Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Hard life lessons.

My oldest son, Xay, and I were hanging out in downtown Augusta this past Saturday and we were ardently looking for a place to have lunch as it was 3PM and we hadn't eaten. As we were passing Metro Coffee House, an older man came up to me and asked if we could spare any money. I always feel terrible in these situations because a) I don't carry cash and can't help this person (and I seriously would if I carried cash; just giving it all away though I haven't worked in over two years) and b) I don't carry cash for just this reason and I'm secretly relieved because these situations make me a tad frightened. Especially with my kids in tow. I explained that I didn't have any cash on me and the man then asked if I could buy him a cup of coffee on my credit card. I thought this was incredibly ballsy and in a flat tone, I explained that I was most concerned with feeding my son at the moment. It was at that point that I went from sympathetic to irritated.

However, I could see that Xay was pretty affected. He asked what that man had asked me, and when I explained, Xay asked why he would do that.

I said, "He's homeless, honey."

I don't think Xay thought that homeless people were in our town or that they could look pretty much like anyone else on the street. I explained that I didn't have any cash to give the man. He was pretty shocked and saddened by seeing someone who was hungry enough to beg on a public street in broad daylight. The irony of us sitting in a restaurant (granted a BIG treat for us!) eating after the encounter was not lost on me. I was feeling cynical and upset myself, but I was trying to have a good day with Xay, too.

After we were seated and our Cokes* came, Xay asked if we could go home afterward and he could get some of his allowance money from his bank to give to the man. I said we'd talk about it. And, if he was serious about it, I would have gladly let him do whatever he was moved to do. I want to encourage both of my kids to be compassionate. After a few silent moments, Xay then announces that he doesn't think he can eat his whole lunch. Moments before he was starving; I knew where this as going.

"You eat until you are full, ok? Then, if there is anything left over and you want to give it away, we'll box it up and you can give it to that man if he'll take it, ok?" He beamed and my heart melted.

I could tell he was really serious about this and was genuinely concerned for this man. I felt so jaded and cynical because I don't like to give homeless people money for all the worst reasons: what if they just use it for alcohol or drugs? (So what if they do? It's the act of compassion, with no strings attached, that I should be striving for.) What if they think it's not enough and they try to mug me? (A genuine concern, especially when my kids are with me. Then again, I don't go into scary places with my kids.) Mostly, I'd rather do something tangible for someone in need rather than throw money at it.

So, I decided I would have half my sandwich and cheese fries boxed up for the man. That half would go to waste if it were just me eating it, and this would put it to good use. We added the celery that came with Xay's wings, three wet wipes Xay didn't use, and got a to-go Coke for him. Xay was so excited about giving this man a warm meal that he couldn't get out of there fast enough.

We left, and looked for the man where we left him. I was feeling happy, though a bit nervous, too. I didn't know what to expect of his reaction. We didn't find him for about a half hour; we were wandering around downtown doing our thing and suddenly there he was.

I said, "Xay, is that him?"

Xay nearly ran into traffic to get to him. He was giddy! I was (and am) so proud of him.

Then, everything sort of fell apart. As we were walking across the street to give this man the food we carried all over downtown for him, he walked up to three people leaving a sidewalk cafe and asked if he could have the leftover beer they were walking away from. He was trying to make a quick getaway with an open container when we walked up to him.

"We got you some lunch," I said as I handed him the to-go box. Xay stood next to me, practically bouncing, with a huge, hopeful smile plastered on his face.

The man mumbled, "Okay," snatched the box, then quickly walked away. No thank-yous, no smile, no nothing. Like we were handing out unwanted fliers on the street. Xay stood there looking from him to me, with this confused and stunned look on his face. He was so hurt.

"Mom, what happened?"

I didn't know what to say. So, I put my arm around him and told him that some people, no matter their living situation, don't know how to be polite or say thank-you, but that once he got to eat the food, even if he didn't think of us, he would be glad to have that and that Xay had given that to him.

We walked along in silence for a little bit after that. I could tell that Xay was thinking about it alot. I was angry at that man: he was rude and pushy when he forced his way into our afternoon asking scary, inconvenient questions, then when we try to rise to the occasion and do the hard thing, he brushed past us, grabbing the food we were trying to offer in love and leaving without so much as a hint of thanks. Most of all, he hurt my kid's feelings when he was trying to hard to do something good for someone, to make someone happy, to feed someone who was hungry.

All I could say was, "Honey, what you did was wonderful, compassionate thing to do. His reaction didn't matter, and a thank you would have just been a bonus. You can't let that get in the way of you doing good; you can't let it make you hard-hearted to those in need. You gave a hungry person food. There's nothing in the world better then that." He nodded, and said I was right. I hope he believes it.

My sons make me want to be better, they help me BE better. I hope this doesn't make Xay hesitate to help others. I've emailed a local soup kitchen to see if Xay and I can volunteer. I think he would like that, and it would do him good to see people who sincerely appreciate what you are doing for them. I'll keep you posted.


*Yes, I had a Coke. My third since giving up sodas weeks ago. I don't feel bad.


Anonymous said...

Oh goodness! I am proud of Xay. Both he and his brother are very sweet boys. And I'm not just saying that cause I'm his aunt.
--Amy Herrington

Candi said...

Good job mom! I think you handled the whole situation very well. And I would rather Xay have those broken heart and let down experiences with you, you can explain and help him understand that the world is rude and a hard place, it's good to cautiously show that to our children instead of sheltering them from it. Again, great job mom, you deserve alot of credit for your kind words and explainations.


Mari said...

Let me know if you guys do end up volunteering at a soup kitchen. I'd love to tag along if that's cool.

You handled the situation well. All of us kids or adults I think sometimes forget or never knew the realities if homelessness. It's a hard harsh life that lends itself towards making many of the people trapped in it antisocial at the least, mentally unstable in many. Think how hard it is for us to accept help from people in our lives. Now multiply that as if you had to deal with it every day multiple times a day in order to eke out an existence...

Anonymous said...

Wow wtchy..actually kind of teared up just now. I'm in awe of how you handled that. I never carry cash either, mainly because of the fact that if you're robbed, you can't get it back. I would never, ever give money to someone on the street though, because of the things you mentioned, but I think it's more than reasonable to give them food if you have it. Years ago, my bff's mother gave someone a couple of dollars...she saw him a few hours later buying smokes and demanded her money back. He complied.

My view on the homeless issue is that almost every town has at least one shelter that is willing to help, but the person has to be willing to first, let someone help, and second, to give it some effort himself. Obviously, every person's situation is different, but there are numerous cases of someone who was homeless finding a job and making a new life for himself. It's extremely hard, but it's possible. I'm fully sympathetic to their plight, but there are a lot of people who want to help them.

It sounds like you're raising a very thoughtful boy who will grow to be considerate and kind to others. You're doing an awesome job.