What struck me the most, is that the girls were coloring.
It was an average day for them; nothing special. They were stretched out on their bellies, laying on blankets in the sun. One looked to be about four years old, the other eight.
To my ignorant eyes, they looked… content, would be the best word. Neither upset nor joyous. Just fine ‘n’ dandy with where they were, and what they were doing.
They say kids can adapt to anything, which is true. Because I don’t think the girls understood their mother was begging for money while they drew.
One Day Earlier
To be specific, I’m angry at myself, because I screwed up.
My call time was 11:00 AM, and I had left at 9:30 for the 45-minute drive. I was going to be early, because being early is what I do. It’s professional.
Unfortunately, at 10:20 AM, a mere 10 minutes from my destination, the realization hit me: I left my wardrobe choices in the hotel room. The production had asked me to bring three options for them to choose from, and I’d brought nothing.
What’s worse is that it’s not like I’d forgotten that morning; I’d actually had the crystal clear thought, “OK, don’t forget anything.” Following that, I took my shirts off their respective hangers and laid them out on the bed.
Which is where I left them.
I immediately hit up my contact with an apology, telling her what I’d done and that I would be there ASAP. Her response was kind and forgiving; she bore no grudge toward my tardiness or unprofessionalism.
Driving down, I’d been doing a casual five miles over the speed limit. Cruise control was on, and relaxing classical music was playing on the radio. Now, I was doing somewhere between eighty and eighty-five miles an hour. I was swearing at other drivers poking along in the left-hand lane, because I needed to vent somehow. My anger wasn’t directed at them, though. Everything was my fault, and I was in my head, beating myself up.
I started doing the math; if I do this right, I’ll probably get there around 11:30. That’s not horrible…
As I approached the hotel, I saw the stroller. Then, everything came into view—the cardboard sign, the woman, and a child.
Most of my life is spent in internal dialogue. I question my beliefs, thoughts, and attitudes 24/7. At that moment, I examined the concept of God.
I can never figure out if I’m an atheist, or agnostic. The idea there’s an omnipotent being watching over/judging us is absurd, and every single one of the written-by-man books claiming to be “the way” seems silly.
But sometimes I wonder if there is an energy we don’t understand, because seeing that woman erased my anger in a split second.
There but for the grace of God, go I.
I am so very, very lucky.
I forget that sometimes.
Hell, I forget it more often than I remember it, which is pathetic.
Why was I angry again? Oh, right: I had to return to a hotel to grab shirts in order to be paid handsomely to film a comedy special. Hashtag, “first world problems.”
I have a beautiful wife whom I love, and two healthy kids who are everything to me.
I have zero problems.
Unfortunately, I do have too much time on my hands, which allows me the opportunity to think damaging thoughts. For the whole drive back to the production company—shirts now on the seat next to me—I was trapped inside my head.
Was I supposed to see that woman, at that moment, to be reminded of how lucky I am? Was it random? Or is there a higher power out there nudging me to be a better, more patient person? If there is a higher power, then why is that woman, with a child, struggling; how could any “God” allow a child to suffer?
(Don’t hit me with “there’s a plan we don’t understand” or “mysterious ways” bullshit. Those are nothingburgers used to avoid actual answers.)
I made it to my destination in decent time—30 minutes for a trip listed as 45, thank you lack of highway patrol that day—accomplished everything I was tasked with accomplishing, and headed back to my hotel.
Pulling up on the corner where the woman and child had been, a new beggar was in place. This was a single woman, and as she stood holding her sign to passers-by, I saw a large tattoo across her lower back. The infamous “tramp stamp.”
I quickly noticed that I felt little sympathy toward her.
I see a woman with a child, and I react. My heart breaks. I see a woman who made the decision to spend money on a tattoo, and I shrug. I shrug, and I condemn.
It’s odd and unfair. And I know that it’s unfair. I should have the same empathy for anyone suffering, right?
I’m human, and humans judge. It’s what we do. We can try not to, but every single person judges others on some level.
I don’t know tattoo-woman’s story; maybe she has a child. Hell, I don’t know the other woman’s story; maybe the child with her was a prop. “Hey, Betty… can I borrow your kid for a couple hours? I need some money for meth.”
Say the mom does blow all her money on drugs; pretend for a moment she uses all her panhandling money on drugs. My response is still visceral. I see the child, and my heart breaks.
No child should suffer for the sins of the parent. It’s not fair.
Back in the hotel room, I thought about the hypocrisy of my sympathies and judgments, and analyzed all the ways charity has been beaten out of me.
While I was in college, I adopted a series of third-world children “for less than the cup of coffee a day.” I cannot remember why I first signed up to write a “Dear Ndugu” letter, but somewhere in my mind I knew I had plenty, while others did not. I wanted to act on that disparity of wealth.
Over the course of a few years, three or four of the children grew too old for the program. Apparently once you’re fifteen (or so), you cannot be sponsored by whatever “Save the Kids” group I’d signed up with.
When a child left the program, I was offered several options with which to direct my money: “Here are the new kids you can support.”
Each story was the same: “Akua is the middle child of seven…” “Ebele has ten siblings…” “Lerato is the youngest of nine…”
Eventually, I snapped.
Because I was a young, stupid, judgmental prick, when my final child left the program, I didn’t re-up. I’d grown tired of reading the letters and thinking: Maybe they could afford to feed their kids if they didn’t have so many of them!
(Again, young, stupid, judgmental.)
I switched my charitable efforts to volunteering at a local food pantry. Donating money to people with too many kids didn’t work out, but I still wanted to do good in the world.
Because I was new to the scene, I was assigned to wiping down tables. Which was fine by me; I was there to help. Right away, I noticed that many of the volunteers were bitter; some even asked why I was there.
