If you live in a city like mine, you’ve seen the women and men who stand on intersection medians and ask for help during red lights. Their cardboard signs identify themselves as Veterans, mothers, fathers, widows, unemployed workers, addicts, alcoholics, etc. They share the same titles as many of their car-driving, stoplight-waiting counterparts; just different circumstances.
Lately, there have been a number of times where I’ve been the first car in a line of cars right up against the median, sitting less than two feet away from a person reaching out for help. Last week, I had groceries in the car, so I passed along a bag of grapes. Today, I sucked on the straw of my soy chai and just sat there.
My stoplight today was a particularly long one, so I had plenty of time to wrestle with my ethics. I had about $10 in cash in my purse, but dollars didn’t seem like the right kind of help. I thought about making eye contact and offering a welcoming and/or I-see-you-and-I-wish-you-well smile, but I also worried about coming across as condescending. The more I went back and forth, the worse I felt. Then I felt bad for feeling bad, because how gross is that? I’ve been incredibly lucky, and who’s to say that he and I wouldn’t have swapped lives with different support systems?
As I slunk and drank and sat, I noticed a teenage hipster-ish girl across the intersection, standing in a sort of weird and dangerous spot in the road. She seemed to be trying to cross to the median, which was angled, and between two converging/diverging roads that run along the lake (in other words, not particularly pedestrian friendly). I wrote her off as trying to take a shortcut to the water and watched carefully as she tried to pick a good time to cross.
Eventually, she zipped through a long line of cars, crossed in front of me, and stepped up onto the median. She had a plastic bag with her, and I glued my eyes on her sideways as she greeted the median man, offered him her hand as an introduction, and asked him how he was doing. They introduced themselves to each other and exchanged pleasantries, and she started pulling goodies out of the bag – a giant bottle of water, peanuts, granola bars, a Tom Clancy book. She had scoured the gas station across the street on his behalf.
And then (this is my favorite part), she stayed there. He guzzled the water, the light changed and I pulled away, and I watched in the rearview mirror as the two of them sat down on the median and unloaded the rest of her plastic picnic basket, both of them smiling. She seemed interested in him as a person – not as a concept, not a representation of homelessness, not an uncomfortable part of an otherwise privileged daily experience. And because I think the full picture is important here, I’ll also point out that their skin tones didn’t identify their privilege one way or another. His was white and hers brown. Both wearing ripped t-shirts and jean shorts – his torn by wear, and hers by a manufacturer.
She’s my hero today. I don’t know her and I’ll probably never see her again, but she – likely half my age – exhibited the kind of understanding of human connectivity that every person (and especially every leader) should exemplify.
So. Here’s to the girl with the plastic bag, here’s to the guy reading the espionage book in the intersection median, and here’s to remembering we’re all part of the same thread.