When I was eighteen I became addicted to cocaine and would use my body to get the drug. At my dealer’s house, I’d find a man who had just copped and hadn’t shot it all yet, and I would sidle up to him, numb and jittery, talking and asking questions, probably not making any sense. Eventually, he would offer me a hit. In a bizarre version of gallantry, as if opening my car door, he would measure a portion into a spoon, mix in water, drop in a tiny cotton ball, and siphon up the liquid.
As soon as the needle was loaded, I was ready, my left hand squeezing my right biceps. Sometimes he would want to talk before hitting me. Holding the syringe in one hand and gesturing with the other, he’d drone on and on while I sat holding my arm tight, eyes on the needle, wanting to scream, “Now!” But I had to be patient and act as though I gave a shit.
The men always shot me up; none of them ever let me do it myself. I remember one man who flagged and reflagged the shot, drawing blood into the needle and pushing it back out again and again. He said it made the rush last longer.
Once the drug was in me, I would maneuver quickly to the other side of the room, still trying to appear interested in the man, even though he was now only a minor distraction from the beautiful jingle and swoosh inside me.
An intravenous hit of coke lasts about five minutes. After about four minutes, I would begin to shift toward the man again.
In the summer of 1970, I lived in a house with six other people in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. We called ourselves a “collective.” Our rent was very low, and our vegetarian diet consisted primarily of brown rice, unseasoned steamed vegetables, and government-surplus cheese, although I was inclined to sneak out every now and then and order a burger and fries. (Afterward I’d be filled with shame and remorse — until I got hungry again.) None of us had a real job. We all survived on various short-term gigs: yardwork or handyman work or painting or baby-sitting. One month, when I was a little short on rent money and had no jobs lined up and nothing to sell, it occurred to me to try panhandling.
I’d seen other hippies doing it on Brady Street (Milwaukee’s version of Haight-Ashbury), and it seemed simple enough: you just stood on a busy corner and said, “Spare change?” to passersby, and they gave you money, right? So I put on my best Guatemalan poncho and hand-loomed headband and parked myself on a busy corner of Brady Street. But as soon as I uttered the words “Spare change?” a guy five feet away said, “This is my spot, asshole. Get your own.” Not wanting to violate panhandler etiquette, I moved down the block and tried again.
The first person who came along was one of the older Italian ladies who lived in the neighborhood. She stopped, looked me straight in the eye, and said, “You should be ashamed of yourself, an able-bodied young man begging on the streets! Why don’t you get a haircut and find a job, and stop making your parents ashamed of you?”
Next came a drunk, who asked to bum a smoke; then another hippie tried to sell me a joint. Then came a giggling group of uniformed Catholic schoolgirls, one of whom asked if I was a girl or a boy. Then a well-groomed man asked me up to his place for a drink and dinner and maybe “a little fun.”
Finally, an old woman with a walker approached slowly down the sidewalk, struggling with a bag of groceries. For some reason — perhaps because she didn’t look particularly hostile toward me — I said, “Spare change?” and immediately regretted it. She stopped, struggled to remove a small coin purse from her coat pocket, and tried to hand me fifty cents. Embarrassed, I said, “I’m sorry, really. I can’t take your money. I shouldn’t even be out here. I should just get a job and stop begging from strangers.”
“Young man,” she said, eyes twinkling, “if you will carry my groceries two blocks to my apartment, I will pay you the fifty cents. Deal?”
“Ma’am,” I said, “I would be delighted to carry your groceries — for free!”
Her name was Gertrude (Trudy to her friends). She was eighty-three, a retired schoolteacher who had read and traveled extensively, and she was to become my partner in crime for the next year, sneaking off with me to the Oriental Pharmacy lunch counter for hamburgers every few weeks, against her doctor’s advice. We took turns treating each other whenever one of us could afford it. People must have assumed we were grandmother and grandson; we took great pleasure in their mystified looks when we explained that we were just friends.
Mark A. Hetts
San Francisco, California
Downtown, I pass hundreds of people every day on the bobbing human sidewalk sea. No one ever acknowledges my existence, nor do I anyone else’s. Only the beggars violate the anonymity. Only they speak to me.
I used to feel compassion for them. Now I feel only disdain. Day after day, the same filthy professionals hold the same cups and signs and make the same lame pleas.
