When I drove by yesterday, he wasn’t there.
On other days, he stands on the side of the exit ramp, amid the trees and overgrown grass. Waiting. It’s been so hot, so he wears shorts and a sleeveless shirt. His hair is cropped short, and glasses frame his tanned face. His arms are thick, and make me think, at another time, he was a mechanic, a gym teacher, or someone who worked outside, using his arms to lift, fix, help. Now, his arms hold a sign and he waits.
Please help a little
I saw him for the first time a few weeks ago as I came off the highway to bring my children to school. I was startled. The exit ramp straddles two suburban towns with great schools and highly desired real estate. What was he doing here? I drove by that first day, but he stuck in my mind. Why here? Why brought him to this?
The next time I saw him, I slowed down as I drove past him, holding money out the window. He took it gratefully, offering up a smile and thanks. I panicked slightly as I sped up through the light. How do I explain this to my children who were sitting in the backseat? At 3 and almost 5, are they up for a talk about homelessness? Can they understand that? How do I explain it without scaring them? But, engrossed in their books, they did not look up nor did they see him.
A few days later, I saw him again. This time, we were waiting for the light, so when I rolled down the window and offered money, the children watched. He said thank you and called me sweetheart. The light changed, and we drove away. My daughter asked, “Mommy, who is that lonely man?”
My perceptive little girl somehow understood, just by that brief exchange, who he was in a way I hadn’t. He was a lonely man asking for help. So, that’s what I told my son and daughter when my son asked why he had been standing there. I said that he needed help and we could help a little. They accepted that answer–and I was relieved. It was a good lesson for me that I can explain complex issues and problems in a way that my small people can comprehend.
We’ve seen him several times since then, offering money and wishing him good luck when traffic allowed. But, yesterday, when I drove by he wasn’t there. I find myself worrying about him. Is he ok? Perhaps his circumstances have changed and panhandling is no longer necessary? I hope so, but on Monday, I’ll be waiting.