Talking to Strangers: Pam

There are two forms of help you can offer a person.  The first is a kind that helps them; this might look like buying someone a meal, giving someone a ride, feeding someone’s dogs for them or volunteering at a food shelter.  Whether the act is big or small, it’s the kind of help that serves others.  It’s a selfless act that strictly affects them.  This is a good and healthy brand of interaction; giving of your time and energy and compassion and it’s a very difficult activity to take part in because most of us, myself included, are guilty of the second kind of helping…

The Helping Disease.

This is the kind of helping wherein I do something for a purpose or a reason and that purpose and that reason are never just to help.  There are one of two underlying motives in this type of help, both of them equally destructive.  The first is the You-Owe-Me mentality that comes along with helping, specifically, a friend or family member and I hate it when this sort of thinking creeps into my psyche.  “Oh, I’m taking So-and-So’s parents to the airport this morning?  Well, now they owe me big!”  or, “I lent this person my circular saw and it’s so expensive and now next time I need something…” Or, “Sure, I’ll baby sit your kids…” and then in the back of your mind you know you have an Ace up your sleeve for later.

I hate it.  I hate feeling like that and I hate rolling that first kind of Helping over into the mud and watching it transform into that second, gross kind of Helping.  It’s not healthy, it’s not selfless, it’s not good.  This second brand of Helping People is nothing more than Greed in Disguise and we’ve all been guilty of it.

It’s Helping Others only to Help Yourself.

Once in a great while, however, you’ll help someone for a third reason, and maybe this third reason is even just a little worse than the second one.  This third reason can’t be pinned down and it does a much better job of hiding because we’re able to slyly slip it into conversations while trying to make it look like something beautiful.  We say things like, “Oh, yeah… so I was mowing my grandmother’s lawn…” Or, “The other day I gave someone a fifty dollar tip on a forty dollar check.”

It’s this kind of Helping that quietly serves you and draws attention to you.  It’s the kind of Helping that one does and then holds onto like an expensive gem and waits for the perfect opportunity to alert those around them of their actions.  They want to be noticed and talked about and awarded for their kindness.

Worse than that they (or me) are not doing it to Help someone else, they’re (I’m) only doing it to Help themselves (myself).  It’s damaging and taints the whole process and the Heart of Helping.  It changes you and is a sickness; a cancer in the heart of generosity.  And it’s this third disease that is brought forth and put on display in today’s Talking To Strangers.

This morning I found myself sitting solo at a table outside a Jamba Juice.  Having just walked out of a chiropractor appointment, I was feeling loose as a goose and decided to treat myself to a fruity beverage, kick back in the morning sunshine and soak in the entertainment on my phone in the particular flavor of Plants vs. Zombies 2 (a free download, FYI) when suddenly, a raspy voice calls out to me, “‘Scuse me, sir?  You got any change you can spare fer some food?”

I want to help the homeless and the needy.  I really do.  Let me start by saying that.  It’s very Jesus-y and I like that.  I like being as Jesus-y as possible.  But… there’s this other part of me that says, “I want to help you… I just want to do it tomorrow… or at some other juncture in time when I’m not actually around…”  I want to help but helping the homeless is so… I don’t know… hands-on-interactive.

I want to give you food and help but I’m afraid that I will become trapped in some kind of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie scenario wherein our relationship will spiral out of control and soon you’ll be living on my couch and wearing my ties.

I hear a lot of people say, “I try my best!” and they are either, A.) not very good at trying or B.) clearly delusional because we don’t try our best.  We don’t do all we can do to help those around us.  We don’t, in fact, often try a fraction of our best.  The truth is, we try sometimes and only if it’s convenient for us.

My knee jerk reaction is for my martyr’s heart to leap into my throat at the sight of a person in need directly before quietly mumbling some half baked lie, looking away and heading for the nearest cover where I can work on hating myself for the rest of the day for being too much of a coward to stop what I’m doing to help.  It’s that Selfish Human Technique we’re all so good at.  Don’t pop my bubble!  The Bubble of Safety!  The Bubble of Separation!  I’ve spent many hours getting my bubble just the way I like it and I don’t need any strangers coming in here and messing things up.  Don’t.  Pop.  My.  Bubble.

But today, in this story, I try.  Because… the truth is, this story would actually be pretty boring if it started with, “A guy asked me for some money” and then immediately ended with me saying, “BEAT IT, NERD!”

That said… allow me to get back to the matter at hand.

I put down my phone and look over.  Hold eye contact.  Talk.

I say, “No,” and I say, “I don’t carry cash,” and, the truth is, these are both lies.  I have about sixty dollars made up of various denominations in my front, right pocket but I won’t be giving a dime to someone who clearly has a difficult time managing their finances.  Sidenote, I always try to look The Homeless in the eyes to let them know that I’m not afraid of them.  Not in a Knife-Fight sort of way but more in the I Understand That You Exist and I Want to Respectfully Acknowledge Your Presence sort of way.

The guy is slightly overweight and sitting in a wheel chair.  His hands are filthy but his socks are pearly white like they’d just been washed or recently purchased.  He has on black sweat pants and an Avengers superhero t-shirt that has been stuffed to make it intentionally look like he has breasts.  Above that is a rugged grey beard that he’d been growing for a while and on top of his head is a shoulder length woman’s wig with bangs.  He is a brunette.

