On Sunday we drove into Manhattan to meet my dad and stepmom for dinner. We were a bit early and our little one fell asleep in the car, so after finding a parking spot we sat in the car and waited for her to wake up or for it to get later, whichever happened first.
Sitting on the corner near our car was a homeless man.Like a cliché, with his blanket and cardboard sign, I didn’t notice him. he looked a lot like this guy:
I grew up in and around NYC. It would be fair to say, for the most part, that the homeless are invisible to me. I know that sounds cruel, but much like the fire hydrants and bus stops, unless I am looking for one, I tend not to notice.
Molly, my 5 year old noticed though.
“Mommy, what is he doing?” she asked.
When my kids ask a question, I tend to tell them the truth.
“He doesn’t have any money sweetie. He doesn’t have a home to live in or a job to make money, so he’s sitting there.”
I looked at her as her eyes grew wide. I asked her how that made her feel. She said sad. Then she asked for my phone to play Subway Surfers.
I promptly put the homeless guy out of my mind.
10 minutes later we were getting out of the car and she gave me my phone and pulled me close. She whispered in my ear “Mommy, can we give him some money?”
Oh. Um, ok. I felt a little swell of pride at her thoughtfulness. I guess while her fingers were busy surfing subways her mind was busy processing the concept of homelessness.
I pulled out a quarter from my pocket and handed it to her. Molly, despite being a powerhouse of passion, is really shy. She’s the hide-behind-my-leg kinda shy and the whisper-her-name-into-her-shoulder-when-meeting-a-new-person kinda shy.
We walked together to the man and she reached out and dropped the quarter into his cup. He looked her straight in the face and said “Thank you.” She looked right back at him and replied, clear, confident and sincerely, “You’re welcome.” and then I ushered her away with all the logic of a mom whose 5 year old daughter just gave a homeless man a quarter on a NYC street corner.
I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I don’t know what it was that hit me in the gut. The way he said Thank you and the way she looked at him, with humanity and kindness. In part, I was almost jealous of that full-heartedness. I told Elie, proud of how thoughtful she was, and he pointed out that that’s also why kids are trusting and, unless taught not to, will somewhere with a stranger. True.
I began thinking back to my own childhood and interactions with homeless people. I remember, in the 80’s, driving by tent villages that popped up on empty lots that probably house million dollar apartments today. I remember because I was fascinated by their architecture- walls made of shopping carts and tee-pees built from blankets and poles, stuff like that.
And I remember the time a young guy came up to my dad and asked for $20 to take a bus back home to wherever the heck he was from. He promised my dad when he got there he’d put $20 in the mail and repay him. My dad turned to me and asked if I thought he should give it to him. I was about 9, and I said yes. My dad gave him his address (who is the brilliant one in this scenario) + $20 and sent him on his way. He then asked me if I thought he’d get his money back and I said yes. He said he didn’t think so, and his distrust made me mad.
About a month later he asked me if I remembered the guy and if I thought he had gotten the $20 in the mail. In my head I was like “Told ya so!” and said yes. He told me no. He told me he was probably never going to get the money back and I remember thinking “Maybe he will! Ya never know!” but he told me people who ask for money on the street generally are also gonna be liars.
I guess the fact that almost 30 years later I still remember this means it impacted me on a deep level. Yet 30 years later I’m still not quite sure what there is to be learned from the story, other than that I am really gullible, and while I don’t want to crush my own daughters spirit and belief in the goodness of people, well, yeah. You know.
Just a few weeks ago I was in Port Authority and a guy walked up to me and said he needed a dollar for the bus to get home. I looked at his face and then looked away, shaking my head no and walking faster towards my gate. As he walked behind me I heard him mutter under his breath “racist” which kinda hurt my feelings, since I didn’t even notice the color of his skin. In fact, the only reason I didn’t give him a dollar is ‘cuz I recognized him as the same guy I gave a dollar to a month earlier to catch his bus home. :-/
Do you give money to homeless people? Would you have let your kid do that? Would love to hear your thoughts. 🙂