Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Begging a Dollar

I sat down to write. That was the intent, but then that guy at that table over there begged a dollar from the lady in the orange shirt. I heard him. Actually, I heard the woman who sits with him. How can I listen to my own words in my head now when my heart says listen to this?

I am in the bookstore, in the café. I sit here with my computer in front of me, blank page waiting. I’ve ordered a chai latte, my second today, but I’m not sure I’ll finish it. My bathroom scale suggests that perhaps I need to rethink the drink. Iced tea, black, unsweetened. Zero calories. That would be more like it. But it’s not because I am dieting that I don’t want the drink, mostly I am just stuffed. My daughter and I tried a wonderful Middle Eastern place today for lunch. I had the lentil soup with some saffron rice and a falafel wrap. On the way home we stopped off at the grocery for a couple of things. I grabbed a soy chai for me, and a white mocha frappuccino for my daughter. I’ve spent the afternoon on chores and homework and homemade banana bread. So now I sit to give my brain some breathing space, to do what it wants to do, to play on the page, to get silly or serious, as it will. I sit with the chai just because that’s what I do. It’s, like, required.

But the guy at that table over there, and the woman he is with, sit with water, lots of cups of water. Water is free. I think you can get a lemon for it. They also sit with magazines and books that they are not going to buy. They are just reading, reading and drinking water. Maybe with lemons. The guy is in a blue plaid shirt and dirty jeans, but not dirty enough to be disgusting. He needs a shave. I noticed him when I walked into the café because he was walking out. We did that awkward, stepping-out-of-each-other’s-way dance. He was polite, but somewhat unkempt. The woman he is with is blond. I like the way she has her hair clipped up. She is dressed nicely and looks like she smells pretty. They don’t seem to belong together, but they do. I can hear while I don’t look that they are talking but don’t know what they are discussing. Then I hear her.

The woman looks at the lady in the orange shirt, who sits at the table next to them. The lady in the orange shirt sits with who I assume is her daughter. They both sip their venti drinks, peeking into the stack of books they have bought. The daughter is in her team jersey with her laptop open in front of her. They chat about the daughter’s plans, upcoming events, whether they should split a scone. The woman who is with the man looks over at the lady in the orange shirt and asks if she has a dollar. I turn away from my blank page to peek.

The woman says that she and her friend are just a dollar short. The man pretends to rummage through his wallet and the papers on the table to determine if they might somewhere have the remaining dollar to purchase a pastry. The lady in the orange shirt opens her purse, pulls out a dollar, and gives it to the woman. I am surprised. I am surprised, then, that I am surprised. It is obvious the couple is panhandling. They intend to buy nothing. They are not a dollar short. They are just short. And yet, the lady in the orange shirt just gives them the dollar.

I go back to my attempt at writing, but nothing comes. I decide that I am forcing the issue and put away the words until another night. Heading out of the strip mall I notice the man and the woman in front of one of the other stores. They are confronting a couple, begging money. I know this because the gray bearded gentleman they accost reaches in his pockets and shakes his head. He has nothing to offer them. My daughter, on a fresh learner’s permit, is driving. I tell her to turn around, to go back. I tell her to pull around and let me out, to wait, to just give me a second.

I am thankful to have a belly that is stuffed with food. I am thankful to have the choice between water and chai. I am thankful that I can stand in front of students and get paid to talk instead of having to beg a dollar from a lady in an orange shirt. I am thankful that my home is bulging with books, hidden in every crevice, teetering on every surface, gracing every room. I am thankful for my handmade lavender soaps from the soap guy at the farmer’s market. I am thankful for my hot steamy shower in which to enjoy my lavender soaps every morning. I am thankful for the little tan Prius my daughter is pulling into a parking spot as the couple walks away.

I have too much, and they have too little.

I catch up with them and tell them I noticed what they were doing and ask if they need money. I think the woman thinks they are in trouble for begging in the businesses. “Oh, no,” she says, “We are just trying to get food. We are homeless, and we are just trying to get food.” I give her the bill I have worried in my hand, the bill I have worried because I don’t know if they will use it to buy drugs or alcohol or if, indeed, they will use it for a good purpose. My head says, “Kiss that twenty goodbye.” My head says, “Give them food, not cash.” My head says, “That’s another book and a latte.” My heart says, “Shut up. Just do it. You have much to be thankful for, and you are not out on a summer night drinking water with lemon, asking strangers for cash.”

There have been times in my life when I could have used a dollar or few, when I could have used a dinner. There have been times in my life when I was hungry and there was no food. I am thankful, whatever they do with that money, that I had the money to give. I told her to buy food. Honestly, it doesn’t matter. Giving the money was for me, not for her.

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