I give money to street people: punkers and panhandlers, the sick and healthy, druggies and drunks, the unkempt and the recently bathed, old and young, the well behaved and the floridly insane. But it's complicated.
Once I gave $10 to a black man in his early 30s with impressively earnest eyes behind wire-rimmed glasses who stopped me on Mercer Street in Seattle. He said he'd just been sprung from King County Jail and needed money for a bus back to Portland to see his baby daughter. When I spied him a week later on another street, drinking from a bottle wrapped in a paper bag, I marched up to him and demanded to know why he wasn't in Portland taking care of his child.
He took a long sip, eyeing me with vague incredulity. "What do you want from me?" he asked, more bored than annoyed. I stalked off feeling furious and foolish.
Afterward, I gave less and less often - stunned by how angry I was that I had been "played for a sucker." And I was embarrassed by my anger; critical of myself for being naive enough to believe the man and, worse, for caring about how he spent my money. What right did I have to insist he spend my $10 to get home to a daughter he probably didn't have? Who was I to judge him? But judge, I did.
And I was critical of myself for my new suspiciousness. After handing a dollar to a young woman clutching a crumpled piece of cardboard explaining she needed food for her kids, I'd walk away certain I was helping finance an alcohol habit. Surely this begrudged giving could not be right. Perhaps giving nothing to street people and more to the United Way was the answer.
Later that fall, getting into a taxi in Bombay - tired of beggars and overwhelmed by India - I brushed away an old man as crooked as a corkscrew curled around a long wooden staff. Just before the cab pulled into heavy traffic, I looked up for the first time into his face. He was smiling at me, toothless with cracked lips the color of tar, through the most amazing brown eyes I had ever seen, radiant with what appeared to be enormous affection for me, independent of whether I gave him money or not.
As my cab sped away, he raised one thin hand in friendship or, perhaps, in benediction. Watching his stooped body disappear, I felt as if I had just denied Jesus himself a bowl of rice and a cup of water.
Later that afternoon I went back to try to find him, longing to press my tattered rupees into his smooth, brown hands. But he was gone.
Several weeks after I returned to Seattle, I gave 50 cents to a kid sprawled outside Burger King. He looked up at me, his blue eyes wide open beneath dirty blond bangs.
"God bless you," he said, and meant it. I felt it go straight into my chest, this kid's blessing. And I was back in Bombay seeing the old man, his hand raised, his shining face.
"Thank you," I said, astonished by how grateful I felt.
So I continue to give to street people but with negligible thought now as to what fruit my change and crumpled bills will bear.
In a way, it's business. We each give what we've got and hope we get what we need. For some it's a burger, for me, it is to be blessed.
*Trip Quillman is a clinical social worker living in Seattle, Wash.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society