The truth is, I fear I may become one of them. Business is bad. The IRS is hot on my trail. I haven’t crashed and burned yet, but I’m spiraling down fast. With no education, no skills, no savings, no collateral, and no insurance, I’m a half step ahead of the homeless. In a few months, maybe less, I may become what I hate.
IN SECOND GRADE, the day my catechism teacher told us we would give our first confessions, I immediately thought of three things for which God would surely send me to hell: not going to church one Sunday; thinking that the priest’s new haircut looked dumb; and passing notes during silent Bible reading.
As we walked into the chapel, with its huge hanging crucifix, my palms began to sweat. I picked a pew halfway between the altar and the door, genuflected, lowered the kneeling bar, and bowed my head to pray to God that catechism might end before it was my turn to talk to the old priests.
Though I made a hundred promises to God, my turn did come, and I whispered all my evils to the father, trying desperately to cover every commandment. He yawned a few times during my speech and, when it was finally over, leaned forward and told me that God forgave me. All I could think was how terrible the priest’s breath smelled.
He sent me away with ten Our Fathers and five Hail Marys, telling me to meditate on my sins. As I rotated the cheap plastic beads of my rosary, I realized that all the begging in the world wouldn’t make his God listen to me.
I remember three times in my life when I had to beg.
The first I didn’t think of as begging. We walked in pairs from house to house or stood on street corners, extending our pushkehs — cans decorated with the Star of David — and asking for money for the Jewish National Fund. We were not an unusual sight in Los Angeles in the late thirties and early forties. We even had regular routes. (Impossible to believe today that two thirteen-year-old girls were perfectly safe walking the streets and asking money of strangers. It was a different world.) One year, another girl and I were given the coveted Hollywood-and-Vine area, and I collected one donation I’ll never forget: Cesar Romero stuffed a dollar bill into my pushkeh, grinning down at me from his six-foot-plus height.
In the second instance, I was returning home on a train from South Dakota, and gave away my last ten dollars to two clever con men who promised to repay me at the depot in Los Angeles, where they would somehow obtain more money. I believed them. When we reached Los Angeles, they fed me a hard-luck story. I cried and begged them for cab fare home. The shame of begging for my own money still leaves a bitter taste at the back of my throat.
The last time was when my second husband beat me: not hit — beat. I stood on the front porch and felt the hard blows shower down upon my face, shoulders, arms, and breasts. I begged him to stop. He wouldn’t.
It was a late-fall Sunday afternoon, I was five years old, and my parents and I were on our way home from the farm. The glorious red sumac blazed along the sides of the road. A week or two before, we had stopped, cut a few branches, and taken them home to put in a vase on the dining-room table. Now I wanted more of those beautiful leaves.
“Look at the sumac,” I said. “Can we stop and get some?” Silence. Maybe they hadn’t heard me.
“Hey, Dad, can we stop and cut some sumac? Can we, please?” More silence. My father was a taciturn man; my mother spoke only to give orders. Sometimes begging was the only way to get their attention. “Mom, please tell Dad to stop. Look how pretty it is. Please.”
Finally, my father stopped the car. Elated, I quickly jumped out. He took his pocket knife and cut a length of sumac; then, while I watched with growing curiosity, he began stripping off the leaves and twigs. When he was done, he took the bare branch, flailed my legs and backside, and told me to get back in the car.
I once had a boyfriend who was a recovering alcoholic. I left him when he fell off the wagon, and he soon became homeless. I would see him constantly in the neighborhood, sometimes sitting at the edge of the supermarket parking lot, playing the flute, or else on the sidewalk by Bill’s Drugs, his upside-down blue beret at his side, but always smelling strongly of alcohol. He slept under some boards in an alley. I couldn’t bring myself to give him money, but one rainy winter I left a blanket and a poncho for him there.
Had my ex-boyfriend been a Buddhist monk in Thailand, his begging would have been considered noble. But this was California, where we don’t even call it begging; we call it panhandling, and there’s no dignity in it. Still, he called it his job. It was hard work, he said. Sometimes, if his flute was in hock, he sang, but more often he just sat and waited. When someone gave him money he would say, “God bless you.” I suppose it was his way of giving something back.
