Anything you can do to ease the discomfort of a homeless
person is effort well spent. It's easy enough to dismiss them as lazy
or foolish and walk away but not without hardening yourself a little in the process. Some of the people on the street may have chosen to live as they do but it's far more likely that they were thrust there by circumstance and lack the optimism
to rebuild. The world must have seemed a cruel place for them to subtract themselves so completely but we can prove them wrong. The couple of bucks that you toss to the destitute
man on the street can have a dramatic impact on his quality of life and it isn't so much for what he can buy with the money.
For the hour or two that he's allowed to linger at McDonald's over the hot apple pie and small cup of coffee, he can see a scene that isn't wholly mean and selfish. Your gesture didn't just put warm food into one man's stomach, it changed the entire world for the better in his eyes. Most of the street people I've run into are there because they lacked the killer instinct necessary to survive in a dog eat dog world. Once proud men surrendered to a pushy mob and their reward for not shoving back was exile. They rejected the idea of competing with you for a promotion or kissing an idiot's ass and were summarily expelled from the game.
Many people are hostile toward the urban outdoorsman, they yell, "get a job" or worse and to him their angst is telling. They resent his ability to live his life without the competitive undercurrent that mars their own humanity. The hobo thinks of the people who must be stepped on to get that swell job and the theatrics that must be performed to keep it and simply begs off. He tried it for awhile, living a lie to inspire envy in his neighbors, who were themselves living a bigger lie to keep up appearances. It just wasn't his cup of stew.
Who among us hasn't neared the end of their rope at work or at home and felt like chucking it all? If I had a nickel for every time I bit my tongue to keep from telling the whole truth to an ignorant boss or impertinent spouse, I could afford to give two bucks to every human I encounter for the rest of my natural life. Living on the street is punishment enough, so the hobo doesn't need to be scolded by society for not playing by the rules. He realizes that a job would change his life, he's just not convinced that it would change it for the better. The street person doesn't need our pity either and likely doesn't deserve it; chances are that he pities us.
We should probably just pay the two bucks.
It was the night before Thanksgiving
and my friend and I were hitchhiking home from school in North Dakota
. The traffic on the freeway
dried up as the holiday neared and we were stranded overnight in Fergus Falls. We didn't expect the layover and hadn't brought along any money but the kindness of a stranger
saved us from a cold, hungry night under the freeway overpass. A nice lady at the Greyhound
depot took pity on a couple of impoverished college students and loaned us twenty dollars for breakfast.
We spent most of the night in the booth at Perkins, testing the limits of their "bottomless" cup of coffee and waiting for the traffic to pick up on the highway. The restaurant had undergone a shift change and our new waitress wasn't showing us any love at all. After awhile she quit refilling the coffee pot altogether and seemed to have the support of management, a nervous little dude with a polyester tie who had been giving us the hairy eyeball since we arrived. Our original waitress, Kim, was a sweetheart and even flirted with us a little when Dave gave her the five-dollar tip. The surly crone who replaced her kept hitting Dave's foot with the vacuum cleaner and making it abundantly clear that we had worn out our welcome.
When our first waitress told us she was punching out, we paid the tab and gave her the tip but lingered over the table so long that it felt funny stiffing the new person. We didn't have much money left but collected our remaining coins and left them on the table as a gesture of good faith. Seventy-eight cents all together, three quarters and three pennies, not much but it was all that we had.
As we headed toward the exit, the waitress moved at once to clear our table and startled everyone in the joint with the commotion she caused. She tossed our cups and saucers into the bus tub with such force that we heard the ceramic shatter from across the restaurant. Dave flashed me a worried glance and we both paused to look over our shoulders at the scene she was making. The waitress scooped the coins from the table and ran across the room to catch up to us as we neared the door.
"This is what I get for working on Thanksgiving and putting up with you god-damned bums for two hours? Seventy-eight cents? You just keep your f**king seventy-eight cents, assholes!"
I was halfway out the door when she threw the coinage but Dave caught the full brunt of her fury. One of the quarters made an impressive welt on his forehead and a penny caught him right smack in the eyeball.
"I'm blind! I'm blind! That crazy bitch blinded me on Thanksgiving!"
We instinctively dropped to the deck to avoid the next volley and scrambled to collect the coins scattered around the restaurant entrance. The meek little manager was doing his best to restrain the woman and apologize to us at the same time. It seemed she might wriggle free at any moment and do us some real damage so a hasty retreat to the freeway seemed in order. We didn't even look back to acknowledge the geeky restaurant manager's feeble attempt at lawsuit avoidance.
"Sorry for the trouble, guys. Have a nice day!"
We ran to the freeway overpass and huddled in the cement and steel cavity beneath the bridge to get out of the cutting wind. It would be an hour until dawn and another hour after that before the Interstate rumbled to life with Thanksgiving travelers. We knew that between the holiday spirit and Minnesota Nice
that catching a lift to Minneapolis
would be a cinch but for the time being there was no traffic at all.
