“That’s right—just keep walking. Like I don’t even exist!” she says, keeping pace with the man. But she doesn’t pursue him past the joint in the sidewalk—these four squares of concrete circumscribe her beat.
She turns back. Her voice is a thin wire cast over the heads swimming upstream. Her glance is barbed, and when her eyes alight on mine, she reels me in with the same line.
I smile at her. It is a rubber band smile—taut and ready to snap back in place. But for a moment, I am different. I am not just another tucked chin, another defensive posture.
But when she draws parallel with me and begins to speak, I quicken my step. I stare straight ahead. I know what she will say, and so when she says it, it has the effect of an echo.
“Just another one who act like I don’t exist. I could be Jay-sus.”
And I think, yes, but you are not Jesus.
And I forget everything the Teacher taught when He said, “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
I know I should be ashamed of myself. I summon experience to the stand as I make my defense. Exhibit A: the woman I gave $5 to in front of the Curbside Cupcake truck (think pink frosting sweating on confections sold at rates approaching a dollar a bite).
“Thank you, baby,” she said to me, and then turning to the man who had refused her only moments before, she pronounced him “stupid.”
We watched her walk away. The man shrugged. “The homeless in NYC are nicer,” he said, in an almost puzzled tone.
At that moment, I felt as though I was the one who insulted the man. I felt as though, in a morally ambiguous situation, I made the wrong choice. At the same time there was something that unsettled me in what he said—does he think we should ship our homeless north? To be schooled in the etiquette of panhandling?
“I could be Jesus,” she says.
I used to donate to homeless shelter A.
I now donate to homeless shelter B.
Why? Because homeless shelter A’s online donation portal suddenly refused to authenticate my otherwise functional credit card. And, because I couldn’t be bothered to post a check, I simply found a new recipient. It occurs to me someone (else) should inform homeless shelter A of this technical difficulty.
But for now, it’s so much easier to watch the form auto-populate. To receive the instant validation (tax receipt to be posted by U.S. mail). The handwritten thank you cards issued by volunteers with neat cursive script.
The thank you cards are usually accompanied by a newsletter. A newsletter with photos, names, stories. Resident Spotlights. But I never read this. I am put off by the particulars.
When I realized I would rather give a $100 online than a single dollar to the man sitting on the bench outside of a Chinatown Starbucks, I decided to try something. The next day I put a couple dollars in the front flap of my purse, for easy access. And when I passed by the man, I put the money in his cup.
I couldn’t look at him. Or say anything after he thanked me. But maybe next time, neither of us will be ashamed.