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.
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.