The homeless, beggars, and street people among us give more than you think. I imagine many of them lose patience and hope in humanity after being treated like a nuisance, looked at with disgust, avoided, and ignored so often they can’t help but question whether or not they actually exist. I don’t blame them for being angry or fed up. They’ve been dealt a tough hand, and whether we blame them or feel compassion for them is irrelevant. They struggle everyday, no matter what we think of it.
I’ve often struggled with whether or not to engage with a stranger who’s asking for money. I’m guilty of walking by and pretending not to see them or just shaking my head “no” and moving along. I’ve avoided eye contact or even passing by them. However, the times I’ve opened up to someone asking for my help have been memorable and thought-provoking, providing an opportunity to authentically share in a unique happenstance.
Revelation at The Gas Station
I was approached one morning at a gas station while pumping gas in my car. A black man with a frail frame and a friendly smile asked me if I had any change to spare. I hesitated, but then told him to hold on while I go in the car to look in my purse. I found some cash and handed it to him. I told him, “Merry Christmas.” He looked at the cash and asked, “Do you need this money?” I laughed and told him that we all need money, but that I wanted him to have it.
He smiled widely and then looked concerned again. He asked if I wanted him to pump my gas, wash my windshield, or clean my tire rims. My rims are filthy. I almost accepted that offer, but caught myself before agreeing to his proposal, becoming aware in that moment of my desire to get something in return. I offered the man cash without expecting anything back from him. I wanted to help him, because I could. He showed me that my selfless act wasn’t so pure after all, a priceless awareness that changed my mind.
Instead of letting him clean my rims, I gave him more of my time. I listened, even as he was spitting through his teeth while he talked. I could see how his eyes lit up and his voice became more energized simply from feeling that brief bit of connection. He asked me how much money I would want to win if I scratched a winning lottery ticket. I said, “I would want the maximum.” He laughed at that and scratched his head. I guess he was hoping for a number.
He went on enthusiastically, revealing that he scratched a $5,000 winning lottery ticket yesterday. I was thrilled for him! He was brimming over with pride, animated and without losing the ear-to-ear smile on his face, he drops the bomb. He admits being at the liquor store when he scratched the ticket. When he realized he won $5,000, he shared his excitement with the guy who sold him the ticket, and the guy took it from him. Just like that, he was broke again. He blamed himself for being drunk and not thinking straight.
My heart dropped. I couldn’t believe that someone would do that, but then I remembered the contempt and disregard that street people endure, and it made sense. Whatever presumptions we might have about the store clerk or the beggar, it’s worth acknowledging that this dynamic is an everyday societal reality. It’s easy to keep the poor down. The ones who are more fortunate look down on those who can’t do the same for themselves. It’s hard to imagine how humanity can thrive, when we whip our entitlement out once the needy cross our paths.
I don’t give money to every person I pass by who’s holding a sign asking for money. I don’t have the means to do that. But, even if I did, it’s not giving the money that matters. It’s the connection created between two people from two different worlds, and the richness added to my life from that interaction, if I am open to receiving it. At the same time, I’m given the opportunity to impart a piece of me in their lives, as well. An act of charity initiates the means to these treasures, reflecting truth and consequence in ways we wouldn’t otherwise experience.
Insight and Inspiration on the Streets of L.A.
While visiting a friend in Los Angeles, I was heading out of Starbucks at 6th and Spring Street when I heard someone say, “You have an incredible smile.” I wasn’t sure if I was smiling, so I had my doubts the comment was directed at me. Then the man comes closer and leaned in toward me, still looking away, and says, “I haven’t even looked at you to see if you’re smiling, but I can sense your incredible smile from the energy coming off you.”
Needless to say, I was intrigued and looked directly at him, curious about the person who claimed to see within my soul. He met my gaze and I thanked him. He was a thin man, dressed in dark clothes, his cracked teeth shamelessly uncovered through a bright wide smile. I asked him how he can sense the energy of a smile without looking at it. This question riled him up, and he eagerly declares, "I asked God to turn up my reception and turn down my projection."
“I asked God to turn up my reception and turn down my projection.”
The moment I heard those words, the world stopped around me. I felt like I was having a religious moment, an epiphany that lifted me beyond this realm. I was silenced into the realization that I’ve been so busy projecting my own thoughts, wants, beliefs, and past conditions that I haven’t allowed the space needed to receive. This minimal interaction with a seemingly unprosperous stranger helped me shift out of my blocked headspace and open up to new information. Suddenly, life felt limitless with infinite possibilities.
I thanked this stranger, who lived on the streets of downtown LA. He proclaimed, “Don’t thank me! Thank God for giving you the mind to understand what I’m saying.” He was on fire with a passion I dreamed of embracing. He harbored no obvious bitterness for his misfortune. He was comfortable in his own skin. The struggle did not break him. He was an inspiration.
Mystery and Wonder in a Burger King Parking Lot
About five years ago, I had an encounter with a homeless man that I will never forget. I had dropped off my older son to a 4H meeting at a local rec center. We didn’t have time for dinner, so I grabbed my little one to pick up some burgers while big brother finished up his meeting. I drove up the road to find a Burger King drive thru and ordered the kids’ special requests. As usual, the order came out wrong.
