Sunday, February 03, 2008

Convenient Generosity

One day recently, I stopped in my coffee haunt, our local Bad Ass Coffee Company, where I almost always get tea. I like to be different. Plus, my wife and son tell me that coffee gives me "dragon breath."

There was a medium crowd in the place as I walked in. The owner of a nearby auto repair shop was pointing at a guy lounging on a sofa. Mr. Auto Repair whispered to the girl behind the counter, "If I were you, I'd call the cops." I glanced back at the sofa. The guy on the sofa appeared to be guilty of being homeless. It appeared that he'd taken some effort to get and stay clean, but he had that weather-weary look about him, and a backpack alongside. The weather outside was miserable, with half rain, half slushy snow. The guy sat there, taking refuge from the weather, trying to be invisible.

People were giving Mr. Homeless a clear zone of sorts. I grabbed my tea and entered the clear zone, sitting at a table about three feet from the guy. He looked at me nervously. I'm tall, and as I get older, I've been told that I look like a cop. I liked it better when people told me that I looked like a cross between Tom Selleck and John Ritter, even if they were lying. But, I don't have enough hair for that anymore, and besides, John Ritter is dead. I hope he's having a good time with Tex.

About twenty years ago, still during my single daze, a young woman in a bar told me that I looked like a cross between Tom Selleck and a chipmunk. An amorous adventure did not follow.

Anyway, I can be a bit of a bleeding heart. Rush Limbaugh would probably think me stupid for feeling sorry for all those lazy, good-for-nothing homeless bums. I'll just have to live with that. Once, on an airline flight, I talked with a guy who'd once been a homeless advocate in his town. He said that he got out of it out of frustration, because "half of those bastards are just pulling a scam." Maybe so, but even if that's true, that means that half of 'em aren't.

I have a generous streak, but I can be a selfish jerk with my time. I thought about buying the guy a coffee and some food, but I really wanted to spend time with my laptop, not in conversation. I decided that I'd do my morning blog roundup, check email, then buy the guy something when I left. That way, I could stay in my little sphere of privacy, and avoid the dagger eyes I guessed I'd get from about half of the patrons.

A twenty-something guy walked into the place. He carried himself with a subtle confidence, and something about him let on that he was a child of affluence, despite his neo-hippy long hair and faux-funky attire. He grabbed a coffee, and looked for a place to sit. He chose a seat about four feet from the homeless guy, and checked him out. After a few moments, he asked, "Are you traveling?" "Yeah, I'm on the road."

I finished answering an email, all the while overhearing their conversation. The young guy was asking the homeless guy questions, finding common ground, making the homeless man feel like he belonged, like he was there.

I'd volunteered to help out in one of my son's classes, and it was time to go. I gathered up my stuff and visited the restroom. As I left the restroom, I could see a difference in the homeless man. He sat more erect, he was smiling, and there was a light in his eyes. I walked up and gave him some money. "Really?" I chuckled. "Yeah, really. Take care of yourself."

I walked out and drove away. As I entered Lake Boulevard, I glanced through the windows of the coffee place. The young guy and the homeless man were laughing. For just a moment, as I drove away, I laughed with them.


Uncle E said...

Before my wife and I were married we used to go to breakfast a lot. There was this little place, in San Diego, about 5-7 (it gets a little hazy) miles from where we lived. I was in a weird mood, a stupid mood, and we got into an arguement at this breakfast place. I told my future bride that "I would walk home", that I needed time to "cool off".
Well, lo and behold she let me. Zoomed off and didn't look back. Coulldn't believe it! It was an idle threat, but she took me seriously! I hadn't shaved and was looking a little haggard when I started my, as Sharyn likes to call it, my "Stupid Man March". 7 miles is a long way, and it was a pretty rough part of town, gang territory. I stopped to rest and slumped down in front of a store front when a particularly well dressed man in a BMW or something stopped, rolled down his window and asked if I 'needed' some cash for some food. I politely explained that I wasn't homeless, that I was simply a stupid guy. He smiled and left.
Hal, we all are way too jaded and suspicious these days. How many times have I ignored the guy with the sign in front of McDonalds? How difficult would it be to buy an extra cheeseburger for him?
You're a good man, Charlie Brown, you're a good man.

Bob Barbanes said...

The title troubles me, Hal. Convenient generosity. Hmm. That's me, generous when it's convenient for me. I guess as a society we've become too distrustful or paranoid or whatever to strike up conversations with complete strangers who appear to be, um, "on the road." We seem to have lost a little of our sense of community and/or pathos or just simple friendliness toward strangers. I blame CNN. We hear of every single instance of "something bad" happening anywhere in the country. It's made us a suspicious, wary lot.

In your position, I'm not sure I would've been brave enough to strike up a conversation with the guy, as opposed to the empathetic one who did. And I may have even walked out wishing I'd given him something other than my best wishes. Glad you're not me.

Now, as for your resemblance to certain t.v. characters... Remember how John Cleese in "Fawlty Towers" could take any insult and try to turn it around? If someone called me a chipmunk I might have said, "Really? Which one...the good looking one? Alvin? Theodore?"

I always used to envision myself as the Jan-Michael Vincent character ("Stringfellow Hawke") in the wonderful t.v. show, "Airwolf." The sad truth is that I more closely resemble the Ernest Borgnine character, "Dom."

blkwid said...

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