I don’t have to tell you that it’s the poor people of the world who give a higher percentage of their income to charity than the richest among us. Yes, there are exceptions, the Bill Gateses and the Warren Buffets and the unnamed philanthropists of the world who work terribly hard to help those less fortunate. But on average it’s people helping those who are one or two rungs below them on the arbitrary ladder of what constitutes success in this life, which looks (and feels) more and more like a crapshoot the closer you are to the bottom.
And I was thinking about this while walking home tonight from Rite Aid, where I’d gone to get a frozen meal and some seltzer water with my food-stamp money (the grocery stores in the neighborhood were closed by the time I’d made my way uptown). While in the drugstore, a man approached me: the sort of man that I suppose I’ve been conditioned to ignore if I had my wits about me. While he wasn’t shabbily dressed nor strung out nor smelling of alcohol, he was doing something that black men aren’t “supposed” to be doing: asking if he could trade some food he’d gotten from the food pantry for money for baby formula.
I know what you’re thinking. Or, rather, I know what our society has encouraged you to be thinking at this point. There’s no baby at home. No one needs formula. He just wants to buy malt liquor/crack/heroin/whatever. His promises to give me his drivers license or cell phone as collateral? Just a front, is what Fox News tells the niggling voice in the back of our collective subconscious. It’s a trick, a deceit, a lie to get what he doesn’t deserve from someone who doesn’t know any better than to trust someone unworthy of any kind of faith.
All of these things ran through my mind. And then right out of it. Which may be surprising to some people, especially those who know how my trust has been so thoroughly violated recently. But that trust was violated by one person, not the entire world. And that one person wasn’t the man standing in front of me in Rite Aid.
I will be honest. At first, I said no. I did so apologetically, and with great (somewhat feigned) remorse, claiming I couldn’t afford the $20 for his baby’s formula. In reality this is only half-true. I had enough money to be buying Aveeno lavender lotion in hopes that it would help me sleep better at night ($8.99), and I have enough money that tomorrow I’ll be ordering a Bento box from the sushi place down the street during my lunch break at work. I have enough money to do a lot of things I didn’t have money to do before I had this new full-time job. And while I saw the man ask a couple of other people if they could help (receiving decidedly less polite responses than mine in return) I remembered earlier in the day having finished filling out my 2013 federal tax return and learning that my total income for the year was $11,881—less, even, than the $1,000/month I’ve been basing my book on. Much less, even, when you consider that at least $3,000 (I’m guessing here) was taken out of that for child support payments. And do you know how I survived the gap between that abysmal salary (if you can even call it that) and the almost instinctual desire to fling myself off of a bridge rather than keep persevering? It was because when I—like the man in Rite Aid—spoke up about what I needed, there were people who trusted that I was telling the truth and being honest about how deep of a hole I was in, and they stepped up to fill in the spaces of what I needed to feel human and worthy again. (Some of you are, I am sure, reading this right now; you will never know how much your generosity helped me keep going.)
I am sure there were and are people who were and are skeptical of my claims of being impoverished (my ex being one of them), but that is neither here nor there. I’ve always had a deep belief that it’s important to trust that people are who they say they are—until they show you differently, and then you can act accordingly. If that means I’m scammed out of a dollar (or twenty) here or there, then that is OK by me. Because it isn’t my side of the street that’s muddied when someone pulls that scam; the transgression exists not in hoping that someone else will take my generosity and use it in its intended fashion but in taking someone else’s hope for you and fouling it until it is unrecognizable. And also: what if it is my hope in someone that is what they need, that one moment on one particular day that is what they need to feel worthy, to have a moment of clarity, to not throw themselves off of a bridge because just one person looked them straight in the eyes and said yes rather than spitting at them (either literally or figuratively).
So while I’d initially said no, when I was leaving Rite Aid, I saw the man outside obviously wondering what he was going to do. Or at least looking like I would look if I knew my wife were at home with a baby who needed formula and hadn’t eaten for hours. I was told the food pantries they’d been to all day had all been out of the sort of formula the baby needed, but I didn’t ask those questions; I just listened and when I saw the man outside, I said I’d had a change of heart.
They didn’t have the formula he needed at Rite Aid, either, so I ended up giving the man $20 cash. He offered everything he could: to give me his wallet, his license, his cell phone, his number. He offered to be my personal bodyguard in the summer so no one would bother me (as if anyone would; little does he know!). He offered so many things, all of which are the same things an addict or an alcoholic or even an average scam artist would offer to prove his authenticity, and I didn’t even care. I just listened and smiled and said it was a gift, that I was a mother with a hungry baby at one point in time, that I trusted he needed the $20 more than I did, that the universe would have a way of getting back to me what I was giving to him.
It’s always been a motivating factor for me, in situations like these, to wonder how I will feel about my choices in a few hours, days, weeks, or months. I knew as soon as I’d said no the first time that this would be something I’d regret—I was actually hoping he’d be outside as I was leaving. It’s the same sort of motivation I had years and years ago in Albuquerque when I gave an obviously drunk man my help and assistance, despite the astonishment of my companions. They couldn’t believe I’d want to help a drunk person; I couldn’t believe they’d let a drunk person asking for help hear only the echo of his own voice.
These lessons have been passed on to my children, even though my time with them is relatively limited. When I send them to the store for the odd loaf of bread or to buy themselves treats, more often than not they come back saying they’ve given their change to a homeless person because “otherwise I’d be wishing I would have done it all day.” When we leave restaurants with leftovers, even those we’re excited to take home, we almost never get to eat them: they get passed along to hungry people on the street. And my children do these things independently of me. All because, since they were very small, I’ve tried to instill in them the idea that it doesn’t matter whether the people who ask for help from us use our gifts in the ways we WANT them to use our blessings. What matters is that the blessings are given, that these people understand that they are worthy of love and kindness. Even if they use those kindnesses to buy a fifth of vodka or a glassine of heroin, even if they die of an overdose or freeze to death in a snowbank… they were still afforded that kindness and dignity to make their own choices, something they are robbed up when anyone makes an automatic assumption that all homeless people will always behave in one way or another, or that anyone asking for money is always pulling a fast one. Maybe, maybe not. Probably it’s a higher percentage than I like to believe. Or, more accurately, than I’ll allow myself to believe.
I don’t know if the man took the money to cross the bridge to the South Bronx to go to the pharmacy where he knew the formula he needed was in stock or not. What I do know is that if there is a baby who needed formula, that baby is sleeping and well fed tonight because I had faith and trusted that a man who no one else wanted to believe was actually telling the truth. And if he wasn’t? That’s on him. The $20 wasn’t that easy for me to give up, but it wasn’t my last $20, either. And if I can take a chance that someone might be worth helping, why wouldn’t I? If that makes me naive, so be it. There are worse things I can think of to be in this world. There are many, many worse things, and I am none of those things. I’ll take naive.