Whenever I saw him on the street, I felt angry, knowing he’d traded in a job and a comfortable rented room for this besotted life on the streets. But then I’d think, Why not? He was giving back blessings. He wasn’t hoarding possessions — he shared his spoils with his homeless friends. My taxes weren’t supporting him. Still, when I passed him on my way to the drugstore, I didn’t put any money in his blue beret. I didn’t want his blessing.
Several years ago, I left an unfaithful mate. Being poor and far from home, I took sanctuary at a friend’s New York City apartment. Then I made the mistake of calling my lover one last time, only to be reminded that my side of the bed was now occupied. I broke down and cried uncontrollably. My relationship was not only over but seemed to have been a lie from the start. I sobbed until my stomach ached from it. Then, with only a few dollars in my pocket, I ran out into the January night, hailed a cab, and told the driver to take me to Bellevue Hospital, where I’d heard people went when their spirits were broken.
The cabdriver was kind, pointing out the clearness of the night as we drove through Central Park. The sound of his voice eased my pain slightly, but when he dropped me off in front of the monstrously ugly hospital, my sorrow returned at full force.
It took me a long time to find the psychiatric wing, and it was hours more before a doctor could see me. I cried the entire time. At last, a blonde with a ponytail — who didn’t even look old enough to be up that late, much less practicing medicine — showed up, looked at my intake card, and said she couldn’t do anything for me.
“You’re too high functioning to stay here,” she said, “and you don’t have the money or insurance for me to send you someplace else.”
I begged her to do something, told her that I couldn’t leave and return to my broken life, that I didn’t even have a way to get back to my friend’s apartment. Finally, she made an appointment for me to see a social worker who came on duty just before dawn; he could fill out the papers to get me a subway token, she said.
Later, I walked into the social worker’s office, still crying ceaselessly. The elderly man behind the desk looked at me and said, “What the hell is wrong with you?”
I blurted out what I could.
“Oh, for God’s sake,” he said, “why are you in such a predicament?”
I told him I had tried and tried, but had failed in my relationship, failed at life.
“Well, stop all that trying,” he said, “and just do. Get it through your pretty head that whatever you choose to do, you can do it better than any other person on this planet. To hell with that creep you left behind; to hell with everything except living the way you want to live. In this life you don’t try — you do, and you don’t look back!”
Stunned, I stopped crying.
He filled out a form in quadruplicate and gave me a token. “I don’t want to see you in here again,” he said. “I want to see your picture in a newspaper when you’re famous, and don’t drag your heels; I’m an old man.”
I didn’t become famous, but after that night I moved from strength to strength.
I saw him every morning on my way to the university. He always sat cross-legged in the same spot on the sidewalk, near the temple. He often looked at me and said, “Namaste,” his hands pressed together, but I never returned the greeting.
The foliage of the holy peepul tree overhead changed with the seasons, but he never changed his clothes, always wearing the same tattered shirt and greasy dhoti. Even the garbage got a new container that said, Clean Green Healthy Kathmandu, but he never changed the dented aluminum bowl into which I sometimes threw a spare coin or two.
Year after year, political processions passed by, shouting slogans about food for the hungry and homes for the homeless. Sometimes I joined them, but he always remained by the side, watching.
Once, I decided to talk to him. He said he had come to Kathmandu from his home in the eastern plains to be a vegetable seller, but had ended up working at a stone quarry, where he’d ruined his leg. He estimated that he was fifty years old. At night he slept behind the temple. I gave him twenty rupees.
After a while, I no longer walked by him as often. My life had changed; I could afford a taxi. Then one day, about two years later, I walked past the temple and didn’t see him. I asked a fruit seller where he was, and the vendor told me of an unprecedented event: The beggar had been given new clothes of spotless white cotton. Men had carried him on their shoulders, as if he were a venerable noble. He was finally taken somewhere he could warm his body, which had shivered in the chill of winter. After all, a corpse can’t be left on the street to decay.
No matter their status, all Hindus, when they die, must be disposed of in the proper way. Even this beggar was burned on a funeral pyre, his ashes thrown into the Bagmati River; coins were tossed onto the pyre with him, to keep him from suffering after death; and rice was sprinkled all along the path to the river, for his soul to eat.