"Wow, your eye looks terrible, Dave. It's all puffy and the white part of your eyeball is covered in blood."
"Man, it feels like the penny's still in there. It hurts like Hell!"
"Maybe we should go back and look for a doctor in town. Might be slim pickings though, on Thanksgiving Day."
"You're kidding right? I'm never going back to that town again. We'll catch a ride to Minneapolis when the traffic picks up, we're only a couple of hours away. F**k it hurts! My mom will take me to the Emergency Room when I get home if it still looks bad."
"It's getting worse, bro, your whole eye is puffing up like a bullfrog. It's sort of merging with the welt on your forehead. You look just like Rocky...you know...at the end of the movie."
"She's got a Hell of an arm. I got beaned with a fastball in Little League once and it didn't hurt anything like this.
The full belly from Perkins and the two hour wait for traffic made me want to take a nap in the worst way and that's exactly what I did. Some Interstate Highway bridges make better squats than others do and I'm here to tell you that the one on I-94 in Fergus Falls, Minnesota is almost uninhabitable. It's as if they purposely designed the thing with no horizontal surfaces to sleep on. If you doze off you must remain perfectly perpendicular to the road or you will roll down the forty-five degree incline and onto the freeway.
Dave said he was going to try and ignore the stabbing pain in his eye and get some sleep as well. I cleverly positioned my self a little bit further up the incline, assuming that Dave would act as a speed bump and keep me from rolling all the way down the hill to my death.
"Hey Dave, if you roll down onto the freeway and get run over by a semi can I have your stereo?"
"You're always looking for an angle, aren't ya? I'll bet you stuffed yourself into that crevice just so you'd hit me if you rolled down the hill. Selfish bastard."
"How could you think such a thing? Man, that stings."
"Just giving you shit, Jonny. Happy Thanksgiving."
"Happy Thanksgiving, Dave."
The kid was thumbing his way
on the opposite side of the freeway when he noticed the two bodies stretched out on the angled concrete bridge abutment. He claimed that he was throwing rocks at the guardrail to see if we were dead or asleep but his aim was terrible and the first rock he threw hit Dave hard on the leg. He woke with a start and rolled all the way down the hill to the shoulder of the freeway, just in time to catch the slushy spray from a passing truck. I woke up when I heard him yelling across the freeway like a madman.
"What the Hell is that all about? You just threw a rock at me, didn't you?"
"I thought you might be dead."
The kid was a little younger than we were, quite a bit smaller than Dave and visibly nervous over having thrown the offending rock. Dave was covered in slush from head to toe, shivering on the shoulder of the road. His swollen eye looked worse than before his nap and he was exhibiting a new limp, rubbing the spot where the rock had hit him.
"So you go around throwing rocks at dead people? What kind of monster are you?"
The kid looked like he was about to cry, pacing back and forth with his head down saying "I'm sorry" over and over again. Dave gestured for me to climb down so we could go over and talk to him. The kid must have thought we were coming over to kick his ass because he shouted a nervous, goofy attempt at conversation.
"Which way are you headed?"
I could tell that Dave's temper had cooled but he couldn't resist a snippy answer to a stupid question.
"Which way do you think we're headed, Einstein? The freeway only goes in two directions, this-a-way and that-a-way. We're going the opposite direction as you."
We crossed the freeway and the poor kid was crying all right, bawling like a baby. He couldn't have been sixteen years old and he told us that he'd been living outdoors for more than a year. He was carrying an open cardboard box that was nearly as big as he was and its only contents were a piece of silky fabric about one foot square and a page torn from a pornographic magazine. Dave calmed the kid and distracted him from his weeping by asking why he was carrying a mostly empty box.
"Oh, it's just some stuff I keep. I'm going to make a shirt out of that fabric when I get to Seattle."
Dave and I exchanged a furtive "this person is clearly insane" look and silently agreed not to delve further into how he planned to make a shirt out of one square foot of cloth. Dave moved on to the next obvious question instead.
"But why such a big box?"
The kid explained that he carried the big box so that people would presume he was a person of substance and be more eager to give him a lift. That made a certain amount of sense to us so we forgave his patchy insanity and became fast friends. He told us that there were potatoes in the Dumpster behind Perkins and we said that we had eaten but thanked him just the same. Dave got the idea at the exact same time as I did and we both started riffling through our pockets for the coins.
I only came up with two of the quarters and a penny but Dave had the rest of it. Even in our rush to escape the restaurant we had somehow managed to salvage all seventy-eight cents and we eagerly handed it to the kid.
"That's really nice of you guys. I've sure got something to be thankful for today."
"It's nothing, kid, you ought to go up to that Perkins and sit inside to warm up for awhile. They've got a bottomless cup of coffee for seventy-five cents. Three cents tax and you've got her licked exactly."