The Man with the Sign

He was standing at the base of the downtown exit ramp from the east-west freeway. The light was red so I had to stop and for a while only a part of his jacket was visible, the car’s windshield frame obscuring all but the back of his jacket and a sliver of the sign he was holding. He knew that I couldn’t quite see him so he moved up and turned the sign so it was aimed right at me.

Hungry. Please help.

I had a rotisserie chicken in the backseat along with a tray of cold cuts and cheese and a bag of eighteen hoagie rolls that I’d bought for the last night of the class I teach. The car was full of the smell of the rotisserie chicken. A couple of times on the freeway, I’d wanted to pull over into the emergency lane, put on my flashers, and tear into a chicken leg. Lunch had been a granola bar and an apple, eaten before a long meeting reviewing data that seem to show very strongly that the program I was supposed to help sustain by getting new grants wasn’t successful.

It had been a cold day, one where a person wears tights, knee socks and boots, a t-shirt and a sweater, and another sweater on top; it was a day that conjured up the steppes of Russia with people covering their faces with their scarves and walking with their heads down and shoulders hunched.

The man with the sign had a thick winter coat on and a backpack. I thought of giving him a couple of dollars, because I sometimes do that, but then I thought about the three places near downtown where I knew he could eat for free. We looked at each other for a few seconds. Cars were behind me, he was on the passenger side, me on the driver side. There wasn’t anything practical I could do. He’s on the wrong side of the street, I said to myself. Oh good, now you’re criticizing how the homeless man is asking for money.

The light changed and I pulled ahead to the next block. I should just stop the car and give him the chicken, I thought. Why not just hand him the chicken?

What would he do with the chicken? Put it in his backpack?

I kept driving. I didn’t like it that the homeless man thought I was just like everyone else who ignored him and his sign. I wanted to go back and tell him that, while I wasn’t going to give him money or my chicken, I was doing a sock drive for homeless people. I wanted to tell him that there were really good organizations helping people who are homeless, organizations that I work with and believe in. But would there have been a point in that? If he had been homeless for any length of time, he would know about these groups. Wouldn’t he?

Who is this grown man who stands at the corner with a sign? What brought him there? And why didn’t I want to know?

The truth of the matter is that I want to help homeless people but only on my terms, safe terms. I want to work for homeless agencies, write their grants, help them plan. I want to have my sock drive, package up socks and drop them off. Say hello, how are you, to the guys standing outside the shelters. Accept their thanks for my generosity and drive away to have lunch somewhere, maybe Culver’s if it’s Saturday, feeling plenty good.

I don’t have the balls to deal with a homeless person one on one. I will want to solve everything and have the ability to solve nothing. I will give solutions that were thought of years ago, be simple in my thinking, and naïve in what should be done next. You see, nothing in my life has prepared me to advise someone who is homeless. I know nothing of value to share with the man with the sign. My chicken actually would have been the most valuable thing I owned, not my experience or knowledge or connections. I am dumb as an unripe fruit.

I used to feel bad that I wasn’t more courageous about coming face to face with people in trouble, in poverty, who are homeless. There are people whose gift it is to help homeless people, one on one, help them figure out how to not be homeless but I’m not one of them. I know I can’t pass homeless people on the street and do nothing but what I do is constrained by the type of person I am. So, I do what I do – as peripheral and superficial it may be. I write grants and collect socks. That’s what I can offer the man with the sign.

It’s many degrees of separation but it’s something.

3 Comments on “The Man with the Sign

  1. I’m crying with this one. You touched my guilt and shame because I don’t know how to connect with people who are poor and homeless and in trouble. I can treat them with respect and care about them but I, too, don’t know how to help at that level. I know how to teach others how to use their special talents to help and care, but I don’t know how. I give my gifts to my student who is working at the homeless shelter and doing a great job at what I can’t do.

    • I think there’s a place for all of us – which is new thinking to me because for years, I figured I just lacked an in-person compassion gene. Everybody does what they do best. Sounds like that’s what you’re doing with your student and I’m trying to do with my sock drive.

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