I usually try to stay out of the way of these, but we talk about this here all the time, about the assumption that you are the one earning your bread and everybody else is getting away with something, about the fear that roils under so many of our political discussions: I can’t get free health care, because that means you get it, too, and you smoke unfiltered cigarettes and drink Jack Daniels at breakfast and eat sausage fried in real beef fat, and it’s not fair. So when Heatherfirst posed this question I wasn’t surprised at the vehemence and diversity of the responses. I agree with her:
It was Christmas 1990, and he and I went shopping at a local mall to find gifts for the family. It was bitterly cold outside made worse by a cutting wet breeze, winters in Memphis are like that, and as we pulled out of the parking lot at the mall we passed a man standing on the median of the road selling single stem roses for $2. He was wearily disheveled, not dressed at all for the weather, and looked like he hadn’t eaten in days. He could have been starving, but he also could have been a drug addict. I’ll never know.
We’d always been taught that you ignore these people, they’ll take your money and use it to buy booze, or they’re somehow scamming you. Better to keep your money and do something more productive with it. Except Ranger pulled right up to the man, handed him a twenty dollar bill and said, “I’d like a rose for my sister,” and he pointed toward the passenger seat. “I haven’t seen her in months.”
The man looked down at the bill as if he were holding a fragile newborn animal, and his hands started to shake.
“Aw man,” he said. “I ain’t got no change for this. You got something smaller?”
“No,” said Ranger, and then as he shifted the car into drive he continued, “Please keep it.”
The window was still down as the car pulled away, and I’ll never forget how he called after us, “YOU’LL NEVER KNOW, MAN! YOU’LL NEVER KNOW!”
As we pulled up to a stop light in silence Ranger finally spoke up. “I saw him when we first drove into the parking lot hours ago. No telling how long he’s been out there, and he doesn’t have change for a twenty? LET HIM HAVE MY TWENTY.”
I asked Ranger if he cared what that man did with the extra money and he said he hadn’t even thought about that. It was just evident that the man selling roses needed those extra eighteen dollars more than he did. It felt like the right thing to do.
Her comment section on the original post was a huge morass of “where do you stop, then, invite all the homeless into your house, let them kill you in your sleep and rape your children?” and “can’t save everybody” and “if I can’t heal the whole world then I ain’t doing SHIT” interspersed with frustrated people saying, “Oh, for fuck’s SAKE already,” which is about the range of response anybody gets for raising this question. And I get it, I do. I get being overwhelmed by the state of the world’s misery and unable to move for fear that your own two hands are NEVER enough to bail out the boat, and I get the conversation about fish vs. teaching to fish, and all of that.
And I would at this point turn it over to the theologists and whatnot, except to say: You do the job in front of you. What you consider “the job” and “in front” and “of you” are the ways you work out how your obit is going to be written, and it’s that simple. I can make up a catchphrase (Live Without A Helmet!) and sell it as a system and go on Oprah, but this shit is pretty basic: You have what you decided to do and that decision is called your life.
Heather’s original question was this:
Indulge me for a second and consider this scenario: let’s say you’re given the opportunity to donate some money to a desperate family who would use it to feed their children, but were only able to do so if you donated the same amount of money to someone you knew would use it to buy crack. Would you do it?
Well? Would you?