A road less traveled yields poignant lesson

August 27, 1998|By Ellen S. Friedman

AMID the debate over society's response to the problem of homelessness, something has been lost. While we as individuals have been wrestling with the moral and practical dilemma of what to do when we come face to face with a homeless person, a.k.a. panhandler, a.k.a. beggar, something has been forgotten: human dignity. When a person is reduced to a state of such abject poverty that he or she must sleep in public or beg on the street, how can dignity be an issue? But a recent experience that I shared with my 12-year-old son brought the reality home to us very poignantly.

On the way to and from my son's weekly drum lessons, we pass a a Roland Park intersection where the median strip is usually manned by a gaunt, red-bearded man holding a piece of cardboard box on which, in neat letters, are the words Homeless, hungry. Please help." We had paused on more than one occasion to give him a dollar, or when I thought about it, a sandwich and soda that I picked up at the grocery store while my son was at his lesson.

On a drizzly day a few weeks ago, caught by a red light, we noticed that the man was sitting on the ground. We watched him rise with evident difficulty, barely able to stagger to the car with the open window. Then the light turned green, traffic moved on, and so did we.

Thinking aloud, I said, "He might have been drunk." But being in the presence of the relentless honesty of youth, I had to add, "but he looked like he was in pain." We drove on for several blocks in silence.

At length my son said, "Mommy, I don't feel right. We just ate pizza for lunch, and you let me have drum lessons, and pitching lessons, and camp, and that all costs a lot of money, and he's sitting there in the rain."

I began looking for a place to make a U-turn.

This was not the first time my children have urged me to turn around in the name of charity. My oldest son once made me do two U-turns (on York Road, in rush hour, no less) to give an apple that chanced to be in our car to a man in an intersection. And because of my youngest, I carry change in my pockets when we go downtown to Orioles games. At Krieger Schechter, the Jewish day school that my children attend, they have learned that tzedakah (the Hebrew counterpart for "charity," but which literally means "justice") is a way of life.

As we retraced the blocks, I remembered that I had nothing in my wallet but a $20 bill. "I can't give him that much, honey," I said.

While my son counted my change, I decided to stop at a fast-food restaurant. The girl behind the counter suggested mashed potatoes instead of french fries and blessed us for caring. We felt very virtuous as we circled the block to approach the intersection from the right direction.

I was relieved to see that the man was still there, and that he was already standing, leaning against a light pole. But when I stopped and rolled down the window, he didn't immediately approach the car.

How does one address a homeless person, I wondered. "Sir," I said, "Sir, you looked like you were having trouble walking today, so we brought you something to eat." Then he turned toward the car, and (for the first time, I'm ashamed to admit) I looked into his face. He wasn't as old as I had expected. Maybe not much older than I. He was also visibly upset. Amid his thanks I caught another story, ". . . just drove by and threw somethin' at me. I never did nothin' to them. What makes people be so hateful? Don't they think I got feelings, too?"

The light changed, and we drove on with tears in our eyes. I was humbled when I thought how close we had been to just driving home.

We could debate all day whether it's appropriate, safe, or good public policy to give to individual beggars, or whether all giving should be done through institutions. But when faced with the decision of whether or not to give to an individual, the Talmud, the ancient commentary on the Hebrew Bible, instructs us that if, for example, a beggar should say, "I'm cold, please give me clothing," we are permitted to observe what he is wearing to see he does indeed need a warmer coat. But if a beggar says, "I'm hungry, please give me food," we must take his word for it. The Talmud also tells us that whether we give much or little, we should do so with a kind word, certainly without insults. Sometimes, as this experience taught us, the word of kindness or encouragement may be the most important part.

The following week, after my son's last drum lesson before leaving for camp, we stopped again at the intersection with a lunch.

"How are you doing?" I asked, "You look a lot better than you did last week, if you don't mind my saying so." While he was telling us that he went to the emergency room for the pain he had been suffering the week before, I noticed something else for the first time. At the bottom of his sign, in very small letters, were the words, "Thank you, Mike." Now I knew his name.

"Mike, we won't be coming this way for a few weeks. Take care of yourself." Mike wished my son a good time at camp, and then the light changed.

We'd like to think that the hot food and the kind words we gave Mike had a value beyond the dollars and the time it cost us to give them, but we know that what we learned from our encounter with Mike had a far greater value.

Thank you, Mike.

Ellen S. Friedman writes from Baltimore.

Pub Date: 8/27/98

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