We all see them. More often than not, we pretend we don’t. We try to avoid them, to ignore their pleas. They are, after all, scamming us.
“Any spare change?”
“Got a light/cigarette?”
“I haven’t eaten. Do you have a few dollars?”
“I need to feed my children.”
She used the last one.
I was in a Walmart parking lot and she stopped me as I opened the trunk of my car. The plea was written on a 3×5 card in large handwriting.
I bristled. I was instantly wary, the way most of us are when approached unexpectedly by panhandlers. We assume whatever we give them will go straight up their arms or towards a bottle. We don’t see ourselves in them. No, never that. They are something less. Still, we sometimes rummage through our pockets or purses for a pittance, fork it over, and walk away convinced nothing will change. They will be there tomorrow, making the same pleas. If we see them, we quickly cross the street to avoid them. We don’t want to seem an easy mark.
I had a scant few dollars in my wallet, and change in my car. I didn’t want to pull out my wallet, so I made up a story about having no cash and told her she was welcome to the change in my cup holder. Two quarters, two dimes. I left one other quarter behind for the shopping cart kiosk at ALDI. The two dollar bills I had remained safely in my wallet.
“Thank you sir,” she said softly. She was remarkably polite. I started putting my few groceries in the trunk as she approached a young man one section over in the parking lot. He had no hesitation in taking out his wallet. She didn’t snatch it and run. I saw her lips moving: “Thank you, sir.”
When I looked up after closing the trunk she was gone, probably on her way to work the other side of the parking lot. I pulled out of my parking spot and drove slowly past the store entrance. I spotted her walking into the store, quickly swallowed up by the rush of morning shoppers.
As I drove home, I began to rethink things, starting with her appearance. She was pale, but clean and well groomed. Her worn blue dress was out of style, but immaculate and unwrinkled. Her eyes were extraordinarily calm, her expression thoroughly humble and thankful.
It was at that moment she began to haunt me. It was at that moment that I realized I may have misjudged her. I was halfway home and called my daughter.
“Maybe you should go back,” she said. I felt ashamed that I even had to have that suggested to me.
I turned around and drove back. I got out of the car and opened my wallet to retrieve the two dollar bills, and saw a twenty folded up in the corner under a business card.
My face reddened.
I hurried into the Walmart. I checked the baby food aisle first. If I saw her, she was getting all my cash and I was buying her baby food.
She wasn’t there.
I went through the grocery section, and back through the baby food aisle. I quickly moved through the rest of the store. It had only been fifteen minutes since I’d seen her, but she was in the wind.
She haunted me the rest of the day. She haunts me still. What was her story? Why had I dismissed her with so little effort? What did that say about me? And the young man that dipped into his worn wallet without hesitation and handed her money? What did it say about him? Some would say he was a fool. Some would say he was kind. Some would say both.
All I can say is that I went back. I went back and it was too late. I will see her eyes, her face and her humbleness in every panhandler who approaches me. I will not judge. It doesn’t matter what their story is. I am being judged as are we all in those quick, fleeting moments when we either embrace or reject our humanity.
Be good to each other…