On my way into the Snack Shop, which sells cheap liquor and cigarettes and is mockingly called “The Crack Shop” by snobby college students, I ran into a homeless man squatting against the building. A scraggly, gray beard covered most of his lower face. The rest was covered by a knitted hat and dirt embedded into his wrinkles. There was a sudden sympathy and fear in me at that moment, as he asked for spare change. I looked at him, knowing there was change in my pocket. Change and a twenty, but I replied, “Maybe on my way out.”
Behind the counter, the perpetually drunk cashier asked, “Can I help you?”
“Yes, a pack of Marlboro Menthol Milds…” and he smiled. Smiled at my young face and I smiled back.
“Four twenty,” he said after checking my ID, and I almost laughed to myself. Almost laughed at the lame jokes friends at home would tell. Four twenty, four twenty in a haze of marijuana smoke. Four twenty, which I paid for with my twenty-dollar bill and a quarter.
Outside, I saw that the old man was still squatting by the door. He didn’t ask for change from the two African American teens that nearly plowed over me on their way through the door. He just looked at the ground, ashamed maybe. After all, the two gentlemen pulled up in a Mustang, and I walked. I could maybe relate. Under my coat, a Goodwill find, I hid a tattered emo sweater, and my shoes… Converse All-Stars with holes through the canvas. Maybe I looked like I could relate. I bent down and gave him all the change I had, a little over a dollar. “Here you go,” I said. But I wanted to say, “I wish I could do more. I wish I could give you my coat. I wish I had some gloves for you. Do you need a place to stay? Exactly how many layers of holey sweaters are you wearing? And what is your name? Do you need a hug?” No, I didn’t say any of that. I just left with sixteen dollars in my pocket, as he counted the change in his hand--Would it be enough? And I wished I could have given him the rest. Others would have laughed, “Oh, don’t waste your time… he’ll only spend it on booze!” And he would, maybe. But could I blame him? I had just broken my last twenty until spring break on an addiction I don’t need. I would also buy a little rum or vodka if I was 21. I would drown myself, just like him, but for other reasons. I would drink myself beautiful for frat boys I could never face while sober. I would drink myself happy, forgetting my recent fight with my mother. I would also drink, and I suddenly had more respect for the homeless man. He would drink to stay warm and forget his real problems. He would drink himself into a warm corner in some alley. He would drink to stay alive and make life worth living. And I couldn’t blame him for begging for change. I couldn’t blame him at all.