The BK staff let us keep the cheeseburger mistake and replaced it with a special one that my little one would eat (no freakin pickles). I parked the car across from the restaurant to let my youngest eat comfortably. While we sat in the dark, the lone car in a fairly deserted area, I kept the car doors open; both mine and my son’s. I was in a hurry to get back to my other son at the rec center.
As I started eating my fries, I realized that I could instead save them and put them in a bag with the extra burger and let my son give it to one of his 4H friends. I put my fries and extra cheeseburger neatly in a bag with some ketchup packets. Ready to go, I grabbed all of the food wrappers to throw away, but there were no trash containers outside. I decided to quickly run into the restaurant and throw the trash out.
I left my youngest in the car, with the car doors open. I wasn’t comfortable doing it, because we weren’t in the best neighborhood. But, I was moving fast and there was no one in sight. It felt safe enough. As I was coming out of the restaurant and heading back to the car, I saw a man walking as briskly as I was toward my car. My son was in there. I walked even faster. So did he. We met right in front of my little one, as I stepped directly between the man and my son.
He was a tall black man, dressed in dark jeans and a hoodie. His teeth were rotting or missing and he seemed fairly young; late 20s to mid 30s. The man could see my fury as I positioned myself between him and my son. He quickly jumped away and said, “I’ll back up, I’ll back up.” I asked him what he wanted. “Are you hungry? Is that it?” He begins telling me how very hungry he is and how he just can’t get enough food and he’s so skinny and he needs to eat. I grabbed the bag of food I had just put together for my older son to give to his friend and handed it to this man, who came out of nowhere. “Here, eat. There is a cheeseburger and fries in there.”
My youngest is watching amused and unalarmed by this stranger. He began talking, friendly and innocently, to the man. The man takes the food from me. He briefly listens to my son, but is more focused on begging me for more. He asks me to do him two today. “Please, just do me two today, I need the food, but if you could spare anything, I really need you to do me two.”
I stood there, now more relaxed and moved away from blocking this man from my son.
I was hesitant and still trying to figure out if we were in danger. In that uncomfortable silence, my son pipes in, “What are you doing here?” The man looks at him, with despair in his eyes, he begins to say, “I’m looking for Nadia. My sweet Nadia, I can’t find her anywhere. I keep looking and looking all around and I just can’t find her.”
The man looks like he’s on the verge of tears. Meanwhile, I can’t believe my ears. My mind doesn’t want to accept what I’m hearing. I start thinking, “No, there’s no way. How?” He didn’t come near my car before I got to it. My name is nowhere on the car. There’s no way he could know my name. This is a trick. What is this? No. My mind would not accept what my ears were hearing.
My son got excited and stood up quickly! “Oh yeah, my mommy. She’s right here, see? My mommy is here.” I was still trying to process this. I wanted to get in the car and drive away and ignore that I had heard this stranger say he was looking for Nadia. I wanted to escape from it, because I didn’t understand it. But, I stayed. I finally mustered the fortitude to ask him, “What did you say?” I wasn’t sure I even heard him right. Was it my mind? I was confused and not even sure I wanted to know.
The man turned his attention to me again and lamented about his Nadia. “My Nadia, my sweet Nadia, I was supposed to find her, in the gardens, somewhere we were supposed to meet in the gardens, but I just don’t know where she is, I can’t find her anywhere. Oh my Nadia, my Nadia.”
My 5 year old son was convinced I knew this man. He asked the homeless man how he and his mommy were friends. I told my son to hush and looked the man in his eyes and told him, “My name is Nadia.” I had to see his expression; I had to witness his eyes when I said it. His eyes would tell me the truth. Did he already know my name? Is this some trick; I’m just not seeing his method? The man stopped crying about his sweet, lost Nadia. He looked at me like a deer in headlights. “It is?,” he asked me. I was stoic and still defensive in my demeanor. I wasn’t going to let on that he shook me to the core.
“Yes, it is,” I tell him. My son wanted back in the conversation. “Yes, my mommy is Nadia. That’s my mommy. You looking for my mommy?” The man was obviously astonished. He was frozen for a moment and then quickly got back to asking me to do him two tonight. I couldn’t take my eyes off of this man. I was still reeling. Was this really happening?
I guess he felt like I did, because we both tried to avoid the obvious discomfort of this disclosure. We were both shocked. The man went back to begging, though after I gave him some cash, he returned to his stories about his sweet Nadia. He reflected on her from a very desperate place, forlorn about how he just can’t find her no matter how hard he looks through the gardens. I listened and when he paused, I said, “Well, I guess you found her.”
The man’s eyes again opened so widely he could have swallowed us up inside them. He was quiet for a moment, and then he asked, “Well, what do I do now?” I said, “Go eat.” And with that, he nodded, turned and walked away, as quickly as he came.
There is magic and purpose in the unsuspecting encounters we tend to dismiss every day. I hope these stories fill you with the spirit of giving and receiving what truly matters to every human being, regardless of economic status, race, religion, or history - openness and connection. The treasures that come from taking a second to listen with curiosity instead of judgment are the gifts that keep on giving.