Last night I was getting gas when a homeless man toting a bike came up to me. I expected the usual spiel, "Can you help a poor man out?" But instead, he said, "Today's my birthday! I am Fifty. Two. Years old today!"
Leaning back on my car as it guzzled thirstily, tube hanging between me and the man, "Well congratulations, Happy Birthday!" I said with a smile. He went on for a while, and when he was getting to the point of asking for something, I ask, "Have you had dinner yet? Let me buy you dinner." Or something like that.
He pauses for a moment, then agrees, hailing his friend off near the edge of the gas station, "I'm gunna go get Dinner! For my Birth. Day." He tells me his name, William something something--I couldnt hear the rest. We agree on a Chinese place a few blocks down, and off we go, him on his bike, my following him in my car. Slow going, but it works.
Only two people are in the restaurant, both employees. The woman, who seats us and is a little wary of William, and the man, whos pressence is assuring. I realize it isn't the safest thing to do, taking an unknown man to dinner.
He gets wonton soup and shrimp fried rice, I stick with veggie chow mein. 25.60. He does most of the talking, and he does so in cycles. I can smell alcohol on his breath, but not as bad as many I've smelt--I had been talking with him a good ten minutes before noticing. Anyway, the cycles go first, thanking me, telling me God loves all, giving me advice, telling me something deeply tragic about his life, getting really upset, silence. And none of the phases in the cycle were brief, they each had their bulk.
Thanking me included calling me an/his angel and simple thank yous. The "God loves all" cycle include him saying this phrase repeatedly with elongated emphasis on the word "all." And lots of nodding. His advice included going to school (When I told him I had already graduated, he said, go back and stay there. Apparently I'm to be a professional student.), taking care of my parents, and playing the numbers we got in our fortune cookies.
One tragic thing in his life was being in Desert Storm with his brother and his brother dying there (and the dead children on the streets, and how didn't want to shoot anyone, "but you gotta do what you gotta do" times five plus tears). He talk about how his dad was dead, how he used to have a dogwhen he was a kid, how he knew he drank a little too much and couldn't keep a job anymore. Other tidbits about his life is that he has at least one daughter and used to do sheet metal work. And that he sleeps under the bridge at Gilman street most of the time, unless the cops come and he has to move on.
After dinner, he showed me how to play the numbers on our fontune cookie papers, and I gave him more cash than I should have. I met his nephew, who was drunk and who William sent off on his way. He said if he won the lottery, he'd help every homeless man. I don't know if I would have that kind of generosity, and that scared me. I didn't win anything, but I'm glad of it.
There's got to be a better way to help people than giving them cash. I liked that I took William to dinner, that was good, but giving him cash in the end cheapened it for me. I don't think cash is service. It can certainly help, but it can also enable people in bad ways. How does one decide what to do?