The other night I was pumping gas at the local Exxon station. As the 87 octane was flowing from pump to Honda Civic tank, in my proactive attempt to avoid the annoying television screen that pops on when you start filling, I stared off into the night. It was not long before I noticed a dark-haired woman of about 50 years of age foraging through a trashcan just a few feet from my car. This is not at all an abnormal occurrence, but, for whatever reason, I seemed to take extra strong notice of this activity on this evening.
As I watched the dumpster diving unfold, it appeared she was looking for recyclable goods, such as plastic containers and cans. I noted her shopping cart, left at the station entrance, was full of both these things as well as blankets and clothes, so it was pretty much a dead giveaway she would soon be off to the recycle bin. We caught a quick glimpse of each other as she looked me in the eye for a quick millisecond creating the briefest of gazes. Then, without the remotest hint of wanting anything from me, looked down in her continued quest for a few dollars’ worth of trade-in goods.
I was actually very impressed with this “apparently-but-who-knows” homeless woman. She did not have a dirty homeless look about her, rather a perhaps “recently homeless” look as if a homeless “newbie” or a woman on the verge homelessness. However, what impressed me about her was, during our millisecond gaze, having the greatest of opportunities to ask me for a handout and not doing so.
As the prepaid $24 worth of gas continued to pump, I realized what this woman was doing. In addition to perhaps providing the few dollars for a meal that evening, she was actually performing a public service. Her trash activity was making all our lives an environmentally better one. She was helping herself yet she was also indirectly helping you and me as well. I wanted to reward her so I reached in my wallet and took out a $20 bill. By this time the woman was on her third or fourth trashcan and now about 30 or 40 feet from my car.
I was thinking: What do I do? Should I approach her? Would this be insulting and demeaning? Dangerous? Is this a really bad idea? A really good idea? If I do approach her, what do I say?
I really just wanted to get in my car and drive off, though my impulse was strong on this cold and very rare, rainy Southern California night.
To better understand my inner conflict, know that I am very big believer in not enabling panhandlers and the like. When I see people giving money to street beggars and such, I am repulsed, as I believe providing money to those seeking handouts only perpetuates the problem and, in turn, creates a much larger one.
This anti-handout position in no way, shape or form applies to those wanting to provide some type of service for a handout -in which case it is no longer a handout rather a payment for services rendered. I will frequently drop a few bills in the tip jar of a street performer or give the guy at the red light a buck for washing my windows as I am stopped.
I also refuse to give because, well, I frankly believe many of those seeking handouts are compulsive liars and are not using the money for basic necessities.
Just a few weeks ago in the city of Redlands, CA, at another gas station (this time an Arco) a man came up to me and asked for some money for gas. I would normally just walk away, though, for whatever reason (am I changing?!?) I told him to pull up to the pump and I would fill his car up for him. He said that was not possible cause the car was several blocks away and he did not even have a gas can. He just wanted the cash.
I politely told him, “good day.”
Now at Exxon, I fought my instinct to drive away as I watched the woman continue to forage. I slowly began walking toward her, still not knowing if when I arrived I would follow through with my giving her the cash.
I was now a few feet from her,
“Excuse me, do you need some help?” I mustered the courage to ask.
She smiled and said yes.
I handed her the $20.
She smiled and said, “God bless you.”
That was about it. Not a lot more to write. Not a lot more to say. She accepted the money and I walked away and she continued in her recyclable endeavor.
However, I must say that, in addition to giving her the money making me feel really good, I realized how much I respected that woman: for both what she did do –recycle otherwise landfill refuse- as well as for what did she did not do –ask for a handout.
As a young teen, my mom once told me that there is never any shame in earning an honest dollar. Of course she told me this as she was getting ready to begin her afternoon cashier gig at the McDonald’s across the street from my high school. Pretty amazing words coming from a registered nurse who was taking some refresher courses to get ready to jump back in the nursing game.
I would take my dearly departed mom once step further…not only is there no shame, there is some mad respect. Deep mad respect. I love you mom.
And thank you woman. Thank you.