November 2007 Archives

Cold Rain


By the time I got off work at five the rain that had been falling all day had turned into a heavy mist. It was already dark outside. My car knew it was dark and turned on the headlights. My car also sensed the mist, and from time to time the windshield wipers swept across the windshield. The leather seat was cold so I turned on the butt-warmer. I'm not going to pretend to be something I'm not, here. Not tonight. I'm not rich--I can't retire for a long time yet--but I'm not poor, either. I'm comfortable. When Mike got a scholarship to UVA law school, I spent the money it saved me on a Lexus.

After navigating my way into the heavy traffic on Telegraph Road and easing across two lanes, I was in the turn lane to Huntington Ave, waiting at a very long red light. There was a man on the median strip, as there frequently is, walking slowly along the line of cars, holding a small sign. It was too dark to read the sign or to see his face. The sign probably said "Homeless vet" or just "Homeless, please help." His face was probably expressionless, eyes aimed at the pavement in front of him.

When panhandlers approach me and look me in the eye, I'm a soft touch. When I give, I give enough so that that one person can stop begging for that one night. I usually give a twenty, listen embarrassed to profuse thanks, and then feel a moment of moderated happiness as I watch them abandon their post and head for the nearest Popeye's for a meal. No, it's not happiness. I don't know what it is. It's just the feeling that for just that one moment, I, who will go home to a warm house and fix myself a drink and try to reconcile my comfortable existence with the world around me, have given one person a hot meal.

But when a panhandler walks past my car, eyes down, it's too easy for me to divert my own gaze. I stared at my hands tonight as the man whose face was obscured by darkness walked past my car. Then, as it always does, my brain went in a direction I would have preferred it not go. My brain said "That's some mother's son." And it said "What would I want someone like me to do, if that were my son?" I would want someone to take him in, offer him a job, and a meal. But I can't do that. I don't have enough trust. It's risky.

I reached into my purse, pulled out my wallet, pulled out a twenty, and watched in my rearview mirror as the man walked away from my car, continuing past the line of cars behind me. I hoped he'd turn around and walk back in time for me to roll down my window and reach out and hand him the twenty. It was a long red light, a full three minutes, but he never turned around. I could have rolled down the window and shouted at him, brought him running back, but I didn't.

When the light changed and the green arrow lit, allowing those of us waiting in the uncomfortable line to make our turn, I folded the twenty and tucked it into the map pocket on the door. It's waiting there for the next faceless man with an unreadable sign, the next mother's son, walking slowly beside a row of waiting cars in a cold rain.

September 2008

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