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?