My mother says when I was a child, I was generous with my toys.  I always shared with my siblings.  I like sharing, its easy for me.  I don’t think about it, I just do it. I want everyone I care about to have what I have.

My generosity doesn’t extend to strangers. I very rarely give to charities. Strangers aren’t really real people to me.  They are just anonymous numbers.

But when a stranger crosses the line, makes eye contact, speaks, gives me their name, they become real and meaningful.

PhillyLove

I was at the gas station, filling the car’s gas tank, when the man approached me.  His ragged clothing, dirty hair and face told me he was homeless.  There are a number of them in our part of the city, more now since the surge of gentrification hit its peak about a year ago.  I did not turn to look at him, I am afraid of people I don’t know.

The man reached out a hand and said something to me.  I did not understand his words, but since it was daylight and there were many people around, I turned my head and looked him in the eye for a moment, smiled and said “I’m sorry, I don’t have any cash.”

He motioned with his hand and I noticed the pile of coins he had there.  He said, “No, I’m not asking for money, I have money, I want soup.”

I was utterly confused, and slightly embarrassed, thinking I’d been mistaken in thinking he was homeless.  I turned all the way to face him and looked more closely.  He was middle-aged, unshaven, smelly. He had dirt-crusted hands and red-rimmed eyes. He wore way too much clothing for the summer day, and all of it ragged. He looked about as homeless as anyone could.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “I don’t understand.”

“I have money, I want soup. Cup O’Noodles.”  He gestured to the convenience store behind me, “They won’t let me in.”

Something exploded in my brain. I nodded my head and said, “let me finish with the gas, and I’ll help you.”

I didn’t actually let the tank fill up. I just put the nozzle back and hit the no button when the pump asked me if I wanted the receipt. I left the car where it was, blocking the pump.  I was angry and embarrassed for the man and not really sure what I was doing. A panicky feeling started fluttering in my stomach.

I gestured for him to walk with me to the store.  I held open the door for him and announced to the two men behind the counter, “He’s with me.”

At this point I started to shake.

I turned to him and asked him where the soup was, he pointed and I told him to pick out what he wanted.  I felt horrible, shaky and nervous, worried that I was doing something wrong, that I was being condescending, that I was being used, that the men behind the counter who stood there smiling at me through the entire thing were laughing at me.

I told the men behind the counter I was paying for the soup and handed over my credit card.

“Five dollar minimum,” one of them said, still grinning.

I turned to the homeless man and said, “do you want anything else?”

He said no.

“Are you sure, a bagel, or a banana at least?” I said, gesturing to the items nearby.

He shook his head.

I grabbed a pack of gum and a candy bar or something, I have no idea, just to get up to the five dollar minimum, and paid.

The shaking was getting ridiculous at that point and the blush on my face was so fierce I felt like I was glowing.  I had to leave.  I said to the counter men, “You will help him with the hot water for the soup?” Still grinning like maniacs, they assured me they would help and I scurried out of there.

I felt like I was having a heart attack.

Why?  I have no idea. When I am confused or embarrassed or scared or out of control – really, feeling any sort of unprepared for emotion – I panic.  Heart racing, stomach clenching, sweat inducing panic.

I wish I had asked his name. I wish I’d been brave enough or strong enough to ask how he got to where he was in life.  If for no other reason than to form a more complete picture of him in my mind.  I wish I’d been more calm and less panicked.  But then, I could say that about my whole life.  (“Easily Startled, Probably Panicking” isn’t a meaningless tagline)

But I learned something about myself.  Someday, not today, but someday when I am stronger, braver, less inwardly focused, someday I am going to do more stuff like that.  I am going to find more homeless people and I am going to buy them cups of soup. Because, despite my ubiquitous panic, it felt good.

Next time, I will be prepared. I won’t panic. I will ask them questions about themselves. I will turn them from nameless strangers into real people.

I like sharing, it is easy for me.  But it is easier to share with people I know.

81 thoughts on “On Sharing

  1. You did it. First step and it was food, not $. I learned living in Mexico that if I shared food the communication was there, no language needed just the generosity of spirit. You got it girl.

