I spent Saturday in Chicago, holed up in the downtown library writing and reading. At lunch, I went across the street and had a bagel at the corner Dunkin' Donuts. I sat in the storefront at a window counter, eating and watching the constantly changing street scene.
There was a young man across the street who was clearly asking passersby for change. I watched him try to engage people as they walked by, spinning around and trying another when the first one did not respond. He was big, with an engaging smile. Everyone appeared to walk by without handing him any money, but the smile never left his face.
The young man walked across the street and entered Dunkin' Donuts. He was known there; one of the sales clerks called him by name and asked him if he would like a hot chocolate. He was polite and thanked them carefully for the warm drink. Then he began to ask the patrons of the store, scattered at little tables throughout, if they had any change.
Admission: I am acutely uncomfortable when people on the street ask me for money. I don't care about their age, their story, their cleanliness, or whether they are mentally ill, chronically unemployed, or disabled. I tense up, feeling trapped between acknowledging their humanity and avoiding the whole uncomfortable encounter.
I was tucked away in a corner of the doughnut shop. I hoped Mr. Panhandler would overlook me.
He didn't, of course. He came right up to me and asked, "Excuse me, but can you help me out with some money to eat?"
I could have said no and he'd have left me alone, gone on out the door. I could have called his bluff, if he had one to call, and said, "No, but I will buy you a meal right here." I certainly did not have to turn and look him in the face while he asked me. But I did, and he looked right back at me.
He was a kid, really. In recounting the story to Warren, I said, "I'd be stunned if he was as old as Sam." And when we looked at one another, straight on, I felt a seismic shift.
I don't know who was more surprised—the kid or me—when I responded, "Yes, I can." Shock and amazement registered on his face.
I nodded and reached for my bag. I'd just stuffed my change, four dollars, into it. Now I took the bills out and handed them to him, saying, "it's hard to be hungry. Go get something."
"It sure is," he said. "God bless you."
With that benediction, the young man moved on. I watched him go. At the door, he turned back and looked my way, then smiled and waved when he saw I was watching him. I gave him a thumbs up.
I watched the young man walk south on State Street after he left the shop. He did not ask people for money as he walked along. He looked like he was walking a little lighter and a little taller.
Maybe he was just another panhandler. Maybe he was a drug user or an alcoholic. Maybe he walked away laughing his head off at the middle-aged white lady that he just conned out of four dollars.
And maybe he was just a kid with a somewhat empty stomach and less than adequate skills at filling it.
"There is nothing in the world more beautiful and more wonderful in all its evolved forms than two souls who look at each other straight on," wrote Gary Schmidt in his Newbery Honor novel, Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy.
It was only four dollars. It was all I had on me and Lord knows, I could have used it too. But not after looking him in the face and seeing the person. Not then.