The old man heaved a labored sigh as he settled three heavy plastic bags filled with his belongings on the sidewalk next to him. The garbage bags were torn in places, and I noticed assorted colors of fabric poking through. His beard was long and grey, its unruly curls added years to his already tired and worn face. Will this corner be his home for the day? I wondered, where does he go at night? Already the sidewalks in Chattanooga began to churn with early-rising tourists.
This old man, who looked to be about the age of my father, rested in the earliest patch of sunshine, the sun just beginning to clear the rooftops of the surrounding luxury lofts and hotels. “Could you spare some change?” he asked my husband as we walked toward him. My husband turned to me with a big smile, and I answered “Yes, sir. I can.” I pulled out fifty-dollar bill from my pocket. This money had been at the center of my angst and personal growth these last two weeks. I noticed the paper bill felt softer and more worn than it did when I first felt its crisp edges. An immediate relief washed over me as I relinquish it to his weathered hand, and I nod as our eyes meet.
For fourteen days the cash had gnawed at me. I had been driving all over Rome looking for someone to give it to; looking to unburden myself with the task of being an extension of God’s will. Perhaps before I convince you that I harbor a God complex, I should start at the beginning.
A couple of weeks ago, my family and I had just emerged from the Smoky mountains after a weeklong camping trip. There hadn’t been much primping in the mountains and for days the height of my fashion choices included a beanie and an extra pair of wool socks to my warm layers.
It was a wonderful trip, but as a winter storm warning approached the area, I was glad we were scheduled to be back home before it began to snow. Back in Rome, the temperature plummeted. I wanted nothing more than to stay home, bundled up, and tackle the laundry pile left from the trip; but I had a list of errands to run. So, I threw on an old pair of comfortable boots, disregarding the broken zipper on the left foot, and headed out the door.
First on my list was the pharmacy. There had been some back and forth with my provider, insurance company, and the pharmaceutical manufacturer to get the medicine covered under a promotional discount. I was willing to jump through a few hoops to save $1,200. A mountain of a man waited in line next to me, as the pharmacist made a second attempt to reach a representative for the pharmaceutical company on the phone.
His t-shirt strained over his enormous gym-crafted muscles as he made small talk about strange items on his wife’s grocery list. “What does she need buttermilk for? We never use buttermilk,” he said in a kind protest. The pharmacist returned to the counter, without any luck. I brushed it off, I’d call my doctor in the morning. I turned to leave when the muscle man said, “I have this for you,” and shoved a fifty-dollar bill in my hand. I was mortified at his assessment of my situation. A quick self-appraisal made me shutter, as I took in my appearance: mismatched clothes, broken boots, and empty-handed of my medication. My humble state compelled this man to step in.
I stammered in shock, and insisted that he misunderstood, “I’m not in tough times!” He would not take no for an answer. I pleaded, “Please don’t make me take this.” He looked me straight in the eye, his face steeled in determination, “I’ve been moved by the Lord to give it to you.” What do you say to that? Argument done. How can I persuade him that God didn’t inspire him to help someone he deemed hard on their luck? This man’s charity was so genuine. I was moved. Reluctantly the money stayed in my palm, but I told him that I planned to act as an extension of his goodwill and find someone needing the help.
I staggered in thought as I checked off my to-do list one by one. I vigilantly looked for someone in need of this money. I strategically made sure my errands took me by the street corners I frequently see individuals asking for help in the form of food, money, or work. Each sidewalk was empty. This continued for days. I searched for someone in the grocery stores and restaurants I visited, willing a small voice inside me to say, “This one.
This person needs help.” But the voice never came, and the fifty-dollar bill glared at me from my fist. I wouldn’t have felt so much pressure to find the perfect candidate if the man at the pharmacy hadn’t made it a spiritual calling. Now here I was, desperate to get his money into the right hands.
A week and a half went by, and I found myself sitting at a traffic light on Martha Berry Highway when I saw a thin man shuffle through a garbage bin at the nearby gas pump. I thought, “This is it. This is the man I can help.” I watched him and noticed his movements were both erratic and sloppy. I am ashamed to say a part of me assumed he was under the influence of drugs, and I momentarily questioned his worthiness of the money. The light turned green, and traffic moved forward. Who am I to judge someone’s need? If this truly was a task given to me through one man’s faith, should I not carry goodwill unadulterated by judgment?
I pulled off the road and made a U-turn, determined to give the man the money. I saw a glimpse of his back as he walked into a motel well known for the nefarious activities on-site. There was an argument ramping up between three people in the parking lot; my engine purred above the yelling as I continued to drive and did not stop. I drove on, passing clusters of people, huddled in groups of fours and fives. Elderly residents of the housing authority’s high-rise apartments, keeping each other company on the sidewalks and bus stops. Here I saw the need was too great, and I didn’t know how to split the money with such a large group.
I began to feel the burden weigh heavier in my heart, as I realized that it is a tall task to see people for who they are. So often, my point of view is obstructed by my biases and opinions. I wonder, how often do we truly see others more completely than mere reflections of ourselves? Is it even possible to know someone for who they are outside the constraints of our own understanding? Suddenly, I realized that for the last two weeks, I had been looking for a narrow-minded quantifying need to present itself, instead of searching for shared humanity in every face I scoured.
Many people find it is easy to hide behind their presumptions. There in those safe shadows, we can protect ourselves from fully unveiling our short-sighted understanding and biased ideals. I’ve learned a lot about myself on this mission. I realize that the greatest illusion we maintain is that we are qualitatively different and separate from each other. Knowing that if I had gone to the pharmacy any other day my appearance would not have inspired charity, allows me to fully appreciate the gift that man gave to me. That crisp fifty was a gift of clarity and of purpose to help others which I intend to foster.
This old man, living on the city sidewalks of Chattanooga, is a blessing to me. I saw him and my heart acknowledged the parallels of our shared human journey. I hope that the money that now rests in his hand, is as impactful for him as it was when it rested in mine.