Thursday, April 21, 2016

God Bless You, Ma'am. God Bless

He reached out a hand very much like mine, only darker, and said, “I’d like to shake your hand, Miss, but could you tell me what compels you to do this?” I shot him an embarrassed smile, mumbled a lame, not nearly sufficient answer, and left him there as he wished me a God bless.

I have been doing this for a couple months now. It began one day when I was feeling sorry for myself. My life, at the time, seemed unfair and sad and lonely. I felt the universe had dealt me a crap hand and I could neither trade nor fold. As I stood in the middle of my living room, box of tissue in hand, I remembered the note my sisters and I had chosen for the last page of my mother’s funeral pamphlet. The message ended by suggesting that if I found myself feeling low, I should not wallow or complain, but should go do something kind for someone else.

I got my shoes on and headed out the door. That day and once a week since, I stop off at the dollar store for some peanut butter, jelly, and bread. I pack ten bags, adding plastic cutlery, and, in cooler weather, throwing in a couple pairs of socks. Once the bags are packed and my trunk is full, I take them over to a park downtown where the homeless live. I pull up to the curb with the intent of leaving the bags and driving away.

To say that I am the minority is like saying Gandhi was a nice guy. It is true, yes, but comes nowhere near doing the job. As an upper middle class white chick in her bangles and beads and current model Prius, I most frequently find myself among a sea of poverty stricken black dudes whose main modes of transportation are their own two feet. It is not uncommon to be greeted by a guy walking toward me with a, “Yeah, that’s right, baby. Get on outta that car. I got somethin’ for ya.”

I had been warned.

Friends who knew what I was doing told me to be safe, that it was a rough park, to take someone with me, to not go at all. They told me I was risking my safety. And very likely I was. But as I would pull up to the park, circling, assessing the crowdedness, hoping for a good show, I would channel my inner Mother Teresa. Not that I believe I am her but that, as a role model, she freaking rocks. “I am doing God’s work. I am doing God’s work,” I repeated to myself as I pulled up to the curb and slowed to a stop.

The first couple times were unexpected for those in the park. Puzzled looks and a barrage of questions greeted me as I opened my door. Mostly, they wanted to know what I wanted with them and what I had in the bags. I answered their questions quickly and without making eye contact, silently planning my escape should I meet with trouble.

And yet, despite the warnings and self-induced fear, I met with nothing but gratitude and warmth and helping hands.

A middle-aged woman, weathered and strong, started passing the bags, assuming the lead. “Get these to the babies,” she said. “Make sure the babies get some of this.” Her second in command was an older gentleman who looked as if he might blow over with the next strong wind. He wore a Red Sox cap and a jacket that, I’m certain, once belonged to someone much larger than himself. I began to feel a crowd around me. A little guy, very likely just past his second birthday, checked out the car not quite understanding all the fuss. Another young man, white and college-aged with clothes in need of washing and a face in need of a good shave, could have easily been my son or one of his friends. I said a silent prayer that my children’s lives had never come to this.

My hands were ice, my nose was red, and if I hadn’t forgotten to breathe I could have seen my breath. I jumped back in my car, heat blasting, as the recipients of my gift scattered to their various corners of the park. I said another prayer, out loud this time, that I was fortunate to not have to live outside in this frigid Michigan winter. I smiled, heart full, feeling the satisfaction of a deed well done. And then. I found myself overcome with a sense of inadequacy, a sense of smallness, and a sense of gratitude beyond which I can share.

What I told the gentleman when he offered his hand was that there was a time in my life when I was not always certain there would be dinner on the table and that now I am in a position where I can help others put dinner on the table. It is my way of saying thank you to the powers that be. He accepted my answer with a smile and a squeeze of the hand, satisfied somehow with my pathetic response. What I failed to tell him is that I do this, almost entirely, for no other reason than that it fills my heart. It fills my heart, sir. This is what compels me. It fills my heart.

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