Outside the post office I was getting into my car. An unshaven heavy-set man pulling an old suitcase behind him politely called me “Sir” and asked if I could help him get a little something to eat. I quickly dismissed him with a perfunctory, “I’m really sorry.” He just said, “Okay,” and labored on his way toward a small public park at the end of the street.
I don’t normally have cash on me. At most, I have a small collection of change in the cup holder in my car. But this morning I had a rare amount of cash in my wallet. $12. My mind began the standard cynical debate which occurs almost daily whenever confronted with these all-too-routine requests for help:
He’ll probably only spend anything I give him on alcohol or something similar.
He’s probably a con artist.
He’s not my responsibility.
I’ve got bills of my own to pay.
And on and on.
I watched him in the rearview mirror of my car. He’d settled himself on a small stone fence that divided two properties down the street. Before doing so, he’d looked around to be certain, I assume, that he wouldn’t bother anyone or be chased away by a home owner. He just sat there and looked across the street at the empty park.
I don’t know exactly what prompted me to do so, but impulsively I took out my wallet. $12. A ten and two singles. I tucked the two singles back into my wallet, walked down the street to where he was sitting, stuck my arm out awkwardly and offered they guy the ten. He looked at me blankly. Like he didn’t understand what was happening. Didn’t reach for the money at first. It then seemed to dawn on him what was happening.
“Really?” He was visibly shocked. His eyes went from the $10 bill to me and back to the ten and then back to me. Slowly. An expression of benign incredulity. I had to place the money in his hand. He wouldn’t reach for it. “Thanks, brother.”
“Take care of yourself.”
This entire exchange from our first encounter to the moment the money got into his hand lasted maybe five minutes and involved $10. Not a great sum of cash. Not much at stake. But I wasn’t gonna give him anything at first. I wanted to hold onto that money. I can be a stingy SOB. And then the time I took to rationalize and bolster my stingy behavior. Then the impulse to help him out in some small way. The need to almost force him to take the money. His quiet disbelief. We spoke about six sentences between us. Nothing eloquent or memorable at all.
Stella Adler used to tell her students, “It’s not the lines. It’s the life!” Each moment is a world of experience. A world of thought. A world of feeling. Of impulse embraced and impulse denied. Never a dead or dull moment.