Pretty Poor

When I was young and idealistic, I lived in a big city.  I walked the historic cobblestone streets, walked through the public greens, attended a picturesque church.  A church painted by Arshile Gorky and Maurice Prendergast.  My leather heels would get caught between the cobblestones and my briefcase felt too heavy.  Passing by the reflecting pond in the garden, on alternate benches came the pungent smells of the homeless.  In plain view of the gold-domed state house, lined along the basement windows of this church lay huddled masses of gray rags, covered by fresh newspapers, steam rising around them from the subway grilles.

As a young professional living in a big city, I didn't make much, but certainly I had enough time and money to get some food for one poor soul.  I walked to the nearby fast-food joint and bought a sandwich and fries.  I approached one of the huddles of rags and bent down. "Here, I brought you some food."

This older woman looked up from beneath a blanket, her lovely face ashy with dirt.  Her eyes lit up, and she thanked me for my kindness.  She told me a heart-wrenching story of how she came to live on the street.  Her family owned a small diner, but one misfortune after another left them penniless.  She and her husband of 30 years moved in with their engineer son, but he died of cancer at 28 and her husband died of a broken heart.

No.  That's not what happened.  She was an older woman, yes, but her face was like dried carcass, purple and veined from weather, hardship and probably alcohol.  Her eyes glowed with hatred as she swatted at me with her rag-covered club of an arm.  She cursed and swore at me in a gravelly voice from a horror movie telling me to leave her alone and who did I think I was.

I almost fell back on my heels.  I looked around in embarrassment.  I re-rolled the top of the paper bag in nervousness and backed away.  I headed to the subway stop, on my way home and dropped the food into a city trash can.

I thought about that for a long time.  What I learned was that I can't know what others need.  Especially if I am no where near where that other person is in terms of experiences and hopes, or lack thereof.

I also learned it is easier to love the poor when they are a storybook version of "poor."  A story book version of the poor may be dusty but clean, thankful and sane.  The poor were hard working but misfortune befell them through no fault of their own.  They saved rain water so they could clean themselves and wash their clothes with bits of soap they scavenged.  Pretty children with large round eyes.  They were humble and appreciated whatever was given to them.  And they got back on their feet through the generosity of others.

When the poor are rancid, carrying around hidden bits of feces on their blackened rags?  When they laid around on side walks and scavenged in the dumpsters?  When their children are petty thieves? When they are the third generation living on welfare?  Smoking two packs a day? And damn they AREN'T thankful to you.  And chances are, they aren't going to get back on their feet.  In a month.  In a year.  Or more.

Maybe it's easier for some to give to Haiti, imagining these distant people.  Few of us have smelled them or seen them.  They believe in voodoo and do all kinds of things that decent suburbanites don't do.  But they're far away and they don't smell and we can't see if they're lazy or crazy.  But the poor in this country?  We've walked by them with their gaggle of children.  Seen them buy junk food at the stores.  Talk too loud.  Sit around.  They're not pretty.  They take up our air, eat off of our tax dollars.  But is it easier to love an idea?  The idea of the poor rather than the ones you bump up against?  The ones you can smell?

I don't know a lot about the poor.  But I think I know this:  I am not able to decide who is worthy and who is not worthy of my money and time and what it is that they need.  Maybe we need to be a bit more humble and say that we don't know what brought these people to this point - near or far - and give with a generous heart?


Haley said...

Where I live, we don't really have too many poor...at least not poor to where they are living on the streets. But occasionally we get a hitchhiker passing through, living with only the clothes on their back and a plastic bag with a few items in it, asking for a ride, a dollar to spare, anything. I stopped one day when I saw a young man, probably my age, disheveled and dirty, was walking down rt. 20. I had just went to taco bell and had 4 taco supremes I had gotten for Kevin that he didn't want after I called him to tell him. I handed the homeless guy the bag of food with a friendly smile and told him I hoped he had something warm in his belly for the night. Instead of thanking me, he looked at the tacos and said, "I don't like sour cream." I looked at him with disbelief. I told him to scrape it off then and said your welcome and walked away shaking my head.
I remember passing a family in Toledo when I was in 6th grade...this was when everything was closing in that area. The family was sitting on the side of a highway. The mother was crying. The father was holding a sign saying he would work for food for his family...that he and his wife had both lost their jobs. We had just eaten at a restaurant with our grandma who lived in the area. We decided to stop and give this family our left overs and all the money we had in our car. They were so thankful, so embarrased to have to sit on the side of the road begging for food. I cried almost all the way home. It scared me to think about those kids sleeping there at night, with nothing.

Amy said...

I always figure it's better to be dealt ingratitude, or even be cheated (oh he didn't need that $.50 for bus fare?) or even unknowingly enable someone who is lazy, than to cultivate an ungenerous heart and way of life. When I find myself hesitant to give because I want to hold on for myself, that's when I know I need to give just to teach my heart to be generous and thankful. It is frustrating not to know the best way to serve or to give or what we are supposed to do in every situation. If we offer our gifts as to God then he can turn them into what's best.

Also, about the poor having bad attitudes sometimes: you wonder what brought them to this point. Life must be pretty raw for them, and if they have no solace or anchor they can very easily become embittered. What's one nice person with some fries when most of the world's kicked you down, perhaps especially those who have mattered most?

mamawhelming said...

It's hard to give to, or to ignore, someone begging on the street. Generally, I prefer to give to organizations that I think will help the needy, either in my city or in troubled places elsewhere. I figure these groups will be able to use the donations to feed and provide services to desperate people, and potentially help them get on their feet.

Lora said...

because of stories like yours and Haley's I don't give food to homeless people while they are awake anymore. I've had a sausage sandwich thrown at me "I'm Muslim b!tc#. I don't eat pork. What are you, retarded?". A bottle thrown at me "there's artificial color in this sh!t. Don't feed me something you won't drink yourself". You're right. You never know what people need.

Contrary to popular belief, beggars are choosers.

Wow, what a luxury, right?

It blows my mind that there are
1)people so incredibly mentally ill on our streets that starving individuals will refuse food

2)so many food sources that the homeless can turn down handouts.

Mindblowing, really.

mamawhelming said...

I think we forget that even homeless people want and deserve respect, and because of their circumstances may well view even the well-intended contributions of passersby as a sign of disrespect.

I once was working on a cold Christmas Eve and when I went out to pick up carryout dinner, I bought some soup to leave for a woman huddled in a sleeping bag on the sidewalk outside the building where I worked. She acted very paranoid and a bit angry, which took me aback, although I could hardly blame her, a woman, alone, sleeping on the sidewalk, with who knows what mental health problems.

At one time I personally knew an intelligent, mentally ill homeless woman -- believe she has since gotten off the streets -- and I was impressed that, in the place where I came into contact her, she demonstrated her self-respect by refusing to retrieve for herself anything from a waste basket, even if the item was clean and could come in handy and someone else might have no qualms about using it.

It's worth repeating. If we want to help homeless people, there are many fine organizations that serve them -- feed, train and counsel them -- and need volunteers and money.