In the summer of 2008, after numerous citizen complaints, the Fort Bragg city council passed an ordinance against panhandling. I was relieved.
In lieu of giving strangers money, I prefer to donate to organizations that help the homeless and those in need. But as the town’s panhandling situation escalated, I felt pressured. It got to the point where I couldn’t go grocery shopping or walk downtown without being asked for spare change. When I finally mustered the nerve to deny one guy, he told me to “Have a nice day, bitch!” Well there he went, ruining it for everybody. With few exceptions, spare change has stayed in my wallet from that moment on.
Some years ago, I drove around Spokane, Washington, with our son Harrison collecting what he needed to move into a dorm at Gonzaga University. On our one hundredth trip to the Valley Mall, I pulled onto the freeway off ramp and stopped at a light. A short, stout woman with hair the consistency of a bird’s nest stood in the dry weeds next to the street holding a sign that stated, “I need money to get out of here.” Perhaps it was her extreme twitchiness that prompted me to roll down my window and ask, “Where are you going?”
She was only twelve miles from the Washington-Idaho border. Her chances of success were quite high.
“And then I’m going to the state after that and then the state after that and the state after that….”
I reached into my wallet and pulled out the first bill I touched. It was a five.
“Thank you, thank you, thank you.” She shouted as she took the money.
The light turned green and I proceeded to the mall.
“You know she’s going to buy drugs with that money, don’t you?” Harrison said.
“I suppose.” I didn’t tell him I had experienced times in my life when I wanted to make a run for the border and keep going to the state after that and the state after that.
This past spring, about a month before a van tried to run me over in The Purity parking lot, I found a dollar on the sidewalk. I put it in a cup holder in my car. I would give it to the first street person who asked for money, preferably someone encountered in the parking lot at The Purity.
I was surprised how long it took to pass along that dollar. Seven months after finding it, I was downtown on Laurel, walking along the north side of the street. As I approached Pippi’s Longstockings, a young man and woman crossed the street from the alley.
Both were tall and lean, the kind of lean that borders on emaciated. Despite the warm weather, they wore sweatshirts, the hoods pulled over their heads and down to their eyebrows. His was gray, hers a faded red. There was a dark desperation about them, the kind of look I get when I’m denied my mid-morning sugar fix. I gave them a nod of acknowledgement, a smile of understanding. I’ve been caught without cookies in the house when I dearly need them.
As if I’d tossed a lasso and pulled her in, the woman approached. “Do you have a dollar?” she asked.
“I do.” It’s difficult to describe the joy that came over me. Someone had finally answered my call and I was able to relinquish the responsibility of being a good steward of found cash.
The original Purity dollar was in my car, but I had a substitute in my wallet. I pulled it out and handed it to her along with a big smile. She snatched it from my hand. “Thank God,” she said, with a deep sigh of relief. It was the same relief I feel when, hopeless, I remember a stash of mini-muffins in the freezer.
Her man friend had continued north through the alley. She quickened her stride to catch up.
Perhaps she’d use that dollar to feed her addiction. Maybe it would help her buy some food. Possibly it would help get her to the next state, and the state after that, and the state after that.