Photo: Ben Osteen, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

There is a cruel streak in American culture that recognizes the utility of keeping people insecure, that wields power by making sure that the bottom is as far down as possible, and that there is no sure way to avoid winding up there. This is one of the reasons so many are reluctant to engage with the homeless, as if misfortune were a contagious disease.


“Never give your money to bums and winos,” Mom
taught me, “they’ll just go spend it on another bottle.”
True enough, often enough, but then she had been
raised up in ungenerous times, the Great Depression.

“There but for the grace of God…” never occurred to me
even though, ironically, I was an alcoholic myself. But 
I was torn by my Puritan upbringing, which taught me
I should give to the “deserving,” but pass others by.

How can I tell? Which one huddled in which doorway
deserved a handout? I wondered, just as if I deserved
every middle-class advantage of American culture–and
which deserved nothing, just as if my own sins were less.

Some years ago, I visited David, living then in Manhattan.
His idea of a walk around the neighborhood was chatting
with all the homeless, most of whom he knew by name, 
and giving each, unasked, a little cash before he walked on.

I was dumfounded. This was not how the world worked.
I asked him “Why give to all? He asked me if I liked to ask
for help. “Well, no,” I replied. “Neither do they,” he said.
“I see the need; why make them ask when I know it’s hard?”

It was kind of a conversion experience. Afterward, I would
keep a little cash on my person, stopped feigning interest
in something across the street as I passed beggars by.
I made my living in public radio, paid by tin cup, mostly.

I recently learned that David had to be nudged toward
epiphany, too. His mom, refugee from pogrom, world war
and Holocaust, once rebukedĀ himĀ for passing a beggar by.
“What,” she said, “are you crazy?” and turned back to give.

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1 Response to Gratitude

  1. Well said, and good food for thought. In my Ottawa neighborhood there are three homeless shelters. I watch the drug dealers come and go, as do the ambulances, the police, and occasionally the firetruck. Over the past 15 years of so, the old men who used to make up that down and out population have been replaced by a much younger crowd as hard drugs have replaced alcohol. Two men in fluorescent vests walk the streets to pick up needles. I see the crack pipes being lit or lying beside the unconscious. I’m often panhandled, but lack has been replaced by desperate need. I choose my walking routes more carefully now, and, sadly, I’ve become less sympathetic.

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