Paying it back

Thanks to Kim for pulling this from my memory.


About 13 years ago, I had just pulled into the parking lot at work, which was still a block away, and I was in a hurry.  They were doing some construction next to this lot, so there was a shortish chain-link fence between the lot and the construction site, and on the other side of the fence were 2 men.  Since there were a ton of workers there all the time, I didn’t even really notice them until I got out of the car and one called to me, “Honey, can I talk to you for just a minute?”  I was in my 20s.  

I walked over to the fence, and I honestly can’t remember how the conversation started out, but I remember the man telling me that he was sorry to be bothering me, sorry to be asking, but was it possible that I could spare a dollar or two, or even any change?  He and his friend had slept there that night and were hungry and could use the help.  I started to tell him that I didn’t have anything, and he stopped me to say, wait, he needed to be honest.  They really were hungry, but they’d most likely spend the money on alcohol anyway because they were alcoholics and it seemed they always did.  He said he understood if I didn’t want to give him the money and that he wasn’t sure why he even told me about it, shouldn’t have bothered me on my way to work, etc.

During his speech, I’d noticed the tattoos on his hand and arm, and I stopped him in mid embarrassed rambling and asked if he’d been in the military.   He said, yes, a very long time ago.  I asked when, and he said, well, we were both in ‘Nam “a hundred years ago, in another life.”

I said that my father had been in Viet Nam too and that he still had a lot of memories from that time, that he also was an alcoholic, and that while it was hard on everyone, I still loved him and thought he was a good man.  The man looked down at the ground, nodding, said “Yeah,” and then was quiet for a minute as his buddy watched him, leaving me to speculate that this man had once had a family of his own.

I reached into my bag, took out my lunch, and half the money I had on me, about $4 or something, and gave them the money and the food.  The man said, No, we can’t take your food; what will you eat?  You made that for yourself.  I told him I could get more but I wanted them to have something to eat, and since I knew they’d need to get a drink with the money, they’d better take the sandwich too.  As he thanked me, it was obvious that he was at once relieved, embarrassed, and anxious for both the food and the drink.  The emotions rolled over his face like the tide coming in.

I’d been late for work when I pulled into the lot, but still I stood there for a minute and talked with them.  I told them that I was worried about them; the weather would be turning colder soon, and I hoped they had a place to sleep.  I told them I appreciated that they served their country, no matter what that meant, and I told them that I knew they were good people, just like my dad was — to be careful and to be safe.  And then I had to go to work.

As I walked toward my office, I wondered if I’d lost my mind.  Did I do too much?   Say too much?  Would this now be an everyday ritual?   Would they be looking for me?  How in the world would I handle that?   I tried to stay calm and not worry about it, even though that thought scared me a little and my fear disgusted me a lot.

I never saw them again.

About dyskinesia

Woman, mother, human being, grammarian. I have Attention Deficit Disorder. My child has Asperger syndrome. Philosophy, laughter, therapy, living. Life after divorce.
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9 Responses to Paying it back

  1. Taoist Biker says:

    Wow, I don’t think I remember that story! Was that in Virginia or before that?

  2. crisitunity says:

    With any luck, you helped them immensely. It might have pushed them into going to the VA for help, or making a phone call to their families.

    I think you totally did the right thing.

    • dyskinesia says:

      I’m hopeful that, even if for a moment, they remembered what it was like to have someone care about them, regardless of doubt or mistake. We all deserve that much.

  3. Schevus says:

    Giving actual food items such as sandwiches, granola bars, etc is a good way to personally help the homeless without fear of them misusing money. Thanks for sharing this nice story.

    – Schev

  4. Kim says:

    I think the fact he was honest about the alcohol helped make your decision for you; I know it would have for me.
    Sometimes when things like that happen, like with me the other night, I think it’s some sort of sign that at least I need to stop and think about all I have and how lucky I am to have a warm house, food and (way too many) clothes. It’s easy to not think about people suffering, right in very close proximity to us, until something like that happens to you.

  5. iamheatherjo says:

    Even with my bad experiences with dishonest panhandlers, my heart went out to you and the men in your story. Those are the kinds of folks that I actually would help and not even think about it. I won’t write about it, but I worked at a VA hospital jobsite in Chicago for a long time with my previous employer and I wished I could have helped so many of them that were down on their luck and had lost everything. They came to the VA just to get some free coffee and popcorn in their stomachs.

    I’ve given money, food, a coat and many pairs of gloves to people who truly seemed to need it and had no ulterior motives. Someone over at Kim’s also mentioned a little man who was short on his grocery money and, if I had it, I would have totally helped him too.

  6. Laura says:

    You did a lovely thing, and even acknowledged the “elephant in the room”, that they’d buy alcohol. But you were so right – just because they needed a drink didn’t make them bad people. I’d like to think that your help and honest and open heart pointed them in a more positive direction.

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