September 30, 2014

You're not invisible

I live in a depressed area of the midwest. In 2011, our city had the highest concentrated poverty rate among core cities in the United States’ 100 largest metropolitan areas. Driving through the town, it's not uncommon to see dilapidated houses, homeless people, and abandoned cars. Where I live is outside the core city, but often have to drive through the city.

Yesterday, it was a lovely 75 degree fall afternoon and I was on my way to a meeting. My sunroof was open and the radio was tuned to my favorite station. I mentally cursed as I saw the light I was approaching turn red, slowing my journey. I grumbled even more when I spotted the far-too-familiar person on the corner with a cardboard sign asking for money.

My mental inventory was rattling off a course of action, while I rolled up the window on that side of my car as I came to a stop. I kept telling myself not to make eye contact, "don't encourage him", the typical narrative we tell ourselves when we see someone who makes us uncomfortable.

In the periphery, I saw him standing still on the corner, not approaching any of the cars, just hopefully holding his sign, willing someone to open their window, or maybe their heart.

I had just stopped at the ATM, put some cash in my wallet, and it was tucked into my purse, laying on the passenger seat. Something hit me in that moment. All I needed to do to get money was drive through a magic window, punch a few buttons and it popped out of a little slot. I never would know what the indignity of standing on a street corner in an economically decimated town with a makeshift cardboard sign, hoping for the kindness of a stranger. I knew I could do better than avert my eyes. I could do something.

In that split second I reached into my wallet and grabbed one of the crisp bills I had just gotten from the ATM. I rolled down my window and motioned for him to come over. It was broad daylight, so I wasn't worried for my safety, in fact if anything, I wanted him to know that I didn't meet the stereotype anymore than maybe he did. I didn't want either of us to be invisible to each other.

He was polite and graciously appreciative and told me not to be scared, he'd never hurt a woman. The light was about to change and so there wasn't a lot of time for chit-chat. I don't know a thing about why he was begging or homeless. It didn't matter. He didn't know a thing about why I had a luxury car or a crisp $20. We saw past the stories we tell ourselves about others and only saw two people helping each other. Yes, he helped me. He helped me soften my heart. I wished him luck and told him to have a nice day.

My friend with the cardboard sign smiled broadly and he must have said "thank you" 10 times. The light changed as I drove off and he waved and then resumed his quietly dignified stance, as dignified as I imagine a person who is begging for money could be. But he was smiling. Someone saw him and someone cared.

Now I'm not suggesting we throw money at every person who asks for it, without wondering why they need it. Or maybe I am. Maybe it doesn't matter why they are asking. Really, think about it. That bill I handed him meant so much more to him than it would to me. In fact, I've even gone into a forgotten pair of pants or done laundry and found a $20. I'm pretty sure that's never happened to someone like him. I had it to share, so I did.

Maybe I am suggesting we take off the blinders and remind those in need that they are not invisible. They exist and they need to be seen. We exist and we need to be seen. We share this planet. Let's see each other as neighbors.

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