It was just a sandwich. Nothing special, really. Roast beef, havarti, chive mayonnaise, and a few limp leaves of romaine on a white roll. So, in terms of helping the homeless, I suppose it wasn’t much. But it was something my daughter felt strongly about doing, so we did it. We tried anyway.
I should say up front that my town doesn’t have much of a homeless problem. Or if it does, it’s pretty invisible. There used to be a couple of men that you’d see pretty regularly — at the library, shuffling past downtown storefronts, sitting on benches at odd hours. When one of them died not long ago, it was a news item. Turns out he had a wife, a daughter, and even a home. The narrative couldn’t account for why he turned away from all those comforts to live on the streets. Now that he’s passed, there’s only one man that we see with any regularity, and it was the sight of him sitting alone inside a local mall last evening, wrapped in tattered blankets and surrounded by a couple of bulging canvas bags, that triggered my daughter’s desire to help.
We’d passed him on the way out of the gym, but she didn’t say anything until a few minutes later while we were at the grocery store stocking up of a holiday party we’re planning.
“I feel really sorry for him,” she says as we browse the cheese case.
“Who?” I ask.
“That man at the mall. The homeless one.”
“Yeah, it’s sad.”
“Would it be okay if we bought some dinner for him? A sandwich or something?”
A simple question, really. And an honorable impulse. But still …
“I don’t know, honey…” My voice trails off here, and I busy myself looking over the party platters of perfectly cubed cheese and artfully rolled salami.
The shameful truth is that this simple suggestion, this single desire to help in some small way, brings me face to face with my own carefully cultivated attitude, an attitude that allows me to see this same man nearly every day and do nothing. It’s not indifference, and it’s not a lack of compassion. It’s that peculiar capacity we all have developed to see need and turn away, to prevent that need from registering in a way that would spur us to immediate action.
Of course none of this occurs to me at the grocery store. What I do there is wrap my arm around my daughter’s shoulder and walk with over to the deli where we pick out the roast beef sub. We pay for it along with the rest of the groceries and walk the half-block through the bitter cold back down to the mall.
She wants me to give it to him, so I take the sack from her hands. He sees me coming and begins waving me off and muttering. I approach, but a bit more slowly.
“It’s just a sandwich,” I say, extending the sack forward, like a peace offering.
With one hand, he clutches his blanket closer around his neck, and with the other, pulls one of his canvas sacks closer. His voice is deep and gruff, and loud enough for my daughter, standing back a few feet, to hear.
Maybe I should have left it there. Maybe I should have insisted that he take it. Maybe I should have asked him if he needing anything else. I don’t do any of these things. Instead, I wish him a merry Christmas and turn away.
I saw him again this morning at 5:00 as I got to the gym, hurrying through the parking lot with his odd rolling gait, heading for the warmth of the mall. I didn’t say anything to him, and I still don’t know what to say to my daughter.