Today I was approached by a tramp. That is what they are called isn't it, the filthy haired unkempt beggars who hang around the fast food outlets?
Can you buy me a burger he said.
I slipped through the door to safety only glancing briefly to take in his appearance. A weathered greyness to his skin, unshaved, yellow toothed. He was tall, he had a lanky stooping teenager look about him, his clothes soiled and hanging from his limbs sack like, but he was no teenager. Late 30's I would guess under the shabby griminess.
No. I don't do that". I said without fully meeting his eyes.
He didn't pester or persist. I could not tell if I was more embarrassed or him at our brief encounter. What would I have seen if I had held his imploring gaze?
My words stuck in my throat. "I don't do that" do what? Helps someone? I didn't even take the time to assess whether or not he had a real need. Though it was plain to see he did.
As I watched from the safety of the counter and guiltily ordered a combo no 7 for the princely sum of £3.65 he lurched over to a taxi driver dropping a group of party goers off at the plush Italian restaurant 3 doors down. The driver did not reach out with small change but he did better than I and passed a little time and talked to the guy.
Perhaps the Taxi man knew him and had good reason not to hand over cash. I didn't even give a moment of my time. Perhaps if I had I would still have declined to buy the man his dinner.
If it were a kind looking lady dressed warmly and clean was holding out a tin in the doorway a banner blazoned across it 'help the homeless' I would have reached into my pocket and spared the price of a burger, then why not him?
Too close for comfort? 'I could have replied with wait there mate' and ordered him a combo no 7 or a portion of fries. It didn't need to be cash. But no, too save me feeling awkward. 'I don't do that'. Much easier. It's not the moment of kindness that is the issue. No, it's the time that we would both wait for his order. What do you do, after all you have tentatively connected with a social outcast. Would you need to fill the time with conversation? Or look him up and down in more detail?
Much easier to fill the tin than reach out to him and hand over a £2 meal.
After all, what would you say? How was your day? What are you doing for the rest of the evening? Thinking boy do you need a bath, a shave, a roof over your head. No leave it for the lady with the tin to deal with those issues.
But in the back of my mind it still nagged me. One thing is for sure, it is not his choice to be hanging about in the doorway begging for food. Something has gone seriously wrong in his life. Whether it mental illness, a life changing trauma or an addiction, events in life bigger than he could cope with have put him on the streets. Can any of us say with any certainty that we would not be in his position if life had set us the same challenges he has faced? Be thankful for the love and friendship we are show by those we come into contact with. Without their warmth and support life would be very bleak. Without self respect and the respect of others, does not life lose its meaning? Is that not enough to send a 'normal' person in a downwards spiral?
'I don't do that!' I don't help. I put money in a tin and buy a free conscience. I stood there angry at myself for being so weak, so wrapped up in my own feelings, ashamed at my disregard for a less fortunate person. I left the shop resolved to approach the guy and offer to buy him his burger, the burger shop being next door, but when I stepped out he was nowhere to been seen. I thought perhaps I would feel relieved if he wasn't there, but in truth I felt regret at a miss opportunity to make a difference, even if it was only for a few brief minutes. If enough of us took a few minutes to offer a little kindness and understanding, even if we can't afford a burger or think it right a little compassion might just be enough of a catalyst to put the spiral in reverse, and if not enough for that, it might just lift his spirits for a while and give him some hope.
It is not enough to be charitable with our money; I resolve to be charitable with my consideration and approach too.