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  2. What a beautiful recount… It took courage to experience and courage to share – thank you. I clicked on your article as homelessness is an area I would like to be more involved with in my city. I love helping out with an event called homeless connect which serves to give a hand up – but I understand the emotions connected its not easy, it pushes my comfortable lifestyle but I do it because it’s the least I can do to make these people feel like valued members of society. I hope you meet this gentleman again and get the chance to ask his name 🙂

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  3. A homeless lady approached me on my porch last night. All I know about her is that they call her “B”. It was chilly enough outside and all she had on was a black and white polka dot bra with a pair of ragged jeans. I told her I had a few extra shirts and that she could have them if she liked. She nodded yes. I will see her again and I hope I have the opportunity to buy her a cup of soup. 🙂

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  4. Reading your story was so beautiful and touching. Stories like these make me want to believe that there are still nice people out there and that the world is not corrupted. Honestly, if I was in your position like that, I would’ve acted completely the same. I am not brave enough to approach strangers, or to give them a helping hand. However, reading your story enlighten me to treat and view strangers as regular people. It is great that you learned something from your experience because this definitely helped me.

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  5. Great story! Please check out my blog. Anxiety is a hard thing to deal with, I also suffer from it. It’s hard to understand your own emotions sometimes. I have anxiety too. Kiddos to you for doing the right thing and pushing through your anxiety!

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  6. how inspiring and brilliant. you left me pensive thinking of similar incidents where I may have misjudged so many of them. Bravo. well done and may there be more such hearts.
    congratulations on being freshly pressed and good luck.

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  7. I’ve lived an hour north of New York City for 15 years now and make regular trips there with my family. It is known that city streets serve as residences to many homeless people and despite the countless times I’ve been there and seen them asking for money it still to this day breaks my heart. Much like you, I am known to be generous. Therefore walking by the men and woman begging for something to make their stomachs stop growling seems impossible. Last time I was in the city I saw a middle aged woman with a small child begging for change, my parents bought them some food from one of the stands. My heart warmed, I hope to be as big hearted as my parents one day and to have extra money to spare to those less fortunate.

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  8. This is such a powerful story, and reading the comments afterwards was part of a wonderful experience. Like many of the commenters, I felt what you were feeling, both through your skillful writing and through personal memories. I find it difficult to engage with people I do not know, which often interferes with my want to help others. I know that same feeling of shaking and uncertainty and later wishing I’d done something differently, and it is comforting to know others feel the same. You helped the gentleman at the gas station in a very meaningful way, and your example shines. I don’t doubt that it impacted the salesclerks, even if it was not immediate. From the comments, it is clear that your story continues to impact a great many people. This is surely how positive change begins and snowballs.

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  9. When you feel panic take note what caused it . . . and do it often. Never give in to it . . . never, never, never. It will lessen and even sometimes go away completely.

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  10. It’s awesome that, even with the doubts and anxieties, you were still able to pull through and help someone. I can relate to that so much. When I do volunteer work for instance I worry sometimes that I’m doing it wrong, or something like that. So I took some comfort in reading your post 🙂

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  11. your words remind me of the day when i was crossing the road, heading to my home, i saw an old lady lying on the roadside, I felt very bad because i was not enough capable to do anything. I just called to old aged home center. Then suddenly I saw one man(i guess her son) was carrying her. I shocked “SHE WAS ALL DRUNK”. It hurt me. That one moment always confuses me, seeing beggars or so called homeless people, “whether they are really”???
    But still in a small corner of my heart I feel bad for them.

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  12. As you write here, those who are homeless are no different (from a human standpoint) as those who have secure and constant shelter. They, too, have stories to tell about the lives that they have lived. I have heard from those who are/have been homeless that someone taking the time to get to know them a little better, to spend some time with another human being, can be just as much, if not more, rewarding than getting handed a quick pile of change. Your goal of getting to know the homeless community better is admirable.
    –JW

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  13. A great post in so many ways.It’s so dehumanizing and degrading to be treated as a mass, as a number, as a class. It’s only by knowing something of someone as an individual that it’s really possible to help them. Without knowing them in this way we risk doing more harm than good.

