I pulled my little white car into the holiday traffic. Carols crooned from the radio. I sang along and watched the strings of lights on the stores flicker on and off. Popping another piece of holiday candy into my mouth, I craned my neck to try to see what might be stopping the traffic flow.
Along the sidewalk, about five cars ahead of me, a young woman stood holding a sign. Now I have seen these people before, these beggar people. They hold up cardboard signs with messages scrawled out in black magic marker. Usually they allude to temporary hard times and mention that they have served our country at one time or other. My favorite beggar sign said, “I won’t lie, I need money to buy beer.”My husband and I laughed at that one, but we just drove by, avoiding eye contact.
Two cars made it through the light, now I could see my current corner beggar. A young woman, maybe twenty years old, long clean brown hair, no makeup and sturdy warm clothes. She even had a hat. Her sign said, “Anything will help.”
I stared at her and wondered if she needed any training for this job? She didn’t look desperate, who showed her the ropes? Did the beggar supervisor help her design her sign?
“Don’t say you’re a veteran, you look too young. Don’t say anything about being disabled, your too pretty…just ask for what you need.”
“Well, darlin, anything would help.”
Now the cardboard sign hovered near my passenger side window. I tried to make eye contact; she stared at the cars behind me. I pushed the button to open my side window. The young woman sprang to life like a wind up doll, programmed to smile and bend to any opened window.
“So…what’s the going rate?”
She held her sign, just in case I hadn’t noticed. She smiled into my window. I fumbled in my purse and pulled out a fiver. I handed the crumpled bill into her mittened hand.
The car behind me honked. I glanced in the rearview mirror and my beggar pulled away fast, stuffing the money in her down coat pocket. She looked right into the headlights of the cars behind me, as if I never existed.
I drove through the green light and turned left, heading home. I wondered if my five dollars would matter, I knew I would never miss the dough. The young woman probably made more money in an hour than I did.
I shivered as I got out of my car, thinking about standing on a corner to make a buck. I didn’t even want to stand in front of my house for no bucks. I opened the door to lights and heat and smells of food cooking.
I speculated how often the young woman, who now had part of my hard earned money in her pocket, begged. Did she live down the street and just tried to make a little money on the side or did she live under a bridge with her five starving children?
I realized it didn’t matter; I didn’t care how she spent the money. I knew that my gesture, while small and possibly insignificant, helped.
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