New York, NY 07 March 2018. –She was standing at the bottom of a highway ramp, just under the overpass. At first, you didn’t know what she was; a girl – a guy, young – old. All you could see was a person holding a sign. Slowly pulling up beside her, being careful not to look in her direction. Eyes front and center on the red light hanging over the street.
Living in the city its impossible not to see people in the streets with signs begging for money. There are scary looking people, drugged out people, people who seem lost and some who didn’t look like they were struggling at all.
Walking down the streets, you will see young people and old people and even pregnant people.
Most of us do our best not to stare, not to make eye contact. Hearing my father’s voice in my head, and I never gave anyone any money. Ever. But she was different. She was a ‘people.’
She was holding her beggars’ sign in front of her face
All you could see was a mass of dirty blond dreadlocks. She wasn’t looking at me, giving me a chance to look at her. “Dreadlocks,” I thought and recalled the time my own son came home with dreadlocks.
I remember confronting him and judging him and not understanding why anyone would want to have dreadlocks.
“I’m not rebelling,” he said. “I’m not trying to do anything to you. This is not about you.” He pointed to his hair. “It’s my hair. It’s my life.”
I remember nodding along with him, and trying to listen to him, but still trying to make my own point. I told him to consider how people view people with dreadlocks. How people judge them.
“Like you,” he said. “I don’t care if you judge me. I don’t care if everyone judges me. It’s just hair!” He yelled at me.
“It’s just hair,” I thought to myself as I looked at her. “It’s just hair.” She was wearing brown overalls that hadn’t seen a washer in weeks, a raggedy winter hat and a pair of beat-up work boots.
The beggars’ book
Easing my foot off the brake, peering through the window to see behind the sign, to see her face. That’s when I saw the book. She wasn’t holding up her beggars’ sign to cover her face in shame. She was reading a book.
An SUV had pulled up behind me and beeped its horn. Startling, and thinking the light had changed, the other driver was trying to get the girls attention. He beeped again and she slowly looked over the top of her sign.
Watching in my side mirror, he was waving bills at her. She ran to him, took the money and then walked back to her spot. Adjusting her sign to cover her book, her reading resumed.
What makes those who beg beggars’?
Growing up in Vermont, seeing homeless people was extremely rare. The only time I can remember ever seeing a homeless person was around the age of eleven or twelve years old. The homeless guy was a local drunk, who, it turns out, wasn’t homeless, he only looked homeless. He could be seen around the town panhandling for beer money.
Seeing him and feeling bad, and wanting to help I began walking up to him. The goal to give him $2.00 that I had saved for something. However, instead of taking my money he yelled at me.
“I’m just an old drunk,” he said. “Don’t give your money to old drunks like me. Keep your stupid money.”
Then he stormed off.
Don’t give money to the homeless – they are just drunks and addicts
Telling my dad about the homeless guy and about him yelling at me when I tried to give him money. He sat me down and lectured me about drunks and drug addicts and homeless people.
He told me that to never give money to a homeless person. That all they would use it for was drugs and booze. And I listened.
For more than 30 years, I listened.
But Dreadlocks was different.
She wasn’t a drug addict. Or a drunk.
She wasn’t a vagrant or a violent degenerate. She was someone who needed help. A girl, standing on the street corner, hoping people wouldn’t judge her because of her dirty overalls, or her long blond dreadlocks, or beat up shoes.
I glanced up at the light, knowing it was going to turn green any second and started fumbling in my pockets. I stopped listing to my dad.
“Hey,” I said rolling down my window. “Hey!”
She looked up and smiled. I reached out handing her money.
“Thank you,” she said.
“Thank you,” I said and the light changed.
Pulling away dad’s voiced faded. And my eyes opened to see the light.
Lead image courtesy Wikipedia: By https://www.flickr.com/photos/livenature/ – https://www.flickr.com/photos/livenature/256934977/sizes/o/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8628782