(I wasn’t court-ordered, which seemed odd to more than a few people.)
Why was I there? To help my fellow man, of course. These were people in need, and if I could wipe a table and be part of the solution, then Goddammit, that’s what I was going to do.
I lasted about a year.
I only went once a week, but the thing that got me most was the waste. Initially, I thought: “These people are hungry; thank God this church is providing assistance.”
Then I watched as people took full trays of food, ate the dessert, and threw away everything else.
It happened constantly, and I grew disillusioned and resentful. Suddenly I understood why all the other volunteers were bitter. I didn’t want to end up like them, so I stopped going.
For 10 years, I held an annual Comedy for Charity show. Over $20,000 has been raised and given to local veterans, kids in need of coats, foundations fighting cancer, and private families in need.
As of this writing, I’m not sure there’s going to be an 11th show.
Getting people interested in charity is like pulling teeth, and that takes a toll. I don’t like being angry, but when you get your 432nd, “I was going to go, but that’s my night for sitting on the couch and picking my nose,” resentment seeps in.
These days, my way of giving is to buy one extra item of food at the grocery store. I put it in a bag in the pantry, and when that bag is full I take it to the local food pantry. No fuss, no muss.
It’s literally the least I can do, so I do it.
Unless something really grabs me.
Something like seeing a mother begging for the sake of her child.
The Day Of
The next morning I got up, did a little piddle-farting around the hotel, and then decided to go for a jog. I’d looked up a few local trails, and decided to visit one.
I hopped into the rental car, pulled out of the parking lot, and two blocks later saw the woman and her stroller. It was the same woman I’d seen one day earlier, during my angry trek to the hotel to retrieve forgotten items.
Across the street was a Burger King.
Without pausing, I pulled into the drive-thru. I ordered two cheeseburgers, two fries, and two milks. After receiving my items, I pulled out and drove over to the woman. Handing a bag through the window seemed odd, so I parked and stepped out.
That’s when I saw the girls.
Girls, as in plural. Since there was one stroller, I’d assumed there was one child.
There they were, stretched out, coloring. It was in the mid-50s, weather-wise, so it wasn’t a warm day by any stretch of the imagination, but they didn’t seem bothered by the cool temperature. The girls were kicking their feet and pointing at one another’s pictures.
The mom saw me, and looked…
…slightly panicked. She had fear in her eyes, which is understandable. She is at the mercy of strangers. Was I going to help her, or berate her for being an eyesore?
(Yes, there are people who berate those in need: “Get a job!”)
Then she saw the food, and her face relaxed.
“I’m sorry,” I began. “I didn’t know there were three of you…”
I trailed off, unsure what to say next as she approached me.
“No, no!” she exclaimed apologetically. “Thank you! Thank you so much! God bless you…”
God bless me.
Someone who actively needs blessings is offering such generosity up to me, someone who has everything.
I handed over the food, offering a half-smile and slight wave in acknowledgment of her kind words. Her sign caught my eye, and though I didn’t read the whole thing, I did note it said she was waiting on help from the local VA.
She’s a veteran.
She served our country, and this is was had become of her.
I returned to my car and drove off. In my rearview, she was already doling out the meal to her children.
My kids are finicky eaters, and because I simply cannot stay the fuck out of my head, I started berating myself.
What if the girls would have rather had chicken nuggets? Isn’t there a Denny’s a block away? Why didn’t you go buy her a gift card from Denny’s so she can get them inside for their meal? Sure, you bought them lunch, but where is their dinner going to come from?
The last time I cried was August 11, 2014. The day Robin Williams died.
My wife loves mocking me; she teases that I have no soul, because most things just roll right off me. But the woman and her two kids… that hit me. Hard.
I started crying. And I just couldn’t fucking stop.
It’s well-known that we respond to what we relate to. I don’t have tattoos; I think they’re silly. So I didn’t relate to the woman begging for money with the ink on her lower back. But I’m a dad, and the thought of my kids being hungry, or having to spend a day sitting outside on a chilly day for several hours while I tried to scrounge up a few pennies to feed them… that got to me.
When I arrived at the park, I did my best Forrest Gump impersonation and just ran.
I ran to clear my head, to create sore muscles I could focus on so I wouldn’t have to deal with my stupid Goddamn emotions. I didn’t run coast-to-coast, but fifty minutes and five miles later, I felt better.
The problem with some questions is that they have no answers. Sometimes, you just have to accept what is, not what could have been.
Why didn’t I do more for that woman and her kids? I just didn’t. Is there a God? I don’t know. Was the woman put there to remind me I’m lucky? Doubtful, but that’s how I’m taking it. Are all the man-made religions wrong? Well, yeah, duh.
(OK, some answers are easy to come by.)
The long and the short of it is: I do have it lucky, and I’ll try and remember that. I’ll continue to buy that one extra item at the grocery store, and when my bag is full I’ll drop it at the local food pantry.
I said that kids can adapt to whatever situation they’re in, but adults can, too. Sometimes that’s for the worst. I saw a woman in need, and less than an hour later had re-calibrated back to normal. Maybe much in the way of charitable giving has been beaten out of me, but not all of it. Maybe that woman was a not-so-subtle reminder that whatever spark of humanity still lives somewhere inside of me should be listened to, not ignored.
So, if you’re ever in Salt Lake City, and there’s a woman with two girls on the Northwest corner of North Temple and Redwood, give them a little something.
You probably won’t feel better about your life after doing so, but you’ll be reminded that you’re one of the lucky ones on this planet.
You can check out my most recent book on Amazon.
Photo credit Eric Ward on Unsplash.