I say, “I’ve got a credit card and I can buy you something from Noah’s Bagels if you’d like,” and he says, “Yeah, that would be nice,” and I say, “What do you want?  What sounds good?” and he says, “I don’t care,” and I say, with just a hint of playful humor in my voice, “You don’t care?  You don’t have a preference?  You don’t prefer something special?” because now I’m invested and I don’t just want to help this guy, I want to really help him.  Not like… help him get back on his feet or anything, I just really want him to have a spectacular breakfast.  I want him to walk away going, “I ASKED THE RIGHT GUY THIS MORNING!  WOO-HOO!  THAT BREAKFAST HIT THE SPOT!”  because this exchange is no longer about him.

It’s about me.

It’s that third type of helping that has just taken over; The Kind of Helping that is about me getting my jollies.  The kind that is about me feeling good about myself.  The kind that specifically says things like, “I don’t want to help you get back on your feet, I just want you to know you asked the right guy for breakfast this morning.”

The Selfish Helper.

Me.

I repeat my question and say, “Anything?  Anything at all?  Any special requests?” but he just says, “Nope.  Beggars can’t be choosers”.

I tell him I’ll be right back and, just before entering the bagel shop I’m struck by genius and turn around to say, “You want coffee?” and he says, “I can’t drink coffee,” and I think to myself, Man, this guy is really killing my Helper Buzz.  I’m having a hard time feeling good about myself with him being so polite about his needs.  LET ME HELP YOU!  LET ME BE YOUR 9:30AM BREAKFAST HERO!

I walk inside and tell the worker I need to order something healthy.  If the homeless guy can’t drink coffee, he’s obviously UNhealthy (fair reasoning)… so I’m going to get him the healthiest but still most delicious thing on the menu and when he opens it up he’s going to be like, “What a thoughtful person that bald fellow was!  Healthy and delicious!  I usually only get one or the other, what with being poor and all and my beggars-can’t-be-choosers life motto but here it is – delicious AND nutritious in a single sandwich!”

The worker points out some wheat bread selection that has mushrooms and Swiss cheese and asparagus on it.  It’s under their SMART CHOICE menu that’s been written on a chalk board in fancy cursive handwriting so you know it’s good.  I mean, you know it’s a Smart Choice if you’re ordering off of a menu specifically labeled Smart Choice.  I look around and briefly feel sorry for all the other frumpy ghouls dining off the Idiot’s Choice menu.  Dummies.

I toss on a lemonade flavored vitamin water thinking he’d love that; getting a refreshing drink – that’s been filled with vitamins no less! – when he didn’t even ask for one.  The clerk rings it up and… nine bucks.  That’s the cost of integrity.  I am a person with integrity and it was purchased for almost an entire ten dollar bill.  Now we’re talkin’.  Karma Payment Plan, baby.  This is coming around BIG TIME.  THIS IS WHAT GENEROSITY LOOKS LIKE!

I’m standing there and I just wish there were some way that all these people in the store could KNOW that I wasn’t actually going to eat this sandwich I’d just purchased off of the slightly more expensive Smart Choice menu.  I was going to leave and give it to a horribly crippled, transgender man in desperate need of my services.  How could I show them without actually SHOWING THEM?  How could I tell people that I’d helped someone (third brand of helping) without being too On-The-Nose about it?  How can I draw attention to myself without turning a spotlight on?  And then, like a cattle prod to the rectum, I knew… I’d go home and write a blog about it, disguising my selfish gloating in staccato bursts of pathetic, self examining humor.

I walk outside with a little bounce in my step and sit back at my table.  The guy stares at me like I’m trying to pull something over on him.  I don’t think he’s used to people taking a moment to “Give back to the community” as I like to call it.  I slowly and deliberately hand him his sandwich so he knows that I’m not afraid of his interaction.  His presence does not offend me.  I am in no rush to get back to Plants vs. Zombies 2.  I’m okay with being in proximity to him and his homeless aura.  To show him that I’m serious about the interesting moment that we’re sharing, I ask him a personal question.  I say, “Where do you live?” and he says, “Here. On the street.”

I say, “How long you been out here?” and he says, “Three months,” and I ask where he was before this and he tells me that he took an Amtrak from Missouri with a friend.  I say that I’ve never been on the Amtrak before and that it sounds like a fun adventure.  He tells me he’s probably going to leave after a few more months to go home.  I suppose even the homeless like to get a vacation in from time to time because working to stay alive is a full time job.

I ask him what his name is and he looks off towards the horizon.  He hesitates and his eyes seem to gloss over for a moment under that wig that may or may not have been purchased in a party store before he says, “Pam.”  I say, “You’ve got nice hair, Pam,” and he says, “Thank you.  I wish it were mine.”

And then he blurts out something about how he has to get going and I can almost see the awkward fear in his eyes.  Something in his voice is too familiar and then… yeah, he sounds like me trying to avoid someone.  He sounds like me mumbling up my half baked lies.  We had crossed over from the customary exchange of strangers and he wanted to say, “Don’t pop my bubble!”

I told him goodbye and watched him roll away, all alone, down the sidewalk.  I sat in my chair sipping my Mango Delight Smoothie and watched him eat his sandwich half a block away, all alone.

Made me feel good.

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