Hom Raj Acharya
As a young child, I often pretended illness in hopes of a hug from my unapproachable mother, but the effort was always in vain. At age twelve, I stared long and hard into her vacant eyes after she returned from the mental hospital, where electroshock therapy had destroyed her memory; she would never know me, or anyone else, again.
As a teenager, I never looked back on my troubled childhood. I was too busy convincing people to hire me so I could afford my one-room apartment; too busy convincing teachers the signatures on documents really were my parents’, so I could get an education.
I gave birth to a baby boy while I was still a child myself. I tried to give him everything I never had, certain that my reward would be his unconditional love. Now he’s an angry young man who says I never gave him the only thing he needed: myself.
When my lover left me to unite with his wife and children, I dropped to my knees and prayed for just a little more time.
Now, when a shadowy figure steps out from an alley and asks me for change, I dig deep. Who am I to judge? I’ve been begging all my life.
In 1983, a friend and I started Aid for Friends, the first homeless shelter in Idaho. The streets of Pocatello weren’t filled with the destitute — it was usually too cold — but we served transient men looking for work, poor women with children, and mental patients deinstitutionalized under Reagan.
To begin with, we had absolutely nothing, so we went all over town, begging. We asked the county commissioners for an empty house, and they gave it to us. Then local stores donated paint, and the painters union painted the house for free. We received food, clothes, furniture — all it takes to fill a house — and opened our doors with $12.84 in cash.
If we had followed the generally accepted rules of establishing volunteer organizations, there most likely would never have been a shelter. Our board of directors existed only on paper. We hired our manager from among the clientele. (There was a lot of turnover in that position.) Our treasurer embezzled money, but the shelter survived. And I learned that it doesn’t hurt to ask; it may sometimes be uncomfortable, but there are many generous people in the world.
C. Loran Hills
Although we had been close friends at theology school thirty years before, Dave and I now did little more than exchange Christmas cards. But when I learned that he was suffering from traumatic amnesia, I sent him a long letter about our history. He wrote back saying that, like everyone else from his past, I was a stranger to him, but some friends had assured him I was who I said I was.
He told me that his first memory was traveling in the cold and arriving in Los Angeles (a continent away from his home in Massachusetts), his sole remaining possession a Social Security card bearing a name he didn’t recognize. He lived on the streets and avoided the police, who other street people told him were not to be trusted. “I thought the guy whose card I had might have been killed,” he explained.
After hearing his story, I developed a new attitude about street people. I imagined each one as Dave had been: lost, alone, and afraid. Thinking of him, I began giving to at least one beggar every day.
Later, Dave visited me while on a trip to the Northwest. As we strolled through downtown, talking about his illness, a thin, disheveled woman approached and asked for money. To my surprise, Dave turned her down.
Robert C. A. Moore
I was living in Chicago and trying to become an actress. I waitressed at a club in exchange for acting lessons, but this left me little time to make a real living. I got by on six hundred dollars a month, and more than half of that went to rent on an apartment I shared with two other acting students and a mother with two young girls. I slept in a sleeping bag on the floor of a tiny bedroom with a window looking out on a brick wall. The place was filthy. Worms crawled on food left in the sink, and the kitchen floor was so awful I never dared walk on it barefoot.
Ironically, our apartment was in a very fancy part of town. The only grocery store within walking distance sold expensive gourmet foods. I had to budget like crazy just to be able to eat. I picked up pennies on the sidewalk and took every free sample I could find. On Sundays, I would go to quarter-beer night at a nearby bar, buy one draft, and eat as much free popcorn as I could.
Half a block from my door, a homeless man named Joe often stood asking for money. I liked him immediately, both because I identified with his poverty and because he was always cheerful and kind, never letting his situation ruin his mood.
Once, he asked me for a quarter. I had been miserable all day due to my finances, and I launched into a long lament about how poor I was. Joe smiled and said, “Well, then I should give you a quarter.”
Several months later, during one of Chicago’s bitter winters, Joe disappeared from the corner. I later found out that he’d died of pneumonia.
In the late sixties I was smoking marijuana every day. Since neither my boyfriend nor I had much money, I learned to panhandle to keep myself supplied. But instead of just standing around on the sidewalk with my hand out, chanting, “Spare change? Spare change?” I approached someone only if the vibrations felt right.