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  14. I can’t begin to tell you the amount of ungrateful people there are in this world. I remember when I used to work downtown, a homeless man used to hold the door open for everyone going to the subway with a cup for change in the other hand. The amount of well-dressed men and women passed through those doors without even giving the poor man a glance had me fuming! I think that day I probably emptied my wallet of all change and cash I had. It wasn’t much, but one look at him and you could tell that he hadn’t had real food in a long time. I’m not sure what he did with the money, maybe he used it to buy drugs. I don’t know. I just hope people learn from your story. Shit can happen to anyone.

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  15. Wow thank you so much for your actions. I love to think that I will never be the type of bystander who will allow such injustices to take place, but I know that I’m also no where near brave enough to cause a big scene related to certain issues. I think that what you did was absolutely fantastic and I thank you so much. I was getting anxious just reading this haha

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  16. You showed the edge of yourself here, took us all into your borderlands. That’s not an easy thing to do. None of us are really all that comfortable with people who come across to us as somehow deviant or strange. Your essay spoke to our need to protect ourselves without puncturing our own sense of goodness.

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  17. I have had some experiences like that and understand. I had a few go well and a couple go badly. I picked up a hitchhiker once and he started to talk like he wanted food. For some reason I felt threatened not because of the food but because he started to question me to much. I pulled into a McDonald’s and gave him ten bucks. Told him to get us a couple of burgers, fries and sodas. When he went into the store I pulled out and left. It was just a bad feeling but I thought it wise. At least he had something to eat.

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  18. You sound like a sensitive introvert. I am a sensitive extrovert. I have no problem walking right up to anybody and asking just about anything. But I, too, sense what is needed in the moment.

    One summer, I hiked an entire forest system of trails alone, a place known for transient camps and nefarious after dark activities. One day, I passed a spot in the middle of the woods that had guitar music coming out of it, and singing. I veered straight off trail and found my way to a young squatter’s camp. We nodded at each other and I sat down right in front of him to enjoy some tunes. We chatted. Two hours and many, many good stories later, I offered to show him where some good lemon balm and berries were in the forest. We hiked and ate, winding up at my truck.

    On the way to driving him back to an access point near his camp, I made a fifteen-mile detour to a nearby island I new that was lousy with giant, tasty blackberries. We filled up a plastic bag I had and drove back in the dark. I walked him back to his camp and gave him a big hug. A few days later, I snuck into his camp while he was still sleeping and left him some mint from my garden, a book I mentioned to him in conversation, and a spiral notebook with several mechanical pencils. I never saw him again, but it didn’t matter. The memory is smooth and soft like velvet.

    When I tell that story, I can see most people shrinking in fear inside. They reveal the world they live in by pointing out all the horrific things they can think of that could have happened to me that day. But only good stuff happened, it always does. Because I live in a different world than they do; I know “where the berries are.”

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  19. Love this. If only more would step up, speak up, help one another… come on, people, now… as the song goes… what a different world it would be… imagine… you did well, your shaking may have been anger as much as anything else… because I felt angry on his behalf as well just reading this… so glad you were there to help him.

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  20. i have tears streaming down my face. I understand and felt every single thing you felt going in there with that man. i’m so glad for him that he went to you for help.

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  21. I agree – it is much easier to share with people you know. I would do anything for someone with whom I have even a nodding acquaintance, but strangers scare the heck out of me! I’m sure it’s because of being attacked by a strange man, but I just cannot make myself feel anything but panic.

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  22. Beautiful post, and wonderfully written as usual– but more importantly, your actions were beautiful. I’m glad you helped, despite the fear… and I hope you realize how special it was that you even heard anything after your initial rote response. The man probably asked half a dozen people without response. *hugs*

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  23. What an amazing piece of writing – I felt every bit of the emotion you went through. And I understand exactly what you are describing. The doubts, the fear, the need to act and the paralysis once the action is underway. EEKKK – my heart was slamming as I read this. No matter what any other person in the event you describe thought, no matter their agendas one way or the other – you did the right thing. That’s all that matters. Why is stuff like this so very, very hard?

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    1. This is such a beautiful post, engaging and inspiring. Your descriptions are so vividly depicted that I could imagine the scene so well.
      Its a lovely lesson in loving people. Thank you.

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  24. So simple, really, to turn strangers into people we know. We just have to ask for their name, how they are doing, what they need, what they like. Bravo for taking him into the station with you and getting him what he wanted. Bravo for treating him like a human would others would not.

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