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Tuesday, September 13, 2005


Bourgios ramblings

I found my suburban self driving my very suburban minivan this last Sunday afternoon, stopped at a red light on an exit ramp and facing a homeless person who held a sign that said “Homeless and hungry. Please help.”

The man looked dirty and smelly and down on his luck. I notice that a lot of similar looking people, presumably in similar circumstances and usually men, place themselves at stop signs on exit ramps. They must have better luck getting people to stop and donate money and food when drivers have to sit and stare uncomfortably at them for a few minutes, pretending to turn the radio dial. Some drivers might even pray for the light to turn green. I am not saying that the drivers stopped at the lights don’t pray for the poor hungry soul on the corner. I am pretty sure though, that there have been a few squandered prayers begging the big guy up there to make that light change faster so they can stop feeling so uncomfortable staring at the downtrodden soul on the corner.

As I waited at this stop sign feeling admittedly uncomfortable, my hand reached down for a box of cereal bars my husband Jim had placed in the van for me. There was a car ahead of me, so I was just a bit too far back to reach him. With one hand on the box, my other hand went for the automatic window. I saw the man look in my direction. Was that a glimmer of hope I saw in is eye? I rolled the window down a crack, and froze. I started to panic.

My one year old daughter was with me in the car. What if this man was dangerous? What if he wanted my car? What if he reached to grab me as I tried to hand him the box? What if he screamed and scared my daughter? Being a woman in this circumstance, I have learned to be extremely cautious. I know someone personally who accepted a homeless person into their home to do some paid work on odd jobs and the guy ended up severely beating his wife. I have passed by many a stranded male motorist when I was alone in the car. In the choice between compromising my own safety and helping someone in need I have always gone with my own safety and suffered the guilt of leaving someone on the side of the road. I drove right past, secretly hoping that there was a man behind me who could help without the risk of exposing themselves to potential predatory sexual violence.

I sat with my hand on a box of stupid cereal bars in my stupid minivan feeling like the biggest stupid bourgeois coward in the world. I was ashamed of my fat comfortable life. I was ashamed of my car. I was ashamed of the cliché I have become. I was mostly ashamed of my fear. My shame was not enough to overcome my powerful urge to protect my daughter and myself from even the slightest possibility of danger.

The light changed. My stomach flip flopped. In my mind: “Just do it! Give him the box!” and then “No! Your baby is in the car! Don’t do it!” Then I thought “Just open the window a crack and fling them as you drive past him!” and then I thought “No! That would be rude! Demeaning! You can’t just fling a box of cereal bars at a man standing on the corner. He would know I am afraid of him! That would make him feel bad!”

It was a ridiculous inner dialogue. Ridiculous. Yet, I must admit that it was my true inner dialogue all the same.

Caution won over and I shakily drove right on past him. I reminded myself that the cereal bars really weren’t even that good and they were only 90 calories, which was probably not enough to sustain him for long. They were just stupid cereal bars after all. And I was just a stupid mom in a minivan. At the same time, I was full aware that had I chosen to act in kindness and risked handing him the box, it would have shown him that someone cared about his plight even just a little. I had the opportunity to show him that, and I did not take it.

I recalled the time I was leaving a restaurant with a friend. I had just stuffed myself full of breakfast and a woman approached me asking for a dollar for a cup of coffee. I swelled with pride as I handed her a bill and she turned on her heel and skipped away merrily. She skipped right into the C.C. Club, laughing as she swung the door open. It was fairly obvious she was not planning to order coffee at the bar she had nearly sprinted into. My companion shook her head and laughed at me. “What did you think she was going to do with it?” I shrugged, feeling exposed for the idealistic bleeding heart, misguided, self righteous fool that I was.

I think my point, if I have one, is this: Is there anything in between? There was an episode of “Friends” where someone pointed out that all charitable acts are selfish at the core. They are selfish because people are selfish. When we donate, we make ourselves feel important. We want to be instruments of change. We are helping people, and we like that feeling of helping people, so really, it’s a selfish thing. Yet, it’s still better than sitting there in your stupid minivan at a stupid stoplight, facing a man whose obvious hard luck makes you very uncomfortable and DRIVING AWAY while pondering the etiquette of flinging a box of cereal bars out of your car at a homeless man on the corner.

Should I have flung the box at him? Should I have risked my safety and my daughter’s safety to stop and hand the box to him like a civilized human being? Should I find something constructive to do with my time instead of sitting here like the spoiled bourgeois cliché that I am, pondering the dilemma of charity in today’s society?

I should have done SOMETHING. And next time I think I will.


Anonymous Jessica said...

I don't know, Meghan. I live in San Francisco where the city streets are filled with folks who never had the chances in life that I/we had. Sometimes I give generously, other times I am a little bit more cautious. Or cranky. I think that your protective impulses are completely natural. Perhaps to assuage your guilt after a situation like that you might consider making a small donation to a homeless shelter? Know at least that you're not alone in your frustrations.

9:01 AM  
Blogger Dixie said...

I'm afraid I don't have an answer either. The safety of your child is your first priority but it's awfully hard to ignore someone who's so down.

The best answer I can come up with is locking your doors and putting the window halfway down and asking if he'd like the cereal bars. And that sound so awfully lame.

2:36 PM  
Blogger Donna said...

I feel your conflict, Meghan. It only gets worse when your children are old enough to ask you why you don't help the poor ragged soul on the corner.

In the end, you do have to ensure the safety of you and your child. I was once accosted at an ATM machine by an overly aggressive homeless man, who may not have been quite sane. He was chased away by another customer who got there just as the guy grabbed my arm. I remember that whenever I get uncomfortable - and I make a point to donate each year to charities that feed the homeless. No one organization can help them all, but neither will your handout.

