'Heartless!' he said, rightly

Ian Lee Brown

December 24, 1992|By Ian Lee Brown

HEARTLESS!" That's what he said to me, in a voice shakin with pain and frustration.

My cruel reaction to his request for a quarter, no doubt, added to his frustration. And since Christmas is a period of reflection for me, the "heartless" verdict is reverberating. I'm feeling this man's word deeply embedded in my soul, and I am desperately trying to make amends.

The incident took place several days ago when I was visited by Ashley, a long-time friend who lives and attends graduate school in Baltimore. After an exhaustive shopping spree in nearby Georgetown (where we paid too much for what we purchased), we rested in Hamburger Hamlet. It was a cold and bleak Saturday afternoon, and I only wanted to relax and chat with Ashley.

Suddenly Ashley started giggling. I was confused and, perhaps, a bit irritated. "Why are you going crazy?" I asked. But there was no response. Ashley was looking over my shoulder. I almost spilled my coffee in Ashley's lap when I was tapped on the shoulder.

I shrugged, as if the weight of the stranger's arm were still there, and turned around. Ashley laughed self-consciously, and others did, too. The episode drew the attention of most of the people in our section of the restaurant.

I was being bothered by an old and frowzy drunk. I wondered how he'd managed to get in the restaurant. He looked filthy, as if he had not changed his clothes for a long time. His caked dreadlocks, I remember thinking, could have used a good bath.

Yet, I thought, his eyes were clear and penetrating.

"What do you want?" I asked unkindly.

"A quarter, man!"

"Go find a job," I retorted sharply.

"You must have a quarter," he persisted, scratching the hair on his lean face.

I ignored him and sensed that those who were watching approved. I thought he would leave, but he didn't. He told me about his experience as a fighter pilot in World War II. He said he'd been just as good a pilot as "George Bush, our 41st president." The two had been in the same battle, he said.

Then he asked, "What have you done in your life?" I ignored him. Finally he said, "Heartless!" and walked out of the restaurant.

Ashley and I didn't discuss the episode, only chuckled nervously. We finished our meal, and I drove Ashley back to Baltimore. I didn't spend much time at Ashley's place.

Returning from Baltimore, I was vexed by the image of that panhandler. I thought of how crisp his words were and of how I had rejected him because of how he looked. I reflected on his word -- "heartless" -- and began thinking that it was a fairly apt description.

I realized that a quarter would not have made me any poorer. Perhaps I could have asked if he needed some coffee. Perhaps he was hungry! But there are so many reasons why people become displaced or despondent. Often it's through no fault of their own.

But I shall make amends tomorrow to this man (or someone like him) who has reawakened my heart. I've been feeling filthy, perhaps filthier than he looked. I gave this man nothing. He gave me something in return.

Ian Lee Brown is program developer in the Center for Sickle Cell Disease at Howard University in Washington.

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