shopping cart, we walked to join our less fortunate friend on his median. It was a different experience - standing face to face, as opposed to conversing with raised voices through a car-window. I felt vulnerable.
I handed him the stocking. He seemed glad to have it – perhaps he did know he was homeless after all. He emptied the sock onto the ground beside him and carefully rifled through it's contents, which included a toothbrush, hand sanitizer and dental floss. Finally, he looked up.
"Do I look dirty?" he asked, looking amused. My feelings of vulnerability quickly gave way to acute embarrassment.
"Uh...no...we just thought..." I started with urgency, but trailed off. A smile and a shrug finished the thought that my words failed. He chuckled and returned to examining his gifts.
I’m sure our new friend appreciated his toothpaste and granola bars, but I certainly gained something more important from our interaction. A connection was made and an unintentional prejudice was shattered. Sure, he was a homeless man, but he was still a man. He had a sureness of self that we lacked, a sense of humor enough to laugh at two young girls offering baby wipes to a grown man on the side of the road, and grace enough to thank us anyway, though I would not have blamed him if he had been offended, rejected our gifts completely, and taken his shopping cart elsewhere.
Experiences like these, though embarrassing to recount, are what have nearly succeeded in growing me up. If I were smart, I would ask for more until the job is done, but I am not smart, at least not yet.
I wrote this short story in college, and then I kind of edited/rewrote it today. Assuming you've read it (since you're now at the bottom of the page), if you feel so inclined, provide some feedback. I think it's fun, but as the author have very little by way of an unbiased perspective. If it turns out that others think it is fun as well, I might send submit it to some publication. If not, I'll leave it alone. The third option is conditional acceptance by my readers - ways I can change it to be worthy of wider readership. In any case, and let me know.