A few days before Christmas many years ago my wife and I had just finished our Christmas shopping. We drove to our local Safeway where I went in to purchase milk and eggs. I left the store heading for the car where my sweetheart waited for me. It was there that I had an encounter with a man whose image I will never forget, and a brief discussion that will last a lifetime.
This man seemed to approach me as I got closer to our car. Even though he looked “normal” I saw the distress in his bloodshot eyes and I felt defensive and fearful of what I might need to do to take care of myself. I remember slowing my steps down ever so slightly to buy time to make a better evaluation of the man.
He appeared to be in his late 20’s or so, his face was wind or sunburned, and he wore a tattered, lite beige jacket over a hoodie. The jacket had dirt smudges as did the tattered jeans he was wearing. His hands looked worn from exposure to the sunny Southern California days and cool nights. As I got within four to five steps from him, he did not seemed “crazed” from drugs or alcohol which I feared at first sight. I let down my guard.
Like many homeless people I’d experienced in my life, there was a slight annoying odor about him, but it was not overwhelming enough to scare me away. I saw he was about to speak and I thought, “here it comes”. Experience told me to expect a ranting, demanding and an unconvincing cry for help from a urine stenched, toothless beggar. My donation would ultimately end up in aiding and abetting a petty drug deal or the purchase of a bottle of beer or cheap wine that would be hidden in plain sight by a brown paper bag.
I expected the “crazy” talk would start now, but it didn’t. What I heard was a gentle, rational voice say, “do you have any money you could spare? I’m kind of in a tough situation”. The fear and desperation in his voice caught me off-guard.
A little voice in my head told me this was different. This was someone whom I could really help.
So I asked, him, “how did you end up in this situation”? He replied, and I sensed he held back tears as he said, “Man, I don’t know. Things just got out of control.” I looked at his hand for a wedding band to extrapolate additional information, but he did not wear one. Why would he? Desperate people sell everything to make ends meet. It was not a good time to pry information. So I reached in my pocket.
This was my moment, I thought, to pull a $100 dollar bill from my pocket and say “Merry Christmas. God bless you”. I could make his day: his week: his year: maybe even his life. One day I’d see him on Oprah talking about me; a stranger who gave him the hope which lifted him from the depths of human tragedy to a life of extraordinary generosity during which he opened homeless shelters and rehabilitation centers. Private detectives would miraculously track me down and I’d end up on Oprah’s stage with that one-time destitute man whom I had help lift up when he had all but given up on life. My generosity had such a great impact on him that he sought me out for years so he could name one of his shelters after me. We’d hug and weep while Oprah’s cameras scanned the audience of women shedding enough tears to overflow Lake Michigan. This would all be the result of a Christmas miracle I had inspired.
And then it struck me. The words from the grocery checker probably only 120 seconds prior to this life changing moment had said to me, the great philanthropist, ” here’s your receipt, and your change is 84 cents.” How could she rain on my parade: my everlasting moment in life?
From my pocket, I pulled that 84 cents and said that that was all I had and placed it in his dry,calloused hands. I said I wished there was more that I could do, but that I was flat broke myself and that was really all I had. And it was true. Payday was still a few days away and all that money was already committed to bills. Here’s why.
Soon after my wife and I first met and got married, we decided we had a great idea. We left our jobs and moved to Los Angeles to hit the “big time”. It turned out to be one of those great ideas that went south in a hurry to a point we had to scrimp to get by. We were broke, really broke, and working lesser jobs than what we thought our degrees and experience deserved in life.
I remember that year when Christmas came around we could hardly afford to buy any Christmas presents at all, but we somehow managed with our meager wages. We had just finished our shopping on that magical day and breathed a gentle sigh of relief. That night we stopped at the local Safeway and I went in to buy milk and eggs with the last few dollars of cash we had left.
That’s when I met this man.
I’ve never been destitute or homeless. Even though at different times in my life, I’ve had to struggle to pay bills and claimed “poverty”, I’ve never had to sleep on the street in the elements without a job or hope for a job. I’ve overextended myself financially to the point of tears at times, but have no idea what it’s like to be homeless. I’ve always been able to call on family if I felt that desperate. I’ve been fortunate enough to have great friends to relate to and talk things out. I have a beautiful wife and children whom I can count on to bring a smile to my face when I need it and hope that I reciprocate half as much.
So there I stood with this homeless, penniless, friendless, and perhaps a family-less man with 84 cents to my name waiting to get in my car, drive home to my warm home and watch my old TV not far from our half full refrigerator and pantry in a safe neighborhood not far from my meager paying place of employment.
Pride can destroy a man and my judgment could have killed two spirits that night. So I gave him my change, said I hope things improve somehow, and good luck.
I will never know if my 84 cents had any impact at all on this guy. My contribution was very unimpressive and I’m sure underwhelming to him. I will never feel great about what I did and hope no one ever feels any need to thank me because quite honestly, it is a bit embarrassing.
It is embarrassing too that I often avoid contact with the Salvation Army bell ringers because of what I perceive they expect. I doubt that anyone I’ve ever known would call me the most generous man they’d ever met.
We do our best in life and sometimes that has to be enough. The lesson I learned that night is that no matter how upset, depressed, hopeless, angry or desperate I may feel at different moments, there is always someone that is worse off than me. I find no joy in that, but it does inspire me to do a little bit better with this teeny, tiny heart that I possess.
When I go to the store this week, I’m going to put my change in the red bucket, I ask you to do so too. There are many people who need our help, and Christmas, no matter how cliché it seems, is as good a time as any to learn to give.