Friday, April 27, 2012

Too Little, Too Late

Photo by Mantas Ruzbeltas
by Danielle Fender  

Today is the first day of fall. Well, not according to the calendar where it is still about a week away, but for me it is. You know the kind of day I mean: the evening air finally has a coolness to it that you never feel during the heat and humidity of summer; football season has started (not that I’m a big fan, mind you, but when I was growing up, it was an important time in my family, so I still link the two together). The neighborhood kids who you see playing all day in the summer are now only out a few hours between the end of the school day and dusk, which is now arriving noticeably earlier. It’s a feeling. Every year you wait for fall to arrive, but when it does, you are still surprised. It just hits you one day; summer is over.

Today is also the first time I saw the dirty, homeless man on the side of the road close to my office building carrying a “Will Work for Food” sign. I haven’t seen him before, and my first thought is: “Sure. I bet you make more money than I do.” I’ve seen the documentaries on television about people who panhandle who are offered legitimate work and never show up to do it. Later, they are filmed throwing their signs into the trunks of newer cars and driving off, presumably to their nice homes in good neighborhoods. What a racket! And to think most of us do it the hard way by going in to work five days (or more) a week. Maybe I’m in the wrong business.

The man smiles and nods at me as I come to a stop at a red light a short block away from work. He doesn’t say anything or approach my car. I smile back, but I feel uncomfortable, knowing that I am on my way to work while he is out there holding that sign. I remind myself that he is probably a con artist and drive on when the light turns green.

He is there again the next day but not the rest of the week. I’m embarrassed to admit that I am relieved when I don’t see him there, waiting and smiling and holding that sign. I even take to making sure I am in the right lane by the time I get to that stoplight each day so there won’t be any possibility of making eye contact. I don’t know if I should feel guilty for avoiding him or angry at myself for feeling guilty. What if he is one of the homeless who really do just need a good meal? What if he isn’t trying to take advantage of the kindnesses of strangers? “Stop!” I tell myself. “That’s how they get you. They play on your doubt and your sympathy.” I decide to just ignore him if I see him in the future.

I pretty much forget about the man until I see him again Monday morning. He is in the same spot, in the same worn, dirty clothes, carrying the same sign. Out of the corner of my eye, I see him smile and nod at me, but I look straight ahead and don’t respond. I even glance down to make sure my door is locked, not that I think he will actually try to get in, but you never know. If he really is homeless he might be mentally unstable and capable of anything.

My daily drive to work continues like this for weeks. Some weeks he is there every day, and others he is only there some of the days. There doesn’t seem to be any pattern to it, I just know I breathe a sigh of relief when he doesn’t appear. He is never there when I leave work for lunch or at the end of the day, and for that I am grateful. He never does anything threatening, unless you consider smiling threatening, yet I am becoming increasingly unnerved by his presence. “Can’t he find a different spot away from where I have to drive to stand and beg and make people feel sorry for him?” I wonder to myself.

Weeks turn into months, and now it is time for the season to change again. Fall has given way to winter and Christmas is only days from now. The holiday spirit is in the air, and I am constantly running through to-do lists in my head in preparation for all the season’s festivities. Winter has begun this year unseasonably cold for December in South Carolina, and I actually had to scrape ice off my windshield this morning before leaving for work. I usually don’t have to do that until after the New Year.

As I approach work today, I see the familiar figure of the homeless man on his corner, still holding the same faded sign as I had seen that first time several months ago. He hasn’t “missed” any days lately, leaving me to again speculate on reasons for him not being there some mornings in the past. He is smiling as usual and is bundled up in a bulky sweater, coat, scarf, hat, and gloves. I smile to myself, glad that he has been able to acquire some warm clothing. Even my gloved fingers hurt from the cold when I got in my car and waited for it to warm up that morning. It really is unusually cold in the mornings.

Later that night, I start thinking about the man, who I now refer to in my thoughts as “my homeless friend.” When I think back to that morning, I realize something that escaped me at the time: even though the man was fully dressed in heavy clothing, he seemed quite thin, and his face looked rather lean and gaunt. He definitely looked different than he did in the fall when I first saw him. Maybe he isn’t eating enough. Or anything at all. Suddenly, I am worried. I hadn’t been truly concerned for him before, but now I think that maybe I have been wrong about him after all. I am not well off by any means, struggling is more like it, but I can certainly afford to help someone in dire need, even if it’s just a few meals. I surmise that I haven’t noticed his change in appearance sooner because although I have stopped avoiding him, I don’t really pay close attention to him either. I fall asleep thinking about my “friend,” my guilty conscience making for uneasy slumber this night.

The next day is Friday, and I am using a vacation day at work in order to get some things done in time for Christmas, so I don’t see the man as I usually do on a Friday morning. Out-of-town guests arrive for the weekend, and I am busy playing hostess. I don’t think much about my friend until Christmas evening when we go around the table before dinner, everyone briefly saying what he or she is thankful for in his or her life. Afterwards, as we hang our heads to say grace, I fight back tears when I think about the homeless man, and I wonder if he has a place to go for Christmas. Is he warm and safe? Is he able to eat a good meal? I know the shelters fill up quickly when it’s cold, and they have to turn people away into the freezing darkness of night. Where else could he go for Christmas? I silently pray someone else has taken him in, and then I am immediately ashamed because I could have done so, myself, instead of hoping someone else has done it. I look around at the abundance of food on the table, knowing that some of it will go to waste because people always tire of leftovers and end up throwing them away after a few days. I think about the fire in the fireplace, keeping us warm, even too warm at times, as we bustled about the kitchen preparing the meal earlier that day. We are a group of close family and friends, laughing and enjoying each other’s company, sharing the holiday. How fortunate we are! And how selfish and ungrateful I feel at that moment.

