Yesterday we went to San Francisco. There are a lot of panhandlers in some parts of San Francisco, and I generally don’t pay much attention to them. I don’t say that coldly, but rather for a simple reason: There are a lot of panhandlers, and I can’t help all of them, so who do I help? How can I deem who deserves help and who doesn’t, if I can’t help them all? And honestly, there are times when some appear to be looking for money for booze or cigarettes or drugs, and I’m not going to fund that. It’s really not my place to be judgmental, but I’m just not going to help someone mess up his or her life with something unhealthy.
So we go to San Francisco a lot, and we see panhandlers a lot, but that’s usually where it ends. But yesterday was different.
Yesterday, I sat on a bench with my husband and sons eating sandwiches we had bought at the farmers’ market. I finished most of my sandwich and headed over to the garbage can to throw away my plate, which had some loose cabbage on it, as well as a heel of half-eaten bread, a dirty napkin, and a used baby-food pouch. And just as I was about to throw it away, I heard someone say, “Can you not throw that away, please?”
I looked up, expecting to see some ardent environmentalist chastising me for throwing a paper plate and a plastic baby-food pouch in the same trash receptacle. Because come on, it’s San Francisco—we’re all about environmentalism around here, and people shoot you daggers if you accidentally throw a plastic cup in the trashcan.
But it wasn’t an environmentalist (or maybe it was, but that wasn’t his current mission). It was a young man, clearly homeless. And clearly hungry. And he wanted my trash.
“Oh,” I said, “Sure. Let me just throw away the napkin and old baby-food pouch, and then you can have it.” I handed him the plate after disposing of the two items, he thanked me, and I watched as he walked to another bench a dozen yards away and sat there eating my half-eaten leftovers.
I don’t know this kid’s story. I don’t know why he was on the street, but I do know he was clearly so hungry that he swallowed his pride and asked me for the scraps I was going to throw away—and then thanked me and ate them. My heart hurt for him, and I couldn’t stop thinking about him. I wanted to go buy him a proper lunch, but I was afraid he’d finish and leave before I got through the line. In retrospect, I don’t know why I didn’t just go tell him I was going to buy him lunch, but I didn’t think of it. All I could think was that the poor guy was hungry, and I wanted to help somehow.
So I grabbed a chocolate granola bar out of the stroller and walked back over to him. “Are you still hungry?” I asked. He looked surprised, and I said, “Here. It’s chocolate. Chocolate goes with everything, right?” He smiled at me and took the bar, and I headed back to the boys.
And I kept wondering what it was about this kid that got to me. Of all of the times I’ve seen panhandlers and people begging, what about this kid got to my heart?
I finally figured it out: This could be my son. Not that I expect Sam to be homeless, but the isolation…that could be my son. Here’s a kid who for whatever reason is outside of “normal” society, and simply wanted to eat. And when I looked in his eyes, I saw a hungry young man who is some mother’s son. I might normally have never given this kid a second thought—just walked past him as yet another panhandler on the Embarcadero. But he forced me to stop and look at him when he asked me for my trash, and when I looked at him, I somehow saw my own son as an adult—someone who people would dismiss and walk right past as somehow less than, but who in reality is a person with the same needs and wants as anyone else.
I would like to think that I have never been a cold-hearted person—I would’ve never been cruel to anyone. But in the past, I’ve not gone out of my way to talk to people with disabilities, and now I do. I don’t just walk on by, intent about my business anymore. And while I’m not going to stop every panhandler on the street and give them money or even necessarily strike up a conversation (because if I’m totally honest, there are some ranting panhandlers who frighten me a bit because I’m not sure of their emotional stability), having Sam has taught me to slow way down and look more at people as simply people. I wish I’d learned that lesson a long time ago, because I wonder how many people over the years I’ve just walked on by, instead of stopping and thinking about them. Wondering about their stories and how they came to the place in life they’re at. Wanting to know more about them as people.
I can’t stop thinking about that hungry kid on the street. Whatever his story is, I hope he finds some stability soon. He shouldn’t have to ask for trash to eat. It’s heartbreaking. But I have to thank him, too, for reminding me not to just walk on by. He’s someone’s child, just like Sam is my child. And he deserves a look and a kind word, just like Sam does.