As I pulled off Interstate Highway 4 onto the Michigan off ramp my heart sank. I looked ahead and seen a long line of cars and trucks stacked up in the left turn lane—my lane. There was some sort of accident that was preventing everyone from exiting at the light. It would be awhile. That was when I saw him. A tall slender man – ragged clothes and so thin he appeared to shake and rattle as he plodded my way along the line of stalled cars. He was clearly pan-handling, holding a smallish cardboard sign so low only drivers could read the “Please Help.” He paused at each car, mouthing something pathetic while searching for eye contact with the drivers. Getting no favorable response, he continued to move closer and closer to me.
I thought to myself, I really hate this situation. I’ve found myself in this same place far too often. In fact, since the beginning of the great recession it seemed like there have been homeless people, church and civic volunteers, and even various fire departments working many off ramps and major intersections all over central Florida. I was indignant! What about public safety and civic pride? I’m just trying to get across town—minding my own business and now look—stuck in line and forced to decide yes or no, look or look away, money or not, and how much? Good grief, he would be standing outside my window in a minute…think, what to do? So began another one of those frustrating committee meetings inside my head between me, myself, and I. Oh how I resented those back and forth of these mental debates. I could tell him to buzz off or just ignore him like everyone else seemed to be doing. After all, I reasoned, this guy is only going to spend whatever he gets on drugs, cigarettes or booze. There’s no way to win. If I ignore him by looking away his sad eyes will bore into me causing a guilt trip complete with emotional turmoil and remorse. If I talk to him and tell him no, it’ll bring on an inflamed conscience over poor ethics and selfishness. Ok, why not give in and give the wayward soul a dollar or two? But on the other hand it’s my money and I don’t like being forced into decisions. How dare this person just amble up here assuming so much? I was next in line—what to do? Fine, I’ll do it, I thought.
I rolled down my window and waved a dollar at arm’s length. My antagonist saw it and quickly walked over, encouraged that there was reward at the white Montero with the big tires. “Thanks for being so kind and God Bless,” he said with a cough. “I really appreciate the money,” he continued. “I’m an unemployed veteran and I’m out of my pills. Today I’m trying to rustle up enough money to refill my prescription.” Initially skeptical, I found myself studying his eyes, not the other way around. At that moment I realized that this man was a real person, not a varmint or character out of the local network news. He was a human being, flesh and blood and someone somewhere must love and care about him. Perhaps I was being a little too critical and unsympathetic.
I handed him another, this time a five dollar bill. “What’s your name?”
“God Bless you sir, and thanks again. My name is Keith.”
“My name is Jim and you’re welcome.” I shut off the motor as it didn’t seem like the traffic jam was moving anytime soon and continued, “If you don’t mind, could I ask you what branch you were in?”
“I was an Army paratrooper in the 82d Airborne Division, Fort Bragg, and served in Desert Storm,” Keith replied.
A coincidence, our paths had crossed in the past as that was my old unit as well. “What battalion?” I asked.
“First three-two-five,” he proudly fired back, “and left with over thirty jumps.”
“Good to meet you Keith. Once a paratrooper—always a paratrooper, I was in division Headquarters and in the three-thirteenth.”
“Amen brother, the 82d is the best damned unit in the Army,” he agreed. There it was—the walls were gone and somehow we were on the same wavelength and could communicate as only a band of brothers could—having that common unique history.
I had to ask. “Keith, how in the hell did you end up out here? I mean, you’re a long way from Fort Bragg.”
Keith studied me for a few seconds and replied, “Well, after leaving the Army I never really fit into civilian life. One thing led to another, drinking and the party life kind of got the best of me, a divorce, a few times in jail and then a layoff or two. I don’t know. Days turned into weeks, weeks to months, and months to years. One day I found myself living in a stand of palmettos off the Trail. Where did it all go—I don’t know. Life ain’t easy for me”
“Keith, have you tried AA or any of the VA programs?”
“I ain’t an alcoholic,” he replied quickly, “and for right now, I’m taking a break from the VA. There are lots of different things I’m dealing with.” The look on his face told me he’d said all he was going to about how he arrived on exit 81A.
