I made a deal with God: If the beggar directly approaches me, then I give him money. We were on a family outing in downtown Chicago, panhandlers would be plentiful. I knew I should give, but every time I opened my pocketbook, there was that nagging voice, “Is this really the best way to deal with a beggar? Wouldn’t it be better to get him a job? The best way to help a man is to help him help himself!” To quell my doubts, I wanted the direct appeal.
The first man was seated at the Michigan Avenue Bridge, curled up in a ball to avoid exposure to the biting wind. He wore a navy blue stocking cap and a hand-lettered cardboard sign told us his story of homelessness, please give, and God bless. We were walking briskly across the bridge and the wind from the lake blasted us. He shuddered and pulled his sleeping bag across his shoulders, not bothering to get up when he saw us. As we stomped our feet and rubbed our hands together at the intersection waiting for the walk signal, my children asked me for money to give to the beggar. They were direct, but the panhandler was not. My kids were certain about the rightness of their action and I envied them their certainty. I clawed through my change purse, trying to find quarters. It wasn’t much, but the seated beggar gave them a wave. At least the kids garnered a beggar’s blessing.
The second beggar was too slow. We were walking very fast along West Wacker Drive. The wind was cold and moist coming off the lake, and the canal and skyscrapers channeled the wind into unrelenting bursts of tumultuous whirls that took our breath away. Our pace was so rapid that the beggar didn’t have time to get out of his hiding place to accost us directly. His was a plaintive refrain in the wake of our brisk footfall. “Not direct enough,” I told myself smugly.
As we left downtown, I realized that I had not given any panhandlers money.
Back in our familiar suburbs, I went to the supermarket at an unusual time: 4:30 p.m. on a Monday, just before the kids’ piano lessons. My husband was home with the children, and lacking the usual midget entourage, my shopping was brisk and efficient. I was so focused that I even remembered my canvas grocery bags. As I packed the groceries into the back of my car, I congratulated myself for being in the same league as those Prius-driving environmental snobs. As I considered the plastic bags I had avoided by dint of my superior environmental conscientiousness, she interrupted my reverie.
“Excuse me ma’am, can you help me?” She was in her 50s, graying auburn hair, wearing a dark blue puffy coat, earmuffs and black mittens.
“What do you want, money?” I used the sarcastic, catty tone I normally reserve for suspected telemarketers. I was steeling myself for some lame excuse about a lost bus pass.
She explained that she was from PADS, which I remembered was the acronym for the DuPage County homeless society. My children’s Sunday school had a canned-food drive for it back in November. What was she doing so far from there? I could give her some of my groceries, maybe my very favorite granola bars. All my small change had gone to the bridge beggar that morning and I only had big bills in my wallet. The granola bars should be sufficient – if I gave her my heart’s desire then God would consider that a good sacrifice, right?
She showed me her PADS identification card, pressing it into my hands. As I turned the pass over, she told me that she lives in Darien, but she had taken the bus here. I handed her back the card. She didn’t drink or do drugs, she was diabetic. So much for the granola bars. Despite giving me such intimate details of her life, she was well spoken and carried herself with remarkable dignity. She had good grammar. She must be desperate to engage in this kind of begging. People can be so cruel and harsh, and she was setting herself up for abuse in this situation. She explained that each night, the shelter lets the families in first, then the regular people. But for the past two nights she had slept outside, the shelter was full.
Even though it was March, it was freezing. My daughter had been complaining to me during our downtown walk about how cold she was, and I blamed myself for not dressing her properly. But to try and sleep outdoors in this weather?
I looked very carefully at the woman, seeing her for the first time. Her coat was too big, a man’s coat, but it would be good protection outdoors. The same with her black mittens, too big but they looked warm, and they could be layered with thinner mittens or newspaper for more insulation. This woman slept alone, outside, in the freezing cold. She could be my neighbor. How did she get to this state of vulnerability? Bad luck, bad choices, or a combination of both? I opened my purse, to pull out something.
She said, “Those are pretty flowers.”
She had spotted a bouquet of bright orange tulips in my trunk. I had chosen the brightest tulips I could find, something to combat the March blues. This was yet another treat to myself, a completely unnecessary extravagance. Flowers, a trunk full of groceries, and the implied certainty that I have a home in which to put these groceries, a family to care for, a vase for the flowers.
I didn’t give anything to the two downtown men, and if her situation was really this bad, I should give her enough to stay in a motel. I ought to drive her to the motel. But I had to get home for that piano lesson, what if the ice cream got mushy, and what if she had exaggerated or lied?
That little voice reminded me that I asked for the beggar to be direct, and she had scored full points for her candor. I just assumed the beggar would be one of those downtown people. I never expected the beggar could be someone like me.
I pressed a twenty into her palm and mumbled “God bless you.” She was my sign from God, and one must acknowledge a sign.
I quickly got into my car and as I put my key in the ignition, I was certain I had not done enough. What was a twenty going to do? Maybe it will prevent her from having to ask one or two people for money, but where will she stay tonight? How much did I spend on those stupid tulips?
As I pulled away, I saw her in my rearview mirror. She carefully wheeled my grocery cart and placed it with the other carts in the corral.