This essay was originally posted on the now-defunct website, Smartly.com. I wrote it over 3 years ago (my baby was only 10!) but I thought it's just as, if not more, relevant today. Yesterday I found myself sitting at a stoplight, trying to avoid looking at a woman who was standing less than 3 feet away from me, holding a sign that said "Single Mom Needs Help". I had nothing to give her, not even some change. It reminded me of this essay, and I thought I'd share it with all of you. It also reminded me to keep some spare cash in the car...just in case.
They started showing up just a few months ago. Sitting on overturned utility buckets, or standing there, facing oncoming traffic. Handmade signs, black ink on cardboard scraps:
WILL WORK FOR FOOD or
LAID OFF, CAN'T FEED MY KIDS, PLEASE HELP or
HOMELESS VETERAN, NEED WORK
There they are, when the busy suburbanites like myself exit the main highway that leads from Downtown to the cities we come from. The cities we live in. There they are, in the bitter cold, the snow, and now the rain.
I see them as I make my way home after a long, exhausting day. As I turn right, headed to Costco or PetSmart or OfficeMax. I see them, and yet I don't.
Some days I make eye contact, try to communicate with these sign holding strangers. "I'm sorry" I want to say.
Other days I feel resentment and yes, even anger. Are you really homeless, are you really a veteran, are you really willing to work? I ask them, silently. Or are you one of those "professional panhandlers", the guys who are supposedly making a nice living on these corners? Do you kiss your wife and kids goodbye every morning, leaving your comfortable home with your bucket and sign?
"Please help"? Who helps me?, I wonder as I sit there, waiting for the light to turn green. I work multiple jobs, I pinch pennies til they bleed, I live without so many things. I found myself divorced and broke...and yet I've managed to keep a roof over my head and my children are fed and clothed and warm. Help you? Why don't you help yourselves, like I have?
Then I feel the guilt. I feel the shame. I look at the man standing there in his dirty coat and slipshod boots. I am appalled at how easy it is for me to judge him.
And then I remember the help I've had. The mom who slips me some cash now and then, the friends who just happen to have a gift card they aren't going to use, the anonymous souls who gave my kids Christmas this past year.
Oh, I've had plenty of help.
We aren't so different, the bucket men and me. All it would take is a big illness, a lost job, a blown engine and maybe I'd find myself without any options other than to stand on a corner with a sign and an oddly dignified detachment from the souls in the cars speeding by.
A few weeks ago, my 10 year old son and I were coming home from Target or the grocery store or wherever. We pulled up at the stoplight, chatting about school and the summer and all of the random stuff you find yourself discussing with boys of that age.
There, to our left, was a man with a sign. He looked younger than me, but it was hard to tell with his face wrapped up in a scarf and the hood of his coat pulled tight around his head. His sign said:
LOST MY JOB. KIDS TO FEED. PLEASE HELP.
My son, my sweet William, who wears hand-me-downs and eats reduced price lunches at school, who has never flown on an airplane and most likely won't see DisneyWorld as a child, who plays sports and goes to camp on scholarships...this boy, my boy. My dear, wise son.
He turned to me and said, "Mom. Give him some money. Please."
By some miracle I happened to have some cash on me that day. Not much, just a few singles, but I rolled down my window and handed them to the man with the sign.
"God bless you, ma'am." he said.
He already has, sir. He already has.