On a recent trip to get a haircut in the city of Northampton, I ended up giving a homeless man $2. The man, who looked to be in his mid 40s, had positioned himself in front of a set of lights at an off-ramp. He held a cardboard sign with a simple message scrawled in marker. At first I instinctively went into defensive mode upon seeing him, locking the doors of my car and beginning the painful wait for the light to turn green so I could be on my way. Within seconds, though, I had a change of heart.
One of my earliest memories of encountering homeless people is set in the city of Boston. I am young, five or six, with my parents and sister. We're walking to some museum or attraction, and there they are, seated on the sidewalk with small containers of coins and $1 bills. As a child, these people fascinated me. Sometimes they would address me or my younger sister specifically, asking us for help. My father would instruct us not to look or talk to them. We were to keep moving and get to where we were getting.
At the time I didn't understand why my dad insisted we hurry past them. While I knew there was something unusual about grown men spending their days propped against the wall of buildings begging for money, I never felt threatened by them. Perhaps that's because I was just a kid, when one's oblivious to the dangers of the world. Regardless, I eventually learned to treat homeless people with a weary eye.
This was probably for my own good, as this outlook as a youngster kept me out of uncomfortable situations with vagabond strangers. When or if I have children, I will likely impart a similar dictum, as a good father needs to be protective of his children. While it was impossible to know if the risks of interacting with homeless people as a child were real or perceived, I suppose any dad worth his salt doesn't want to find out.
As a young man, my first meaningful experience with a homeless person occurred my senior year of high school. I had taken a trip to Grand Bahama Island with one of my best friends during February vacation. As we sat on a pier overlooking the ocean and the evening stars, a man approached and engaged us in conversation. He was affable and good natured, and told us a story of how he'd been homeless for 10 years. His advice to us was to stay in school, a decision he appeared to have regretted. We offered him some raspberry ginger ale, and after a cordial goodbye, he was gone.
My interaction with this Bahamian of no address went a long way in helping me to see that most homeless folks are people of poor circumstances - some brought on themselves, some by external factors. Our conversation enabled me to experience this man's humanity. Afterward, I saw homeless people as individuals rather than members of some collective. When I could, I'd donate .50 cents or a dollar to their coffers.
Through the years, I've given to a wide range of homeless individuals. Some just beggars, others musicians or artisans offering something - a song, a drawing, a trick - in exchange for a schilling. All of these people I experienced face to face. I had stood next to them, looked into their eyes, occupied the same physical space. It wasn't until recently that I finally decided to give to a "traffic braver." And it was because of a book that I decided to roll down my window and extend my hand with two crisp dollar bills to a pair of gloved fingers.
Over Christmas vacation I finished Justin Cronin's 766 page tome The Passage. One of the characters, Carter, was a man who because of destitute circumstances, became homeless. For part of the story, Cronin explains the various reactions Carter would receive from motorists as he stood by a highway overpass with his cardboard sign and extended hand.
When I saw this man standing by the off-ramp, I eventually thought of Carter, and how much Carter would have appreciated my charity.
One of the reasons we read fiction in school is to engage in the telling and appreciation of a good story. Through the stories of others, we discover more about ourselves, our motivations and dispositions, and we acquire a greater understanding of - and compassion for - those around us.
Stories don't need to be true to affect us in the realest of ways. Indeed, it's often works of fiction that have the most meaningful and lasting impact.