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Taking Whitman seriously

The homeless guy sits next to the bridge pillar at the corner of I-35 and 21st Street. His name doesn’t matter. It’s a different person every day or every other hour of every day. Every now and then, he’s a woman. Who knows how they got there. What matters is they have their hand out.

“Give alms to everyone that asks,” Whitman writes in the Preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass.  He’s quoting the Gospel of Luke (6:30) “Give to anyone who asks; and when things are taken away from you, don’t try to get them back.” I’ll take Whitman over the Bible any day. I take the admonition seriously. Give when asked, I say. Ask not what the alms are for. That is none of your business.

I hear people from time to time say they don’t give money to people who beg. Those who don’t give of their bounty have a number of excuses for their behavior. “My money will not wean them from dependence.” “They will just buy liquor or drugs with the money I give them.” “They choose to live like that.” “They didn’t work for it.” “They are just sucking up because they don’t want to work.” “They have made bad choices and I am not the one who should bail them out.”

So what? I ask. You don’t know a homeless person’s story. Usually, it’s a depressing tale. Many times, people wind up out there due to forces beyond their control. Banks took away their houses. Jobs disappeared. Wives or husbands threw them out of the house without a dime. Whatever it is, only the person involved knows the tale, and only they can say. one thing I can say with certainty: No one walks out of the door of their house determined to sit at a bridge pillar, panhandling for quarters.

Let me put myself in their shoes, which is quite easy for me. There was a time well in my memory when I almost wound up on the street. A last-minute scholarship for white guys with a 2.0 grade point average saved me that summer. That $2,500 bucks paid my rent and bought the last bottles I would drink. I might have been kicked out of my apartment with nowhere to go. I had no money in the bank. I wondered where my next meal was coming from. Had that scholarship not come to me, I could have been on a bridge pillar with a sign that said, “Need help. Anything will do.”

That condition is where I put myself whenever I drive up on one of those scraggly looking types at the bridge. I feel their cold in the winter and heat in the summer. I often wonder if they have water to drink. The thirst. When I was in Germany wandering the countryside, I was always looking for the next drink of water. This was before I had a job and an apartment. I hung on the hopes that over the next hill, a village might have a fountain or that someone would pick me up and deliver me to water.

I don’t know how that homeless person came to rest at the bridge, only that if they had a choice they wouldn’t be there. The saddest case I have ever seen was a guy who looked like he came out of an L.L. Bean catalogue. At the height of the Recession, I saw a lot of people like him. He stood at the light at the corner of 21st Street and Southwest Boulevard. His skin was still pink and his face shaven. His sign said something like, “I’ve lost my job. Help appreciated.” He held his sign as if he was trying to hide behind it. He bit the top of the sign nervously, as if attempting to hold on to something now far from his reach. He was crying, the stress lay so heavy on him. He was clearly embarrassed and I could tell this was his first time panhandling.

As the weeks went by, he became more experienced at scooping up dimes and quarters from the corner. He lost his embarrassment. His clothes showed wear, the kind of wear that only comes from lack of laundering and from sitting and laying on the ground. His pack, which any wealthy suburban college kid could have carried, frayed at the corners. His expensive boots scuffed and creased. His skin soon gained the kind of weary tan a person gets from working in the sun. His beard filled in and his hands grew rough.

I thought, well, he’s caught now. Once a person sinks into homelessness, it take miracles and herculean efforts to get them out.

I don’t know the guy’s story. I suspect he had a good job. When I first saw him, standing there, clenching his teeth on his sign, he had the look of someone unused to missing a meal. His hands were soft and nails well-tended. He may have had a decent middle-class life with wife and kids, and so on. He may have had money in the market. Who knows. The housing bubble burst, taking the economy down with it. The Recession rewrote American life for everyone whose livings and assets depended on market forces.

I can only guess and I read into him a narrative that I imagine, as I have never talked to him.

He must have taken up with the homeless characters that live all over this neighborhood. He shared the corner he used with others. I’ve see him carrying his pack up toward the bridge on Beardsley Road, where many people take shelter outside the prying looks of others.

The other narrative was that he really was from a comfortable background but he drank it up or found himself addicted to Oxy. He made bad moves, lost his job and wife, and wound up on the street.

In either case–Recession or drug and alcohol addiction–I have no right to judge. When he has his hand out, I have an obligation to give. What he does with the money is of no matter to me. I gave him my money. In that act, the money became his and he can do whatever the hell he wants with it—buy food, save a little, buy drugs, drink liquor. It’s not my business.

Then, there are those pestering types who wait outside the drug store and demand money. They are not courteous. They don’t dress for the job. They seem to think they have a right to your money.

Let them, I say. I don’t give money to people who demand it. I give to people who ask. I’m not expecting a please and thank you. I don’t want anyone to feel ingratiated. They don’t have to be thankful. They don’t need to act as if they are happy I came along. I have the obligation to give what I can. Usually, it’s pocket change, silver. If I have a pocket full of pennies, I don’t give them to poor people. They are next to useless. Silver and folding money. No pennies.

And we expect people will ask. In winter, Virginia and I stock up on gloves, hand-warmers, and socks. We leave the house with fresh fruit and sandwiches. In summer, we take frozen bottles of water with us in the car. There’s always change in the console for just the kind of people who ask for it.

Again, I try to put myself in their places. I imagine there are all kinds of slights and insults, particularly from people who disdain those who they perceive as able-bodied and unwilling to work. Americans are sometimes very quick to judge. When I was walking to Montana, one person who offered me a ride and bought me a burger said, “Well, I hate to admit it, but I’m wary of people who look like they need help. It’s odd that I would stop to help a guy like you, a guy who doesn’t look needy.”

I try to keep that in mind. Get dirty, I tell myself. Get in contact with the rough hands and smelly bodies. Don’t be afraid. Be the kind of person who gives alms to everyone that asks. I might have my hand out someday.

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