6:59 PM  
Blogger mothergoosemouse said...

Meghan, I watched an interesting program on the Discovery Times channel (http://www.nytco.com/subsites/nyttv/) called Homeless in Paradise, about the multitudes of homeless people in Santa Monica. It was quite eye-opening. Unfortunately, many of the homeless have mental and physical problems that most shelters cannot properly address.

I remember being stopped at an exit ramp in SE Washington DC when a man approached my car with a spray bottle and squeegee. It was broad daylight, but I was alone and unnerved. Perfectly natural. He washed my windshield, and I handed him a dollar. No harm done.

Kyle used to volunteer at a homeless shelter back when we first met. The men taught him to play dominoes, and he learned that many of their fellow homeless didn't even come to the shelter at night, despite the availability of beds, because they had to be clean and sober to be admitted.

7:12 PM  
Blogger Katie Burke said...

I laughed so hard at some of the hilarious one-liners in this post. So relatable.

I am totally aligned with you on this one. I am a homeless advocate and activist (not by profession but in many volunteer pursuits), but I am not a self-loathing martyr. I will not put myself in jeopardy for but one opportunity to help a person in need. There are COUNTLESS ways to help people in need, and I am sure that you engage in most of them. Giving cereal bars to someone standing in the middle of the street is not your obligation. You can give that same person a kind smile from behind your locked door. Or you can give so much more than cereal bars to someone in a similar situation that is not threatening to you.

Bottom line: You are not judging someone when you choose to put your safety first. You are just acknowledging to yourself that you do not know them well enough to crack down the window.

I feel the same way with men in general, if I am walking in any kind of situation that scares me. They could be extremely well-dressed and engaging in totally non-threatening behavior (like, also walking), but it does not matter to me. If it is dark outside or if I am in some bizarrely isolated area alone, I always try to quickly get myself somewhere where I am not alone. And I am not even a person who has ever suffered any kind of violence.

And I hate that this is the world we live in, but it is.

7:46 PM  
Blogger JB said...

You said: "I sat with my hand on a box of stupid cereal bars in my stupid minivan feeling like the biggest stupid bourgeois coward in the world. I was ashamed of my fat comfortable life. I was ashamed of my car. I was ashamed of the cliché I have become. I was mostly ashamed of my fear."

Your mixed emotions and your self-berating inner dialogue makes me laugh. But, like the other bloggers, I too have been in similar situations and felt torn between giving and putting myself in jeopardy.

Who hasn't?

But why is it that we feel so guilty for possessing creature comforts, especially when we work so hard for them? And why does the thought of a person minus a home make us so uncomfortable?

This is a very honest, thought-provoking post.

7:38 AM  
Blogger Amanda said...

I used to live in Dallas and there were many many times I would encounter this same thing. It got to me too. I always felt guilty. It never failed that I was on my way to spend mindless money on things that I most certainly didn't need when I would come upon someone with a sign at an off ramp or sitting my a stoplight. I decided that I would make up little care packages instead of giving money though. So I made up these little bags that had a travel size toothbrush, deodorant, shampoo/conditioner combo, and toothpaste. I also included a $5.00 McDonalds gift certificate and one of those little tuna lunch thingies. Each one cost about $10.00 and I made 6 a month. I figured it was what I would spend on Starbucks anyway, so it was doable. Sometimes I didn't give them all out, sometimes I would run out after the first week. I always limited myself to 6 a month though. It was nice to be prepared when I found myself in an uncomfortable situation.

4:02 PM  
Anonymous Kari said...

It is a tough call. I have heard of people being carjacked, etc. because of an attempt at an act of kindness. When I see people broken down on the side of the freeway, I wish I could help, but feel vulnerable. When I see the homeless at the end of the road, I wish I could help, but have the same fears you did.

5:40 PM  
Blogger Mary Tsao said...

I'm the driver pretending to turn the radio dial and praying for the light to turn green.

I lived in SF, too, and I grew hardened to the song of "spare change, spare change." Although I usually gave a buck or two if the panhandler was a woman and I had the money handy.

8:16 PM  
Blogger Lin said...

I was walking along Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica a couple of weeks ago holding my almost four year old granddaughter's hand. The number of homeless on Santa Monica's streets is beyond belief. Anyway, while I could walk past them and mostly ignore their "got any spare change", Lottie couldn't. They're sitting on the pavement, leaning against a building, and she's at eye level with them.

How did I explain their misery? I couldn't, properly, but I tried and tried and tried until something distracted her.

I volunteer at a homeless shelter for women and children where I work with the moms and kids on computers. I've decided that when I'm asked for money, I will simply tell them I give time, not money. They won't flippin' care, I know, but it will help me.

8:40 PM  
Anonymous pjindy said...

My son who was 18 at the time, spent a summer in Washington DC. He taught be how to give and not to judge the homeless. Every day the entire summer he would empty his pockets of change for the homeless. On his last day, taking his belongings to the train station, he found himself with a string of homeless, all carrying one piece of his load. It was their thanks.

A few months later, he found himself on the street without a quarter to catch his train. Not one single person would give him a quarter. What a world we live in.

So, now I give to those at the stop lights when I can. The last guy was joyful at my few buck and gave be back a few jokes (old ones and lame). I guess, he did not want to just take a handout. And I serve at the homeless shelter when I can.

Still, I would never compromise safety, nor would I let unwarrented fear stop me. Balance.

What a thought provoking blog today.

1:00 PM  

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