I was eating a burrito at a restaurant patio table on beautiful day when I decided to let go. Of my money. Some of it. A dollar. There was a modest older man at a nearby table who was politely asking passersby if they could spare a little change so he could get something to eat. I was writing, sort of, mostly letting my mind float free, and his quiet and respectful request floated in and out of my thoughts and eventually took hold of them. I went back into the restaurant, broke the twenty in my wallet and took him a dollar. I said it didn't look like he was having much luck. He said he was mighty hungry. He wasn’t thin or scruffy. His clothes were worn but he wore them carefully. His mustache was neatly trimmed. He didn’t look like a drunk. In that moment, I didn’t care whether he was. I didn’t care what he did with the dollar, I just wanted to give it to him.
I've seen a lot of homeless people over the years. I wrote here about one who became a family friend, a chess-playing street musician in Santa Barbara named Mason B. Mason. Mason was in and out of jail, but he played chess with my sons Chris and Nick and we all liked him and were sad when he died of cancer unexpectedly. There was a woman in our local park in Palo Alto who I saw so often I always spoke to her. She never replied, but that was okay. She died a few weeks ago of hypothermia. Her middle-aged daughter had been trying for years to get her off the street. She'd been a good mother when she was younger, her daughter said.
Most of the homeless people I see are anonymous. Sometimes I give them a little something, but I don't carry small bills, so I rarely reach into my pocket for someone I pass on a sidewalk.
I see them, though. I see them watch me as I say, "Sorry man," or as I just look the other way, pretending not to notice them. I feel ashamed when I do that. They'll just buy booze with it, I might think, to make myself feel better. Or I remind myself that Meg and I give money to Second Harvest, which feeds the homeless, and to homeless shelters like The Opportunity Center, which offers housing and life and job counseling. They're on the street because they want to be. You hear that so often you begin to believe it. Or you want to believe it. If it's their choice, it's not your fault.
I suppose some of my rationalizations are rooted in truth, but I don't like myself for thinking about people that way. I want to let go of that habit, that reflex. I want to let go of the cliches and stereotypes. I want to let go of my need to shape my worldview to accommodate my desire not to have small change jangling in my pocket. What do I know about those people? One of them might be another Mason B. Mason, a friend to my sons. One of them might have been a good mother to her daughter when she was young, a daughter who cannot understand what happened to her mother, why she sits all day on her bench saying hardly a word.
Homelessness is a dreadful state of existence. It is also a terrifying mirror held up to us, reflecting our inability to help one another sometimes, even our indifference to their suffering. When I gave a dollar to that man on the restaurant patio, I resolved from then on to carry a pocketful of dollars to give to others like him. Without judgement. Without fear. I don't know what they’ll do with the money. When you make a gift it’s no longer yours to control. A dollar isn't going to change anyone's life, but perhaps the daily giving will change mine. All I know for sure is that I can no longer look away.
When he was ready to leave, the man I'd given the dollar folded his newspaper, slipped on his jacket and stood and smoothed his clothes. He came over to me and said thanks again. He walked away a few steps and turned back to me, glanced up at the sky, where clouds were gathering, and said, "Stay dry."