Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Everyone was once a five-year-old

Years ago, my very kind sister-in-law, Christine, taught third grade in a bad part of town. Many of the kids lived in poverty, some ran loose after school, a few had parents in jail. At one parent-teacher conference,  the father of one student showed up and demanded to know when his kid was going to be taught some f****** manners.  

I asked how she could tolerate people like this without getting angry or crying. She told me this:

"I picture them as a five-year-old."

What a simple and easy thing to forget. That, when the field of years beyond the very young ones still stretched ahead, whether we were privileged or disadvantaged, rich or poor, loved or neglected we were probably, still, universally compassionate.  

What happens to people?

A while back, I hurried to meet my mother for lunch. I was late, I was frustrated, I'd already texted her to change the time twice.

I found a space in front of the restaurant, opened the door and stepped into the path of a man walking by.  I didn't really apologize, I just rushed to the meter to pay. It was cold, I wasn't wearing gloves, and so on. The man  came up behind me. "Excuse me," he said.

I turned to face him and he adjusted his glasses, the way I've seen people do when they're about to assert themselves. He was around my age, ruddy-faced, a little taller than I am, and  thin. He wore a knit cap, a thin canvas jacket and he carried a backpack big enough for a couple of books. I thought he might be a teacher until I noticed that  his hands were scarlet from the cold, and his sneakers were ripped. He wore no socks. 

Homeless, I thought.

"I wondered if there was any way you could possibly spare just fifty cents," he said. "I can get someplace warm if I buy something," he explained, looking over his shoulder.

Fifty cents, I thought,  who couldn't spare fifty cents?  He looked put together,  like someone I might know in my own  community. Bookish. Like a science teacher. He had his teeth, his eyes weren't bloodshot. He didn't smell. So why was he here,  calling me ma'am and asking for change when he looked like he belonged at Panera?

What happens to people?

Like many assume about panhandlers at on/off ramps, I thought he was probably lying about the warm shelter. Fifty cents, I suspected, was what he needed to buy alcohol or cigarettes, or waste my money in some other way. 

I pulled my parking receipt from the meter. "No, I'm sorry, I don't have it." I said. He watched me for a few seconds, then walked on.

Across the street, another man was hurrying in the cold.  His shoulders were hunched and he was smoking.

My homeless guy called out,  "Excuse  me."

Without breaking stride,  the smoking man looked over and my homeless guy said, "Is there any way I could trouble you for one of those cigarettes?"

"Pay for your own habits," said the man, "That's what I do." He added over his shoulder as he passed,  "Don't waste people's time."

The homeless guy continued up the sidewalk. The other guy continued in the other direction.

"Sir?" I called to the homeless guy. 
He didn't hear me.
I walked behind him, back up the hill.
"Sir?" I called.
He turned, and I asked him to wait. "Sometimes, I'm in too much of a hurry," I said when I reached him. "I'm sorry."
"Oh, well!  Oh! That's okay," he shrugged, "No harm done! I'm just sorry to have bothered you." His voice was soft, accentless.
 I put a twenty in his palm.
"Oh..." he said, "This is more than...Oh, thank you, Ma'am. I'm sorry. I just needed something to eat, someplace warm."
I  told him I hoped the day would be good to him. I let go of his hands, and went back down the hill.

On the way into the restaurant, I thought about the way he'd welled up and I wondered if that was part of the act. I believed it was not, and I believed it was irrelevant anyway. Before he wound up begging for change, and enduring the scorn of strangers, and putting his hands and dignity last, he was a five-year-old. 

Some of us are born fighting the odds. Some of us are born sheltered from them. But every life starts with potential. If we are in a position down the road to help a person who has fallen, shouldn't we reach across the circumstances which have differentiated us, and conjure the humanity that unites us? 

If you are lucky enough to live in a community where people are struggling to come with up with real solutions to housing and rehabilitating the homeless, support them. If there are meetings where you can offer input, go, and give it. 

You were a five-year-old too. Who knows what happened to that kid who helped you back up when someone else pushed you down?


  1. Susan, you made me cry. Given what I just wrote, that may not have been an enormous feat, but it's no less meaningful.

    Thank you. Excellent post.

  2. Thank you DLM for stopping by. The alienation of the homeless was a bee in my bonnet a few years ago, but it seems to have turned into a hive. Your input meant a lot to me, much appreciated.

  3. :) It's just Diane - I wasn't wise in choosing a Google name, but please have the easier one. :)

  4. Very good post, Susan. I've done this same thing..., placing money into palms of strangers. We hear so much about panhandling, and it's hard to know who's in real need. I think, based on your observations, he truly needed the help.

    Well done.

  5. Thank you Donna, for your thoughts. I guess at that moment, I felt his circumstances were irrelevant. I think people sometimes believe a show of compassion is a show of approval, thus the "get a job" response.

  6. Oh yes. Thank you for reminding me to look at people with a kinder heart.

    1. And thank you for stopping by and saying that, Janet. It means a lot when an experience of mine touches other people.

  7. Such great advice. I'll look at strangers differently today.

  8. Nice My Turn-read it in 3/5/15 Concord Monitor. I hate the panhandling, but I sometimes give that way, anyway. I don't believe many are scammers (who would panhandle if they didn't have to?) and the panhandlers keep me motivated to give all I can to those organizations that are serving the homeless. There was a time when "get a job" might have been an appropriate response, not so today. Way too many willing to work and no jobs available./John V. Kjellman/Henniker/NH

  9. John, thank you for your comment, I appreciate your stopping by. I can't help but wonder who we're really seeing when we see the homeless. I plan to become involved in hearing their stories - and maybe writing some of them up. Again, thanks.