Even so, some people snarled at me and said, “Why don’t you get a job?” Other people frowned and muttered as they walked by, but then turned around and handed me a few bills. I’d feel proud, knowing I’d helped them with their karma. Whenever anyone offered to buy me lunch I’d ask if I could just have the cash, “so I can eat later, when I’ll be really hungry.”
Occasionally, a man would offer me cash to go to bed with him. Usually, I’d turn him down, but once in a while, if my boyfriend and I needed ten dollars to buy another lid, I’d follow him to a hotel room. Afterward I’d skip to the nearest bank and have the ten or twenty converted into change. Then I’d head home, dump the quarters, dimes, and nickels on our bed, and tell my boyfriend, “Business was good today!” He’d hug and praise me, and we’d hurry to a different bank, where I’d have the change converted back into bills.
“Your daddy is leaving us,” my mother said through clenched teeth, “and it’s your fault!”
She was accusing me of repeating to Daddy something I had overheard her tell our next-door neighbor: that Daddy’s business relationship with his brother was “wrecking our lives.” It was true I had told him. I can only guess at my motive. Perhaps I was afraid something bad was about to happen to us, and needed to understand what Mother had meant; perhaps I was hoping that Daddy would be able to do something to make my mother feel better.
“This is your fault,” my mother told me, “and you had better do something to change his mind!”
I absorbed her blame. It made perfect sense: I was the one who had done something wrong; I should be the one to make things right again.
My father was in the construction business. At the end of each day he came home dirty and greasy, and went straight to the bathroom and scrubbed his hands and forearms with soap. So it was there I sat waiting for him for two hours, thinking about what I could say to persuade him not to leave us.
Finally, I heard his pickup in the driveway. When he entered the bathroom, I begged, “Please don’t leave us! I’m sorry for what I said.”
“Shut up,” he told me in a cold, terrifying voice. “I’m leaving, and there’s nothing you or anybody else can do about it!” Later that evening, I sat on the front porch with both my parents, looking up at the starry sky and thinking something really horrible was about to happen because of what I’d done. Tearfully, Mother asked Daddy how he could do this.
“In two weeks I’ll be gone,” he replied, “and that’s that!”
For the next two weeks I anxiously watched for any sign that Daddy had changed his mind about leaving. The weeks passed, and he did not go away. Nothing more was said about it, least of all by me.
Colorado Springs, Colorado
Having just moved to southern New Hampshire on a shoestring budget, we had little money to spend at the Waldorf School’s Christmas fair. To avoid feeling sorry for myself, I took a job at the book table, figuring I could also keep an eye on my two sons. Just in case, I told eight-year-old Austin to watch out for his younger brother, Jonathan. It was a good thing I did, because the crowd was larger than I had anticipated, and I lost sight of the boys within five minutes.
I’d been working an hour or so when Austin ran up to me with a horrified look on his face. “Mom! You’ve got to come! Jonathan is out on the front steps begging for money!”
Jonathan had spotted for sale a wooden sword and shield that seemed just the thing for fighting dragons. Undaunted by his lack of money, he’d positioned himself on the front steps of the hall, and had begun shouting something he’d learned from bedtime stories: “Alms for the poor! Alms for the poor! Help a poor knight in need of a sword and shield!” He had collected $1.85 by the time we got to him.
Together, the three of us marched to the woodworker’s booth, where I begged, “Could you possibly ask Santa to reserve one sword and shield for Jonathan?” With a wink — and an arrangement for installment payments — it was done.
I was sitting at my computer on a cold Sunday morning when the doorbell rang. It was an elderly man who had inspected the roof for us ten years earlier, when we were deciding whether to buy the house. He had come highly recommended by a trusted carpenter friend.
“Good morning,” he said. “How you doing? You remember me, don’t you?” An old army jacket hung from his shoulders and baggy work pants covered the tops of his shoes.
“Yes, I do. How are you?” I was not pleased to see him. He had come by three or four times in the past several years, each time saying he was out of gas and needed to borrow a couple of dollars. I wasn’t to worry; he would leave the money in the mailbox the following week. But I was never repaid.
“You’re looking nice today,” he said, staring at the shrubs by the front door. “Had a death in my family since I seen you last.” He put his foot up on the white-brick wall of the flower bed and leaned forward on his thigh. Shaking his head at his crumpled black shoe, he said, “It ain’t been an easy year. No, ma’am, it ain’t. I lost my wife. It was in May, last May. This is ’75, and she died in ’74.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said. This was actually 1995, but I didn’t correct him.