I have to find a way to help my homeless friend, although I’m not exactly sure how to go about it. But what I do know is that I can’t turn a blind eye to him any longer, not because it’s Christmas, and I’m feeling generous, but simply because he needs it. How far away from homelessness are a lot of us? A few paychecks? One medical emergency? One prolonged illness? Maybe I can help him find a job. I can hire him to do a few odd jobs for me, but with my limited means, that will only provide a very temporary solution. He needs something with long-term potential. But what if he resents my help? What if he sees me as some do-gooder who wants a little pet project to make her feel good? I decide I will just try to see what happens. Although I have been known to donate to charities and good causes, and I will always help a friend if I can, I am not what one would call a humanitarian on a grand scale. I don’t know what to do, so I decide to start by taking some food to him on my way to work when I return after Christmas. Maybe I can pay him to take down my Christmas lights? I don’t know where to start, so I figure I’ll just start somewhere.

I feel good about my decision as I pack several meals-worth of food and several bottles of water. I got up early this morning so as to allow myself enough time to stop to talk to him and give him the food and still be at work on time. I put the package in my car and leave for work.

As I get closer to work, my nervousness is growing. I have no idea how the man will react, and I fear a confrontation, although my instinct tells me he is not the type to cause a scene. As I approach the corner where he usually stands, I am somewhat surprised to see that he isn’t there. It has been a long time since there was a morning when he didn’t appear, but I assume he must have found a place to go, even if just for a short time, and I am glad that he doesn’t have to be out in the cold morning air. I know the food will keep for a day or two and figure I’ll bring it with me again the next morning.

But he isn’t there the next morning. Or the next. New Year’s Day comes and goes, and I still don’t see him. Can it be that he found a home? Or a space in a shelter? I hope in my heart that he has as I throw away the second package of food I have made for him since the first one went bad. Another week passes, and he still doesn’t make an appearance. Maybe he has chosen a different street, one where he will have better luck. I even drive around the streets near my work to see if maybe he is still in the area, but to no avail. He is gone.

Time passes, and finally it is fall again, bringing with it that familiar feeling. I think about my friend as I drive by his corner one day on my way to work. I can’t believe it has already been a year since I first saw him standing there looking dirty but happy, smiling and holding his sign. I still wonder from time to time what has become of him, regretting that I waited so long to try to help him, but hoping he is doing well.

I arrive at work fifteen minutes early, so I make a cup of coffee and sit down at the lunchroom table, grabbing that morning’s newspaper someone had left behind on the counter. I usually get my news online, but I haven’t been on the internet yet today and figure I’ll kill some time by reading the paper. I sip my coffee as I glance over the headlines. I start reading a front page article which is continued on page seven. As I turn the pages, another headline catches my eye. It reads, “Body of homeless man found in abandoned building.” My heart starts beating hard in my chest. Finding the bodies of homeless people is not an altogether uncommon occurrence, but a sick feeling in my stomach tells me to read further because I fear it might be my homeless friend.

And it is.

The official cause of death is pneumonia, but he was also suffering from starvation. He has been dead for many months, probably since winter, the coroner determined, based on the autopsy results as well as the fact that he was wearing winter clothing. He has not been identified by name, but a few people came forward to say that they knew him by sight and that he sometimes worked odd jobs in exchange for food and a place to sleep for a day or two. Perhaps that’s why he wasn’t on his corner some mornings.

I put down my coffee and the paper. I could feel the painful lump in my throat that I get whenever I try to keep myself from crying. I know it is just a matter of moments before my face will be flooded with tears, and I’ll be openly sobbing, unable to help myself. I am overcome with grief and guilt. There’s no way for me to know how much I could have helped him or even if I could have helped him. And I know giving one man a few meals won’t solve all his problems. But I should have done something. Anything. I hadn’t even tried, too wrapped up in my own life.

The rest of the day at work I move like a sleepwalker. Everything seems trivial in comparison to how disgusted with myself I am. I feel guilty because I tried too late to help him. I feel guilty because I feared him and avoided him. And I feel guilty because I had the gall to think of him as my homeless “friend” when I didn’t even know his name.

I don’t tell anyone what is wrong with me today. It is my private shame.

Several months later, my heart jumps in my chest as I am driving to work and see what at first appears to be a familiar sight: the homeless man waiting on the corner holding his sign. Of course it is a different man, with a slightly different sign, but he has the same need. I see him far enough ahead of time to be able to move over into the left lane before I reach him. Fortunately, the light turns red and when I stop I roll down my window and motion him over to my car. I hand him the lunch I made for that day and smile. He smiles back and takes the bag back to his corner. As I continue on my way to work, I look back at him in my rearview mirror. He is hungrily eating the lunch. As I said before, I have to start somewhere.


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