“I saw a man with his head bowed low.”
It’s sad really, and I do not always know what to make of it. I see him in a number of places. I think in recent years I have seen him more often. It is surely the work of the poor economic times. What else can it be? I know some will be skeptical. They will think he is out there because he does not want to work, that he is a loafer or worse. Some will accuse him of being a trouble maker. Some will call him an alcoholic or a wino. “Don’t give him any money,” they will warn. “He will just spend it on wine or beer. If he gets a little more money, he will just buy a fifth or a pint.” Can that be true? Are all of them just looking for the next drink?
“His heart had no place to go.”
Perhaps that is not it at all. Perhaps he hangs his head in shame. Perhaps he is embarrassed. Perhaps he had a lot at one time, and circumstance, in conjunction with a long recession, have forced him to seek handouts. You would hang your head too, I suppose. I think I would for sure. Stealing a man’s pride is a crime that can not be imagined by those whose hard work, or luck, or acts of kindness did not bring them to this sad place, this lonely street corner or bus stop, park bench or vacant building. What is left of your pride if you have to sleep under a bridge or alongside the river? Where does your heart live if you live under some bushes or in a cardboard box in whatever accounts for your town’s skid row? If your heart has no warm place to beat, is it really beating at all?
“Why don’t they go to the Salvation Army?” you might demand to know. “Don’t they know about the Night Ministry?” Perhaps they do or perhaps they never thought they would need to know about them. “Certainly Catholic Charities will help them,” you insist. “They can get clean clothes at those second-hand places,” you can proclaim with all the fervor of someone tired of seeing him in the street. I think he may be tired of being in the street, too. It has been a long time in the street and he just may be plain tired. In January the cold can push pretty far south, but here in the midwest it is desperate out there. It can turn once vibrant eyes into vacant stares. He may not see your face as he walks up to your car with a crude sign declaring “homeless” and “please help,” but you see his and you want to forget it. He might wish to forget too, but he can’t because the next car might have some loose change to put in his dirty paper cup.
“I looked and I thought to myself with a sigh:
There but for you go I.”
Whenever I see him, I remember that my fate is better than his. Family members may tell me that it is because of a “good upbringing” that I am not like him. “We were taught to go out in the world and make our own way,” they can tell me with confidence. “If they had any sense at all,” my friends might add, “they would get themselves cleaned up, and would get a job.” Would they? I wonder how a homeless man without any possessions would ever be able to start a job. The Salvation Army says it helped over 30 million people in 2012. Thirty million! Maybe they gave him a meal or two. Perhaps they were able to give him clothes and shelter for a little while. Perhaps they missed him in the crush of humanity they needed to help. They can ring the bells at Christmas time while some drop coins in the kettle, but can they help him? I mean can they help the guy with the ragged jacket and sad look who holds out the dirty coffee cup that once held a moment of warmth inside a nearby McDonald’s? Can all of the charities in all of the cold winter cities, towns and villages help him and everyone like him who is forced to panhandle in the biting January wind?
My mother was born in 1920 and therefore grew up in what the history books refer to as the Great Depression. Survival was tough in the big cities where your blues just mixed with the sounds of all the others. It was tough being the oldest and when the stock market crashed and dragged down the lifestyle of millions and millions, there was no one smart enough to ask why don’t they get out of the street? When my grandmother’s family seemed too poor to survive, a family of some means back east, relatives perhaps, offered to take my grandmother’s oldest child since she obviously could not raise the whole family. That did not happen. My mother told me often, “if you ever have anything to give, then give to the St. Vincent DePaul Society. Without them, we would not have had enough to eat or good clothes to wear during The Depression.” So whenever she saw anyone needing a handout, she did not have a disparaging word. If someone had trouble due to disability or poverty, she would point him out to me and say with the determination of someone who had been there, “Don’t ever think you have it bad, there is always someone else who has it worse (or needs help) more than you.”
“I thought as I thanked all the stars in the sky:
There, but for you, go I.”
- Deadlines Approaching For Holiday Assistance Programs (kake.com)
- Volunteers find blessing in service (amarillo.com)
Song lyrics: There But For You Go I, by Lerner and Lowe, from the musical “Brigadoon”