Pride pushed me to achieve stability for myself and my small family. I took advantage of opportunities available to a white person with education. I bought a house from my parents’ estate, taking advantage of a generous, no interest payment plan. I raised my two children in a safe, small-town homeschooling situation while working as a teacher in the school they attended. All the things one expects out of life came true. I was proud of my achievements, proud of my children, and happy in my situation.
Ironically, pride is a powerful screen that can hide something as huge as the terror of living through untenable uncertainty. Terror not faced cropped up in a mysterious, inconvenient, and unfortunate way.
Last year, twenty-four years after becoming a teacher with a steady income. I published an article about my failure to respond to someone in need. It seemed a lifetime had passed since living with the terror of the world falling out from under my feet as a single mother and sole provider for two souls, a lifetime since I had worried about homelessness. I was hard working and successful. I had avoided the calamity of which I was most afraid. People were impressed with my story. I had come far. I believed them when they congratulated my strength and fortitude. I was finally in a league to “pay it forward” by seriously donating to charities and food drives.
Like me, many of us experience the act of “paying it forward” whether in a grocery line, contributing to Food for Families, or donating to local food pantries. Perhaps like me, many purchase a sandwich or a cup of soup for a cleanly dressed person on a street corner who approaches and asks politely. Most of us donate money to organizations like the Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity, or causes for veterans. There is an endless list of worthy causes to make us feel we are doing something to help. Those efforts are safe. They don’t take much time, they don’t require person to person contact. This is all fine, but what happens when one is confronted with an individual buffeted by a pauper’s life on the street?
On December 31, 2019, the last day of a difficult year that cinched my decision to retire at the end of the second school term, and with no way of knowing that in seven short weeks, 2020 would be a worse year, I pulled into Starbucks. This was my special treat for coping with a drive to Stockton, California. Stockton is a rough town, rated 3 on a scale where 100 is safest.
I went there to see a pain specialist because of injuries sustained while struggling as an apartment manager, exasperated by single motherhood, and a bad fall. Good news or bad news, I always stopped to give myself some sugary, caffeinated love. Even though I did not feel safe in Stockton, the treat had a calming effect that negated my need to race home beyond the posted speed limit like a barn-sour horse.
I entered Starbucks’ parking lot.
A beggar huddled on the island in the middle of the entrance/exit split off Hwy 88 and Hwy 99. To enter Starbucks, a driver had to pass him (or her) coming and going.
I shut down, as I often do when confronted with this choice. I could not tell if the person was a man or a woman, crouched as the person was under a mountain of clothing. Was he or she young, old, black, white, or any other color in between? Were they on drugs, did they have hidden weapons? He or she held a sign, but the lettering was so faded I could not read it from the car. Did it say, “Out of work,” or “Homeless,” or “Need money,” or “Clothes,” or “Food?” This was Stockton. The unidentifiable person under the mound of clothing was panhandling, either by default or by “choice,” as so many people insist.
I entered Starbucks wrapped in thought, eager to use a gift card one of my dear students had given me for this treat, but seeing a person huddled and begging for something brought forth a deluge of anxiety I didn’t really define at the time.
When I stepped outside, the person was still there, unmoving. I took a few steps toward him or her and tried to catch their eyes, figuring I might be able to size up the situation if I could see their expression. When I couldn’t, I didn’t look twice. Truth be told, I didn’t try very hard. My heart was pounding with unreasonable fear, and I think pride was blocking my access to the real cause of that fear.
However, I blamed it on the gift card I held in my hand. There was money left on it. I could hand my gift card through the car window, but what if caffeine was detrimental to their mental or physical health? What if Starbucks wouldn’t let them in? Should I step back into the shop and buy a banana? What if they, like me, reacted poorly to bananas? Did my student have a re-gift in mind when she gave it? For this particular student, her gift had been a tremendous act of generosity.
From the safety of my car, I regarded the person on the island through my side mirror. My heart was crying for action, but my ego justified not acting. As a young girl, I heard grandfather stories. One story taught me, don’t give money. There was a McDonald’s next door. I didn’t have much cash on me. The amount I had wasn’t enough for a hamburger, which was at best a momentary fix. Would coffee do? What if they needed shoes, or medication? What if, what if, what if?
My anxiety told me – run away. My head argued with my heart, calculating all the ramifications of helping or not helping. Was I prolonging someone’s helplessness, the same helplessness I felt when raising two small children by myself? Was this someone taking advantage of others panhandling like this? The guilt I felt taking advantage of Food Stamps, and payment plans grew like a swarm of locusts as I sat there. People in need taking advantage was another common stereotype and one I had worked hard to get out from under.
A percentage of homeless people lacking jobs and living on the streets have severe anxieties and mental health disorders. They can’t find jobs; or if they do, they can’t keep them. Housing prices in California are astronomical, and housing is generally unavailable. It was a stroke of luck that I found the job I did. Or was it? Had that luck come from white privilege?
The question pummeled my ego which took a different tact. I was older, less equipped to defend myself should the need arise, even though I knew that it was more likely that a homeless person would be attacked rather than perpetuate an attack. Still, my ego told me, don’t get out of the car. For a few moments I sat there in conflict, trying to intuit the right course of action.
In the end, I ignored the huddled person on the island and drove home. The treat did not slow my flight as it usually did, nor did I enjoy it.
What was this huddled person’s story? I will never know. I threw away my chance to ask. It was an opportunity to reach out, to ease a moment, to hear Story and I drove away. There are many reasons for homelessness, seldom is it a choice like some would believe. I invite you to check out next week, Fumble – Part Three, when I explore some of those reasons.