I don’t usually stop for these people unless they approach me. As I say, I’ve learned my lesson. You can go up to someone who is in obvious need, he’s rummaging through a waste bin or checking out all the pay phones and he’s in rags. You can proffer a couple of bucks and for your efforts receive a dismissive sneer that’s not interested in your charity. Fine. I’ve had enough of having my charity rebuffed, and so I leave them alone if they leave me alone. If they make no effort in my direction I’ll leave them alone even if they have a paper cup sitting in front of them or an empty hat. Ask me is all I ask. If they don’t, sometimes I’ll drop something in but sometimes I won’t.
This time I’m passing a sheltered alcove between two coffee shops – a Second Cup and a Starbucks – and some fellow standing there calls out a hello and I answer the same but continue on my way. I continue for a few steps until I decide that he has made an approach and the weather is cold and why not go back and against my established principle offer some change to someone who hasn’t asked for it. I’m sure in this case not to receive a rebuff.
He’s in his 60’s dressed against the cold with a bushy beard and lips that protrude. I say something about his being in a protected spot and he thanks me for stopping and gladly takes the two buck coin I extend while we exchange pleasantries that are entirely forgettable. In the process of this back and forth conversation, he tells me a bit of his story that is hard luck as all these stories are but, in his case, touches a chord since he had been a musician who had once lived in a fine home and had had a stroke and his very aged mother was demented and he could hardly walk a few steps. Someone had given him five dollars only the day before and someone else had stolen it. Well, I had some cash on me and it wouldn’t hurt to restore him completely to his former self of the day before with extra, and so I peeled off a twenty that he gladly accepted. In this spirit of bonhomie he asked if I would have breakfast with him and since it was a Sunday morning and to turn him down with some excuse or other would be the equivalent of a lie, I agreed and together we entered the Starbucks, him shuffling beside me.
As I was out on my morning walk and wished to make this occasion as brief as possible, I ordered no more than a black coffee for myself while he asked for the same along with a bagel and cream cheese that he asked me to spread for him – such an establishment is Starbuck’s that their food comes in little plastic containers. Naturally I had paid and that was all right. We exchanged more conversation as we breakfasted and had some jokes. He told me that he would have to wait until the eighteenth of the month when the Mission’s doors opened for the coming winter in order for those like himself to sleep inside. When he asked me for my phone number, I borrowed a pen from the Starbuck’s lady and wrote it down for him on a card that he had. I couldn’t say no. Outside the café, we went our separate ways and in order not to show that I wanted to get away scot-free as I felt I was giving the appearance, I called out for him to call me should he ever really need to. That evening my phone rang.