Has this happened to you? You are sitting at a stoplight, mind racing, thinking of all you need to get done, or perhaps distracted by managing the fussing children sitting behind you. Out of the corner of your eye you see movement. You look up to behold a raggedy man with a cardboard sign smiling toothlessly at you.
What do you do? Do you look away? Do you feel guilty? Do you give him money?
Homeless men at stoplights are a common sight in Austin, TX, the city we call "ours" when we need a city fix. For about a month I have been planning a sprinkle for those shaggy men, and we finally made it happen.
A few weeks back, Little Warrior and I picked out socks, hats, gloves and t-shirts at the store. The Princess wrapped them each up individually.
We had about 36 items all together. I found some small Gospels of John at church, and with permission brought them along to give out as well.
Because we live an hour out of the city, we do not go very often. We had a rare opportunity to attend an art museum program, and I knew it would be a great day to try for a city sprinkle.
After we left the museum, we drove around Austin for 30 minutes before we found someone to whom we could give a gift. I was surprised that it took us that long. As we drove I started paying more attention to each intersection, and began to realize that there were only a handful that were really "begging-friendly". These were intersections where there was a safe walking area to the left of the road, the best place to be since the only guaranteed occupant of a vehicle is its driver. On a two lane road, unless there was a large divider, there was no safe place for someone to stand. We found most of the homeless people at lights along the access road to the interstate. I wondered if they fought over prime locations.
The Princess was sitting right behind me, so she was handing out the gifts. Little Warrior really wanted to have a turn, and after a while we stopped so they could switch seats.
Farmer Boy, tall, quiet and 13, sat in the very back of the van watching and listening. I asked him if he wanted to move up and take a turn at handing out presents, but he declined.
What an array of responses. The Princess was so moved by the experience that on the way home she recorded her narrative of it into my phone. The recording was 18 minutes long.
A few moments frozen in my mind...
The man who clutched the gifts to his chest with a big smile, like they were treasures.
The old man with wandering blue eyes huddled under a blanket next to a shopping cart. He was right next to a parking lot, so we stopped and walked over to him. He barely noticed the wrapped gifts but his eyes lit up when he read the words "Gospel of John" and spent the next few minutes talking about how much he liked John and thumbing through the pages.
The soft spoken, gentle-eyed, one-legged man on crutches. His stunned reaction was so genuine. He stood there and took the packages, and quietly said thank you, then just kept standing there. He thanked us a few more times then said, "I just don't know what to say." He gave us driving advice, trying hard to offer something in return.
The toothless man who told my kids "Your boyfriend and girlfriend, they ain't your best friends, this right here is" and pointed to me. Then he told me how his parents had died and he missed them.
The flamboyant man who tried to quote the Hail Mary to me and couldn't quite remember it (was it the headcovering that recalled childhood Catholic nuns?), and broke down in a fit of laughing and coughing. He told The Princess to grow up to be just like me because I was perfect, which I alarmedly denied. His disabled companion sitting nearby solemnly said, "Only one is perfect." and pointed to the sky. "Amen!" I said loudly.
The drunken man laughing and waving his sign that read "Why lie? What I need is a beer! Help me finish poisoning my liver." I waved him over and pointed behind me saying, "She has something for you." He took the gifts quietly. It was moving to see the change in his demeanor as a sweet little girl handed him an unexpected gift. Grace, that.
The man who told me his name and asked me to please tell everyone he was a handyman looking for work. Then he told us all to "Have a quality day!" I smile every time I think of that funny greeting.
The young man on his way home to New Orleans with his dog Dixie Belle.
The man who, after taking his gifts back to his grocery cart, hollered at me and held up a brand new shiny leather stiletto-heeled boot. It was fresh from the box, and its match sat nestled against clean white. He gestured it toward me, offering. I laughed, "Oh thank you, but I would just fall right over!" "They're really nice!" he encouraged. And they were. Yes, I wondered where he had gotten them. But no matter. He wanted to offer something in return. It was what he had, and the motive behind the offering was sweet.
The person who will probably stay with us longest is a young woman. We had to pass her the first time we saw her, because of the way the traffic was moving. We circled around the highway and came back up to her intersection. As I was sitting in traffic, far back from the stoplight, I saw a man walk up and start yelling at her. She shook her head "No" in response. He threw his backpack down on the sidwalk, took out his sign and started walking up the line of cars.
I didn't know what to do. Obviously he thought it was "his" intersection and she had stolen it. I was upset by the way he had treated her, but was worried that if we gave her anything, he would beat her up and take it from her. I drove past again, this time praying fervently. I had no idea what I was going to do, but wanted to help this girl. We all were worried.
I circled through the intersection a third time. She was gone. Then we spotted her on the diagonal corner, across the bridge that crossed the highway. So we turned that direction. As I made a u-turn, aiming towards where she was, we saw that she was fighting with the man on the other corner too. She angrily took her things and stormed off. Once again, we passed her and circled around. This was now the fifth time we had passed her.
When we got back to the intersection the sixth time, she was gone. But we saw one of her bags on the ground. It was on a corner that was not a good begging corner, she was on the right hand side of the road. But she was not there. Once again, we circled. And this time she was there. We stopped, thankfully with no one behind us, and called her over. Even though this was the right hand side of the car, we had just switched the kids' seats, so once again The Princess was handing out the gifts. The young woman took them, smiling.
I leaned over to the passenger window and asked her, "What do you need most right now?" She was stunned into silence. Perhaps no one had asked her that before. "Um, well, shelter, and clothes. And maybe propane." I asked her if she had a place to get food regularly and she said no.
It was time for me to move so we said goodbye. We dropped off a few more gifts to other people then went to the store. I realized I did not know what size propane she would need; I figured it was probably for a cookstove, but couldn't be sure. So the kids picked out an outfit for her. The Princess thought it would be good for us to give her something colorful since all her clothes were dark and drab. Then we bought her some warm food.
We drove back to her intersection. She was gone. It was dusk by this point, so I started heading home. We were five minutes away when I asked Farmer Boy if he would like the food. He said, "No." Silence. "I want to go back and try again." His voice wobbled with intensity. He had been mostly silent the whole afternoon, so I had no idea how he was processing the experience.
"Alright," I said, turning left immediately. "You lead the way." We headed back to "her" intersection and for the next thirty minutes I drove up and down that interstate looking for the young woman. We never found her.
We still have her new clothes in the van. We will keep them there "just in case".