“I’m sorry you’ve had such a bad time of it,” I said.
“Really most days are pretty good,” he answered, “I can average 45 dollars an hour on a good day working my spot here. Sure, there are insults and name calling. Once in a while people even throw things at me and sometimes the cops run me off. But I look at it as just another day at the office—part of my job.” Keith continued, “Some folks are kind, like you, and others have to dish it out and make me suffer. You take the good with the bad. I have my friends and places to go—I’ll be ok until winter anyway.”
Suddenly Keith’s attention turned to the left and right, and it was like someone had changed frequency on a two-way radio. We lost the connection that had tuned us in for those fragile moments. “I have to hit those cars behind you and it looks like everything is starting to move. Nice talking with you brother and thanks for the money.” With a nod of his head he turned and walked away. And with the turn of the key I drove away in the opposite direction—probably in more ways than one.
As I continued on, I reflected on my conversation with Keith and was struck by an epiphany: What just happened? Was it a test or an opportunity? Did I pass or fail? What if I’d ignored Keith? I would have missed more than a bit of time sharing with a unique individual. I would have missed my lesson for the day. More than ever I understood that acknowledging the Keiths of this world as real people, sharing, listening, and treating them like they mattered was the right thing to do. What Keith looked like, what he did with his money or where he spent his days wasn’t mine to judge. The Moral was simple: Give as it was freely given unto you and leave the results to God. There are no insufferable decisions or difficult judgments to make. The committee meeting was closed. My self-imposed moral burden was gone.
I had just come off the Big Lot’s store roof after doing the AC checks and services. Normally it took 20 minutes to invoice a job, and as it was a hot Orlando day, I drove my service van around front and found some shade under the parking lot trees to do the paperwork. I’d just gotten comfortable and started writing when I saw her coming. Here we go again, I thought. I was the only one in that part of the parking lot and clearly not along the way back to the street, so I knew I was her destination. Her grey face and rail-thin, ragged appearance told me she was homeless and probably using something. She saw my window was down, and as she drew near she never even stopped before starting her spiel.
“Excuse me sir, could you help me out? My ol’ man beat my ass and I need bus money to get across town to my sister’s place.”
Stunned by such a cheeky story, all I could say was, “What?”
“Please sir, could you help me out? My ol’ man beat my ass and I need bus money to get across town to my sister’s place. If I can make it to her place I’ll be safe from him.”
I noticed the tremors in her hands as I contemplated what to do next. I started to judge and try to manipulate the situation, to offer my sage advice on woman’s addictions and what she did with her money. But mercifully, before I became the next street Doctor Phil I stopped.
“What’s your name?” I asked
“My name is Connie.” And she rolled right back into her canned speech. “Could you help me out? My ol’ man beat my ass and I need bus money to get across town to my sister’s place. If I can make it to…..”
“Stop Connie, stop—here’s two bucks,” I said quickly. “You’d better hurry along now or you’ll miss the next bus.”
“You can’t do any better than that? I need ten dollars for bus fare,” she answered.
“Sorry, Connie, but I’m all in this time,” I stated firmly. And without even a thank you she turned on her heel and headed across the huge asphalt parking lot to Orange Blossom Trail.
Funny, she didn’t remember me but I remember her, I thought. It had only been two months since the last time she came up looking for money; in the same parking lot, to the same van and the same driver, me, with the same exact story. “Could you help me out? My ol’ man beat my ass and I need bus money to get across town to….” Poor Connie, she seemed to be in a rut, a slough of despondency. Regardless, Connie was not mine to judge or counsel, not a person to manipulate or exact a promise from.
Today, I choose to be free from all that. My ethics committee meeting is closed and my jury is on permanent recess. I try to focus on doing the next right thing as it presents itself and to learn something from each day. I’ve learned that by giving a Keith or Connie a dollar we both leave each other happier for the experience, money well spent. It has been over six years and I often wonder how Keith and Connie are doing these days, if they are even alive somewhere on the Trail. Six years is an eternity when you live on the street, and I have never seen either of them again after those chance meetings in the poor part of Orlando.
Copyright © May 2013 by James Cressler