Sunday, July 15, 2012
The Im-Por-Tance of Giving
A few days ago, someone asked me if the housing co-op where I live has a doorman. "We're way too poor to have a doorman," I laughed, "though there is a homeless guy who sleeps in the entrance to the furniture store downstairs. Does he count?"
When I pull my bike up onto the curb tonight, the homeless guy is nowhere in sight, but there is a large black lady sitting on the sidewalk right next to my front door, rocking back and forth. It's hard to know what she's doing - praying? holding back vomit? In any case, I pause a good distance from the door and look for my keys, not sure if I should engage or not.
The streets are mostly empty, and the cool evening air is very welcome. I pedal a peaceful four dark miles home, and am greeted by this apparition on my doorstep.
I've gotten very good at saying no to people. If I learned nothing else in Africa, I learned to be hard, to not take every plea for help personally. Everyone there is needy, to some extent, and it's hard to tell who's really in trouble, and who's just hoping for a handout from you, a white westerner who probably has something to give. I made it a personal policy to never give out money to people I didn't know.
Here in Seattle, poverty and homelessness are again much more than anything I can singlehandedly address. And although lots of us, myself included, are struggling to some extent, the truly needy stand out - you wouldn't be living on the streets here unless you were really in trouble. And although I know that what's needed here are systemic changes, and not a few crumpled bills from my pocket, I still don't feel comfortable ignoring people living on my doorstep. Especially not when I've just devoted my evening to the very im-por-tant task of greasing wallets at a feast of excessive abundance.
And so, as I step up to the co-op door, I make eye contact. "D'you have some macaroni and cheese?" the woman asks.
How specific, I think. "No, but I do have some peanut butter. Do you eat peanut butter?"
"With jelly?" she asks.
"Yep, I can do jelly. I can put it on a bagel for you. Would that be alright?"
"Oh no, I don't like bagels. Don't you have some bread?"
I shake my head no. "Sorry."
"Well, can you bring me some ice water? Some grapes? Apples?"
I shrug, a little put off. "Sorry, ma'am. This isn't a convenience store. It's my house." And wheel my bike inside.
A few minutes later, feeling like a jerk, I emerge with a paper cup of water and some cherries, with a bag for the pits. "Here you go," I say. "You can put the pits in this bag."
She starts wolfing down the cherries, and when I try to chat, she asks me for money, not much, just a few dollars. "I'm sorry," I say, "I can't give you any money."
"Well then, I don't wanna talk to you," she says.
It's clear there will be no profound breakthroughs this evening. "All right, then. Take care of yourself," I say, and head inside.