The man who stands outside my local gas station and convenience store is pretty unassuming. He wears what I think of as the day laborer's uniform. Scuffed old work boots. Baggy, faded blue jeans that have seen better days and cleaner circumstances. A grey sweatshirt with a hood pulled up around his face. A grey cargo parka that might once have been black, zipped up to mid-chest or so. And heavy, black, weather-resistant mittens on his hands.
Except, we don't have day laborers around here. There's no gang of working men hanging out in a local parking lot waiting for a construction crew or landscaper to stop by and pick up a couple of able bodies. Especially not in the snow, ice, and biting wind of a Northeast winter.
What catches my attention about this man is that he's unflagging and unfailing in his manners and friendliness. He stands off to the side of the pavement, much closer to the garbage cans than the door. When you get out of your car, he nods, gives a small smile and says, "Good morning," or, "Good afternoon." Just being neighborly, it seems, like anyone around here would.
If you've been friendly on the way in, then on the way out, he'll ask you if you have any change. "Do you have a dollar, miss? So I can buy a piece of pizza?" he might say. Or, "So I can buy something to eat?"
This man's eyes are tired. The kind of tired I've never felt. But if he's turned down, he still gives a gentle smile and says, "That's okay. Thank you. You have a good day!"
The fact is, the first time he asked me for a dollar, I was caught off guard. He's not in one of the usual panhandlers' haunts around town. And he doesn't have the practiced pathetic look of the group of people who work together to stake out the exits of the local grocery store parking lots. He's lucid, never chattering to himself and the air as some of the downtown homeless do.
Most people don't realize this about me, because I make snap decisions all the time. But when confronted by something unexpected, I react first and then, about a minute later, realize what someone actually meant, or that they were kidding, or that I could have done something different. It's a hazard, I think, of too much time on my own. It takes me a minute to register the dynamics of a situation.
That's why, that first time, I didn't quite know what to do. I almost never carry cash unless I know I'll need it. I don't give money to panhandlers, ever. I'll buy or give someone what they need. But I won't hand off cash. So I said, "I'm so sorry," and, "I don't have anything," and away I went. Two minutes down the road, I realized I'd been holding my debit card in my hand. The card I'd just used to buy a sandwich for myself.
This time, when I stopped off for a soda on my Saturday morning errand run, I returned this man's cheerful greeting on my way into the shop. And I was anticipating his tentative, "Miss ...?" on my way back to my car.
"Just let me toss these in here." My soda bottle and snack landed in the passenger's seat and I turned to step back up onto the curb.
"Do you have a dollar so I could get something to eat?" His eyes apologized, even as the words passed his few remaining teeth, sitting like tree stumps in his deep walnut face. His skin was unlined, but the salt-and-pepper scruff of hair under his hood told me he'd long since passed my age.
"I don't. But I'll run in and get you something." I drew myself up straight and spoke happy, like I was running an errand for a friend. "What would you like to eat?"
He shuffled a step closer. His answer came quick. "Just a hard roll is okay. Thank you so much!"
For once, my brain was firing on all cylinders. The hard rolls from this local convenience chain are a staple of many a blue-collar lunch. They come already split and spread with butter or peanut butter. And I could immediately see three things they might have going for them. They're soft (so a man with few teeth could gum them). They're swathed in plastic wrap (so they could ride around in a pocket for a day or more). And they're cheap (so pride doesn't suffer too much when you ask for a hand).
I kept my gaze steady on his, my voice upbeat. "Are you sure? You wouldn't like a breakfast sandwich or something?"
"... I suppose that'd be alright ... a breakfast sandwich on a hard roll. Yes, please."
Turning, I bounded back into the store. A minute later, I was in front of the cashier who'd just checked me out, plunking down the loot. One hard roll with butter. For later, I thought. One hot breakfast sandwich of sausage, egg and cheese on a hard roll. For now, warm and filling and soft enough for those teeth. And one bottle of water. Because that's an awful lot of bread to have without something to drink.
"All in a bag, please." I thought that might be helpful, if someone had to carry things for later.
Back on the sidewalk, I handed the bag to the gentleman standing alongside the garbage cans.
"There's a breakfast sandwich in there for now, and I got you a hard roll for later, And a bottle of water, too."
"Thank you so much ..." He took the bag and peered into it. "That looks good!"
"You're welcome! Enjoy it!" I was already headed toward my car as he gently put the bag down on top of a trash can. He was tugging off his mittens as I backed out of the parking space and gave him a cheery wave goodbye. He returned it, seeming almost surprised.
I don't tell the story because I want credit. A little food is the very least I can offer, now and again, when I pick up the clue phone that's constantly ringing.
And I don't tell it because I want to point out the horrors of poverty. We all have eyes and we can all see people in need. We're also all aware that sometimes the "need" is a con. And more times, it's not.
I tell it because that man standing on the curb with his polite manners and his gentle requests for just enough money to buy something to eat was one of the bright spots of my day. Because he had his wits about him. Because he was gracious. Because he had honor, even when he might have little else.
How do I know that? If a man wanted a dollar to buy lottery tickets, alcohol, or cigarettes, he wouldn't answer so quickly when given the chance to have something to eat, as he'd asked. And he wouldn't ask for just a dollar.
But a man with honor? He'd ask for a dollar, precisely. Because a buttered hard roll costs something like 99 cents.