One afternoon, while doing an errand near work, I passed a fellow I often see standing on the sidewalk with a cup for spare change. He’s friendly, about 70, with white hair and a beard. He told me a few months ago that he would soon start receiving Social Security and not have to beg for money anymore. When I saw him, I put two dollars in his cup and asked, “Did you start getting Social Security?” He said that indeed he did, and that he had rented an apartment in Ft. Bragg, on the coast about 200 miles north of here.
I asked how he gets up there, and he said it’s two bus rides. The first, to Santa Rosa, costs five dollars and the more rural route to Ft. Bragg costs $23. He had to pay a security deposit along with his first month’s rent, so he was a bit in arrears this month, but he said that starting next month, he’ll be fine on his Social Security alone. I told him I was delighted for him, and said I guessed that meant we wouldn’t be seeing him anymore, and he said, “That’s right. As soon as I get $80, I’m going home.”
I said, “Then handshakes are in order,” and we shook hands and exchanged names. I learned for the first time that his name is Michael. I told him how delighted I was for him and headed back to work, but then half a block away, I thought, “Wait a minute.”
I walked back and put $80 in his cup and said, with a smile, “Go on home.” He peered into his cup and when he realized what I’d done, tears came to his eyes and he gave me a big hug. When I passed that spot later, leaving work for the day, he wasn’t there, and I imagined him sitting on the bus, heading to a snug little apartment of his very own.
I pondered how being generous is not about establishing who is generous and who is not, nor who is helpful and who is helpless. Generosity is a natural expression of our connectedness, and we will all take turns being the one to give and the one to receive.
There is a little addendum to this story, which is that several days later, imagine my surprise upon seeing this very person at the soup kitchen, looking rather bedraggled. Had the money been stolen from him, or did he spend it on alcohol? Here I felt a twinge of conscience at possibly having contributed to his delinquency. I had to wonder if there was even any Social Security or apartment in Ft. Bragg.
Then I waited to feel indignant, but found I never did. For one thing, if there’s no apartment in Ft. Bragg, that’s sad, not a thing to be angry about. I really wanted there to be an apartment in Ft. Bragg. Plus, whatever he did with that money doesn’t change my kind intention in giving it, as one of my chaplaincy classmates pointed out.
In the end, I concluded that if this guy is a good enough actor to get a handshake, a hug, sincere good wishes and $82 all from the same person—well, those are very impressive survival skills.