Chasing Inspiration

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

I Met Charles Today

  1. Gluten free vegan cupcakes that are fueling my current story. And my belly.
  2. My husband. When he gets it right, he really gets it right.
  3. Foxes on Twitter. Seriously, check out @hourlyfox on Twitter!

I met Charles today. 

He was standing at a heavily travelled intersection near my home. An intersection I use at least once a day. An intersection where I often see people standing with homemade signs asking for a meal, money, a kind word. I'm often in the wrong lane to talk to anyone standing in the median, but today I saw Charles. And I was in the left turn lane right next to the median. 

Charles is a large man. His sign looked worn and he looked tired. He had set a beat up backpack down at his feet and stood there, patiently, waiting to see if anyone of us who were stopped at the light would wave him over. 

I had just purchased groceries, but they were in the trunk so I couldn't offer him any of the food I had purchased. But I had money. I pulled out a twenty from my wallet, rolled down my window and waved to him. 

Charles limped over and when he took the cash from my hand there was a hesitancy in his reach. He canted his head in a way that made me think he had trouble seeing out of one of his eyes. I reached further out of my car window to make sure he had a good grasp on the bill, then I told him I hope it could help. 

 He was profusely grateful, blessed me. Told me to have a good day. I asked him if he needed more. I could come back with sandwiches and water or soda. Did he have somewhere to spend the night? Did he need a ride to a shelter? Cab fare? He told me he had somewhere to stay. What he didn't have was food for meals. And thank you for the offer but he wasn't going to be at this location much longer. 

I don't know Charles' story. I don't know what events in his life coalesced to create a circumstance where he found himself standing on medians in intersections asking for money. I wish I had time to ask him, but our time was short as the light turned green and I had to drive away. 

It's easy to look at people like Charles and assume they are lazy or on drugs or scamming everyone. I'm ashamed to admit in my younger years I made such assumptions. Then I met a woman at a downtown bus stop on November afternoon. I was off work early and waiting for a bus to take me to my park and ride. She was sitting in the shelter trying to stay warm. I had a crazy expensive cup of coffee and she looked tired and hungry. So I asked her if she wanted my coffee, set it on the bench beside her. 

Charles reminded me of her. She was hesitant to take what I had offered. It was like life had held up promises of salvation only to yank them away at the last moment far too many times. I asked her if she worked downtown. She shook her head. So I asked her if she was warm enough. I could see her shivering. I was getting on a bus to head to my nice warm home. I was wearing a warm coat, warm clothes, a hat, scarf, gloves. She was dressed in tattered jeans, a lightweight sweater. Nothing else. So I took off my gloves, hat, and scarf and set them down next to the coffee. 

She took my offerings, wrapping the scarf around her neck and put the hat on her head. The gloves sat on her lap as she wrapped her bare hands around the coffee cup. Breathed in the warmth and the scent before she took a long sip. Then she started to tell me she had lost her job six months prior, and with only a GED she was finding safe jobs that paid more than minimum wage difficult to find. She had just lost her apartment and was living with friends, but didn't think she would be able to stay long. When she lost her apartment, she lost most of her belongings because the landlord was holding them. 

Homelessness and poverty are epidemics right now. In my experience most people don't want to see it. We see the homeless and the poor as other, as somehow less deserving. Or as an abstract concept. Most people don't want to believe homelessness or poverty could happen to them. I don't know about you, but my family is separated from homelessness by narrow gap. We have savings. My husband has a job. But I can't work right now. And the bank still owns a portion of our home. If A were to lose his job and not find one for some time, if medical expenses grow the way it looks like they may grow, well, we could use all our reserves. And if not become homeless, we could fall deep down the well of poverty. 

And I know the well of poverty. I've lived in various flavors of poverty a few times in my life. My dad lost his job in the early 80s and I remember mom using food stamps to get groceries. Dad going door to door selling Watkins. Dad working in bush operating (and fixing) feller bunchers so he could provide for us. Mom and dad talking about the money we didn't have, certain they were being quiet enough that we wouldn't hear. Listening to the hushed tones of relatives who talked about the poor relations and realizing they meant us.

I remember being on my own for the first time and having barely enough money to afford my car and the room I rented. A was finish college and had a plan at the cafeteria and would often let me use his plan so I could eat. I made $800 gross a month working full time as a live out nanny and counted myself lucky to have a job and a place to live. When we were first married, I had left Canada to live in the United States and couldn't work until I got my green card. A had a barely better than minimum wage job. We purchased a mobile home almost as old as we were because we could afford the lot rent but we couldn't afford an apartment. And we made it work. 

It took until I met that girl at the bus stop for me to build empathy for people who live in a cycle of poverty. And it took even longer to try to understand why that cycle exists in the first place. 

I don't know if I'll ever learn Charles' story. Or learn of where his life takes him. I hope Charles is okay. I hope he has what he needs to sleep well tonight. Food, shelter, safety. I hope he is able to connect with the right resources for him. I hope others treat him with care and compassion. He's a person with a story. He deserves dignity. I hope he has more of that then he has judgement.

Photo by Rob Walsh via Flickr, CC0 1.0

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