“Well, I need a few extra dollars, so I’m looking for some work. Have anything needs doing?”
“Well, no, I really don’t.” It was the middle of winter; there were no leaves to speak of, no weeds to pull or limbs to trim.
“How’s about if I rake the yard for five dollars?” he asked. “Next Saturday, I could do that. I’m doing some work over on Orange Avenue that day and could come round and do yours first. Early on Saturday. How’s about that?”
I had a meeting Saturday morning and wouldn’t be home — and probably wouldn’t be able to tell by looking whether or not the yard had been raked. But I nodded. “OK, I guess that would be all right.” I stepped back, reaching for the doorknob. He looked directly at me then for the first time.
“Five dollars, then?” he said. “Is that OK?”
Now I understood: I was to pay him up front.
“I won’t let you down, ma’am. You know I’ve never let you down, have I? No, ma’am. You know I wouldn’t do that.”
“OK,” I sighed, letting him see my annoyance. “I’ll see what I have in my purse.” I was afraid I had only a ten, and thought that if that was the case I wouldn’t give him anything. But as I looked through my wallet a sense of shame crept over me: why was I resisting helping this unfortunate soul? I found a five and returned to the front door. As I gave it to him, I brushed his rough, dusty hand — like leather left too long in the sun.
“Thank you, ma’am,” he said. “I’ll be here Saturday morning, just like I told you.” He took the bill and limped slowly across the yard to the sidewalk, his shoulders swaying from side to side. I didn’t remember his having a limp.
Later, as I recalled his creased face, his hands callused from decades of hard work, it occurred to me that I could have given him more. What if he was Buddha or Jesus in disguise?
But, of course, he was.
It was New Year’s Eve, and Ron, J. D., and I were on our way to a campsite. Nearly out of gas — and completely out of money — we decided to beg a few dollars in a grocery-store parking lot. Being the senior member of the group, Ron insisted that he was not going to do the begging. And J. D. didn’t have the nerve. So, much to my chagrin, the task was left to me.
I began to approach people, telling them that we were out of gas and trying to get to a nearby town. (The campsite was really just down the road.) Less than an hour later, I had collected fifty dollars. The three of us bought a tank of gas, a chicken, a bottle of barbecue sauce, and some beer, and laughed the night away.
Richard A. Burk Jr.
In the fifties, when I grew up, enemas were a common remedy for constipation. My mother interrogated me daily about whether I had moved my bowels. “Did you make a doody today?” she would ask. If the answer was yes, other questions would follow: when had I done so, and what had been the size, color, and consistency of my stool? If the answer was no, an enema was inevitable.
The procedure always took place in my parents’ tiny bathroom with the green tile and crumbling grout. The enema bag was red, with a black hose; the part that she inserted into my body was white and about five inches long. I would watch her fill up the bag with hot water and suds. She always had a determined look on her face, as if she had a very important job to do and was going to do it efficiently. I never protested or tried to stop her. I knew she only wanted me to be clean, healthy, and beautiful.
When the bag was finally bulging, she’d prime the hose until a few drops of soapy water came out the nozzle. Then she’d hang the red bag from the showerhead by a wire hanger and sit down on the toilet seat. I would take my clothes off and lie face down across her lap, and she would insert the tube into me and release the silver clamp, allowing the hot, soapy water to run swiftly into my body.
I’d remain quiet until my stomach began to hurt from the water filling me up. Then the begging would start. When my stomach pain became unbearable, I would scream wildly and plead with her to stop, but she would continue until all the water was in me. “Hold it in! Hold it in!” she’d yell. Even with the water threatening to explode my stomach, Mom would stop only when the red bag was empty.
I was bulimic for twenty years. I just couldn’t hold it in.
One balmy spring Saturday in New York City, I was sitting on the steps of a church on Fifth Avenue, basking in the sun, when I noticed a man in a wheelchair down on the sidewalk. He was sitting with his arms askew, legs dangling, head lolling back, eyes focused on nothing, a tin cup in his lap. Every so often a person would drop a coin or bill into the cup, and quickly move on. Now and then, when no one was nearby, the man’s hand would jerk into the cup, grab the bills, and shove them into his pocket, while the rest of him remained completely inert.
