He was sitting on the sidewalk across from the door of the local grocery store with a cardboard sign that said Spare Change Please and under that it said Thank You, God Bless. It was an icy December afternoon in Portland and I wondered what it felt like to be him. His dark and baggy clothes looked like they had never seen the inside of a washing machine. He was scruffy, but rather harmless looking. His hair appeared as if it had been cut with a pocketknife. He held a cigarette in his blackened hands. “Ma’am can you help me?” he queried. I told him I had no cash and jokingly asked if he accepted credit cards. He laughed. I asked for his name, “Nathan,” he said, “and I am trying to get into a shelter for the night. It will cost me $15.” I told him that I would get him some cash when I bought my groceries, thinking that I could spare a buck or two.
Many questions went through my mind as I shopped for the food, that I would take home to my warm house, and share with my loving husband: Is he lying to me? Is he really going to use my money to get indoors? Should I be giving money to someone who will spend it on cigarettes? Is it even ethical to give cash to a young person who might spend it on drugs? Should I just buy him some food instead? He looked like he needed a good meal and a bath.
Nathan was still there sitting on his backpack when I came out of the store. He had not gotten much action while I was inside. I had decided to give him what he asked for instead of what I thought he needed, cash instead of food. I had two one-dollar bills and a five-dollar bill in my pocket. I planned to give him the $2. But at that last moment I felt an inner nudge, “Give him all of it, it’s so little to you and so much to him.” I supposed that some holiday cheer was in order. So I gave him the $7.
I was totally unprepared for what happened next. The biggest smile broke across his face revealing the innocent little boy inside. He said, “Wow!! Thank you, ma’am, thank you so much! Oh, thank you!” You know that swinging thing that people do with their arms when they really want to hug you but don’t know if they should? He was doing that and didn’t quite know what to do with himself. Then he bent over and picked up his sign revealing a collection of half smoked cigarettes that he had scrounged from the street. He retrieved them from the ground and carefully placed them into his shirt pocket. “I am going to find my buddy to see if he has his half of the room fee,” he said. As he grabbed his backpack he glanced once more over his shoulder to thank me profusely and then he was gone. And I was left standing there with my thoughts.
Nathan was my teacher on that cold December day and I received a lesson that was worth a lot more than my $7. He taught me about an inner coldness that assumes the worst in people. How easy it is to be “wise!” What I had thought was the voice of wisdom was my judgmentalism and my own cold heart, nothing more. Coldness would rob the Nathan’s of the world of their faith in humanity, their inner warmth and their sustenance. It would rob me of optimism and love, keeping me cynically tucked in and protected, unable to feel deep pain, deep joy, or even deep love.
Nathan also taught me about human warmth, the toasty glow that happens when people need each other. Sure Nathan needed me to help him stay warm for one night. But I needed Nathan to surprise me. And surprise me he did! I am surprised that people with so little can be so thankful. I am surprised that people on the street are so very human when they are noticed. I am surprised that in a chance encounter my life can be forever changed. Had I given him the $2 instead of the $7 the story very likely would have not turned out the same. From now on, when in doubt I will be generous to a fault and I will love to a fault. And this surprises me, too. Thank you, young Nathan, wherever you are!