My American friends and relations call me a bleeding heart, a trait that annoys my kids to no end. When I spot someone holding a Please Help Me sign, my hand reaches for my wallet as if it has a will of its own.
My brood never fails to warn, “Mom, they’ll just blow it on drugs or booze.”
I don’t concur. First, a couple of bucks won’t buy much liquor, never mind drugs. Second, while such a small amount won’t make a difference in my life, it may be exactly what the less fortunate sign-holder needs. And finally, it makes me feel good.
I used to just hand over the money and move on until I read it demeans these folks if you don’t even bother to look them in the eye. Since then, I go slower, really look at them and try to say something encouraging. Sometimes I get good vibes; often I don’t.
A few years ago, I was in the market when I noticed a man walking from aisle to aisle, checking prices of fruit, crackers and other ready-to-eat items. He looked clean enough, although his clothes and shoes were frayed and worn. He was behind me in the checkout line. I watched him buy an apple and a small bag of chips, counting out the exact amount with what looked to be his last penny. By the time I loaded my car and drove from the parking lot, he sat on the curb eating the chips and apple like it was a gourmet meal. A dollar from my wallet would have made a difference to him. I drove home feeling inhumane and racked with guilt for being selfish.
Months later, at the same market, I noticed another man, older than the first. He, too, walked the aisles. He appeared sad and confused as he bent to examine can after can of soup. By now you’re probably wondering why the heck I spy on people at the grocers. I prefer to call it observing, not spying, and I’ve done it as long as I can remember. As a writer I am a collector of all things human. As long as I separate myself from what I witness, I’m fine. All too often I can’t help it and insert myself into a situation—like in this case.
I circled the aisle twice before finally stopping my cart beside the man having so much trouble finding a can of soup for the right price. I was consumed with the sad reality of what it meant to be homeless and down on your luck. In my sweetest voice and most subdued manner—well, subdued for an Italian—I said, “Hello sir, I couldn’t help noticing how much time you’ve spent checking the price of soup. If you’re short on cash, I’d be happy to buy some for you.”
The man straightened to his full height, a good foot taller than I—which is no big thing, so is everyone I know. He looked me in the eye and said, “Lady, I’m checking the sodium levels as instructed by my wife.” He narrowed his eyes suspiciously before continuing, “Are you trying to pick me up?”
I ran out so fast I abandoned my grocery cart right there in the soup aisle. I have no future plans to offer to buy soup for anyone. In fact, these days I tend to stay away from the soup aisle completely.