He was shaved, dressed in a freshly laundered shirt and clean pants, hair neatly combed. I figured someone must have kept him clean, and set him out to earn his keep. (I was wrong.)
Suddenly, his attention focused on a woman walking down the sidewalk: young, attractive, wearing a tight blouse, short skirt, high heels going click, click, click. The man lifted his head and took in everything about her. Then, when she was out of range, his eyes glazed over again and his head rolled back into position.
I walked down the steps, put a dollar into his cup, and said quietly, “She was really something.” He abruptly looked me in the eye, raised his eyebrows, and made a sound I interpreted as “You bet.”
He told me his name was Jim. From then on, I noticed him in that same place — on the sidewalk in front of the church — at least once a week. I came to think of it as “Jim’s space.”
One day, I asked if he wanted to get a drink, and he said yes. At five o’clock, I followed him as he pushed himself backward down the sidewalk with his deformed yet strong legs. We ordered drinks at an outdoor cafe frequented by off-duty bond traders. He asked me to pour his rum and Coke into a plastic cup with a straw, which he carried with him.
We talked about our families: my wife and kids in the suburbs; Jim’s married brother in New Jersey. I had to listen carefully to decipher his speech, which was sometimes only hollow vowel sounds. I told him about my marketing job; he told me about his begging job.
“Why do you do it?” I asked.
He replied using the alphabet board in his lap to make sure I understood. Putting a finger on each letter, he spelled out: “I need the money.”
As our friendship has grown, we’ve helped each other out in various ways. I’ve made phone calls for Jim — to the doctor, the landlord, Medicaid — helped him write a personal ad, and acted as middleman when he had someone arrested for harassing him. He’s helped me through my divorce, counseled patience with my kids, taught me how to attract women, and most of all showed me how to be actively present, minute by minute, in the circumstances of my life.
If begging involves asking people for money, then Jim doesn’t beg; he just sits in his chair on the sidewalk with his cup, letting people make of him what they will, being present for people who want or need to be reminded of their own good health, their arms’ suppleness, their limbs’ strength.
New York, New York
I have spent the day helping my boyfriend, Frank, host a party at his house; I worked hard. The party went well. When we finish cleaning up, there is a small bag of garbage left, and Frank insists I take it home and throw it away at my house — his garbage can is too full. The intensity of his request feels weird: anyone can cram a little more garbage into a full can by pushing down the rest. Obviously he just wants me to leave. I was looking forward to relaxing in his arms, but now he is barely being cordial; he says he has a headache.
I depart feeling sad and empty. It is late. I’m tired, too. But I want love, care, togetherness. In my mind I run through a list of people who might give me a shoulder to cry on, but none seems like a viable option at 11:30 at night.
Driving home, I notice my tank is empty — I have to get gas or I might not make it. I am in a rough neighborhood, it is late, and I am wearing a very sexy dress. Feeling vulnerable and out of place, I say a prayer as I drive to the gas station a few blocks away.
I pull up to the self-serve pump and slide my credit card through the slot. As I am returning my card to the glove compartment, a nicely dressed black man appears by my pump and says, in a cheery voice, “Here, let me do that.” I am startled, and suspicious: he is probably hoping I will give him some change for pumping my gas.
“My name’s Stephen,” he says. “What’s yours?”
I look at him for a moment, then ask, “What are you up to?”
“I understand what you think,” he says, and proceeds to tell me about his struggle to stay off the streets, and how hard it has been lately to get work, how he no longer can afford to drive his car. He says he tries to keep his spirits up. He would rather do something for people than beg.
I sense that he is sincere. “I believe you,” I tell him, and touch his arm. He reaches out his hand, and I take it. “I wish I could give you something,” I say, “but I can’t afford to — I go into debt every month.”
“At least you don’t have to beg,” he says.
“I have to beg in my own way, and it feels just as humiliating.”
I think again of how my boyfriend rejected me, about the lack of connection and intimacy in my life. Suddenly, all the sadness that has been building up in me comes out, and tears stream down my face. Stephen reaches out to hug me, and I accept his embrace as God’s care coming through a homeless black man at a gas station in East Palo Alto at 11:30 at night.
Palo Alto, California