“Stop. Look. And listen.” We repeated the phrase in unison. Mrs. McQuay, my second-grade teacher smiled. “Very good, boys and girls. If you remember to do that, you’ll always get to the other side of the street safely.” She advanced to the next slide, showing some boys playing on a well-manicured lawn. A red ball rolled onto the neighborhood street. “Never run out between two parked cars,” Mrs. McQuay said, clicking to the next slide. One of the boys ignored her advice, darting out to chase the ball, oblivious to an oncoming car. The next slide was grim, even without any blood and guts.
Forty some years later I was more apt to be chased than to be the one chasing. I worked for BellSouth in downtown Birmingham. During lunch hour I crossed the street, either to the Harbert Building which had an extensive food court on the second floor, or to one of the many fast food eateries next door to the Harbert Building.
As soon as I hit the sidewalk the race began. “How you doing, sir? Got a cigarette?” “Hey mister, can you tell me what time it is? Thanks. Hey, you got any spare change?” “Got a dollar, mister?” Those were the polite ones. A lot of the panhandlers were more aggressive.
“Gimme a dollar! Don’t ignore me, I know you can hear me! I said give me a fucking dollar!” It paid off. A lot of people, especially women, gave them money. Some people said, never slowing down, “I don’t have any change.” Some, like me, said nothing.
Every year the company made us attend a meeting where a Birmingham Policeman told us the worse thing we could do was give these street people money. “You aren’t helping them. They only spend it on booze and drugs. The best thing you can do is tell them to go to the Jimmy Hale Mission or the Salvation Army. They’ll get the help they need there.”
It was easy for a uniformed cop with a gun on his belt to say, “ignore them.” It was different for us. Some of these homeless guys were big. And tough. And scary. How do you ignore someone who blocks your way and says, “don’t ignore me, give me a fucking dollar”?
The trick, I found, was to avoid eye contact. Once you looked at them, they won.
Occasionally if they were nice about it and only asked for a smoke, I gave them one. I knew what it was like to be hooked on nicotine and not have a cigarette. BellSouth employees who smoked would take that final puff on their smokes as they approached the revolving doors of the 600 Building, then stick them into the sand filled ashtray at the entrance before following the person in front of them inside. As soon as they did a street person ran over to the ashtray, like a pigeon swooping down on a discarded French fry, and snatch the butt from the sand. If he was fast enough it was still smoldering, and he could start smoking it. Usually there wasn’t much left of it. If he was lucky, half of it was left. Even if it was already out, he still had a two-puff cigarette he could light later.
How could you not feel pity, watching that? Cigarettes weren’t cheap—the cost of smoking, not the health risks, is what finally led me to quit back in 2005—but even so, it was a small thing to give a street person a pristine cigarette and it made me feel good about myself. Sometimes the feeling lasted all the way to the Harbert Building if no one bumped into me as I was crossing the street.
But of course, it never stopped with a cigarette. “Hey, you got a quarter? Can I have a dollar? Got any spare change?” Every freaking day! I mean EVERY FREAKING DAY! It was enough to make me want to brown bag it. By now the street people were as much a part of lunch hour as the background noise of the other diners. It was no big thing to ignore them. They were just bums and crooks who probably made more each week through their intimidation than I did through honest work.
I don’t know if there was a Homeless Convention in town or what, but one day it was worse than usual. I ignored the ones in front of the 600 building, as was my habit. I avoided eye contact with the ones who accosted me as I crossed the street. As I approached the Harbert Building I remember thinking, just a few steps more. The security guards at the Harbert Building were good at keeping the street people out.
I was eating lunch with my friend Audrey that day. I let her precede me into the automatic revolving door of the Harbert Building. Just as the door took her in another damn street person came up to me. “Excuse me, sir—”
“I DON’T HAVE ANY MONEY!” I shouted. And stepped into the revolving door.
As it took me inside the Harbert Building the street person said, almost apologetically, “I don’t want any money. I’m hungry.” The rest of his word were cut off as I was now inside.
And feeling like shit.
Audrey was continuing on toward the escalator that would take us to the food court.
I stopped. I looked out the window at the man whom I’d run away from after I’d yelled at him without looking at him or listening to him. If I’d stopped when I was still outside I would have seen that he wasn’t a typical panhandler. It cost him something to speak to me. It cost him something when I yelled at him that I didn’t have any money.
It was costing me something now.
I caught up to Audrey and told her what happened. “Audrey, he’s not like the others. He’s not trying to scam money, he’s hungry. I should have asked him to come with us.”
“It’s no big deal, Bob. Someone else will buy him lunch.”
After the way I’d treated him I wasn’t sure he’d be up to asking anyone else. And I wasn’t sure anyone else would treat him any better. When we reached the second floor I went to the place with the shortest line, Milo’s Hamburgers. I ordered a combo meal to go. When they gave it to me I told Audrey I’d see her back at the office and raced back down the escalator and back outside.
The hungry man was gone.
I walked al around the Harbert Building looking for him. Maybe someone less shitty than me took him inside and fed him or took him to one of the eateries around the corner. I expanded my search grid, up one block and down another.
I never found him. I only stopped looking because I had to get back to the office. On the way to the office I went up to another street person. “Hey,” I said and extended the lunch, cold now. “You hungry? I got a Milo’s combo if you want it.”
He took it without thanks, peered inside and closed the bag, saving it for later, I guess. He took a sip of the Coke, then said. “Got a dollar?”
I looked for the hungry man the rest of the week. I started to wonder if he’d ever been there at all, if I’d dreamed him.
Dream or real, those few seconds may have been a small fraction of my day, but they stuck with me. My Baptist friends at work say I was “convicted” but I’m not sure what that means. I do know that after that, I stopped, looked and listened, at every damn pan handler that accosted me. Establishing eye contact made it nearly impossible to ignore their demands for spare change, but I the ones I encountered were NOT hungry. They were one step away from being muggers.
I finally stopped leaving the office during lunch, instead going to the smoking area in the basement of the parking garage and playing Bid Whist during lunch.
I haven’t worked in downtown Birmingham since 2007, and I don’t miss it.
Each year when I fill out my tax return I have a modest list of charitable contributions. I support my local public radio station and give to a handful of charities. But for the most part my altruism is limited to financial contributions. The simple fact is, I’m lazy.
And yet . . .
Once a month I either spend a Saturday helping to prepare meals at my former church for a local soup kitchen or day camp for needy kids, or I’m helping to serve meals at the soup kitchen. It’s been a forever ago since those three seconds outside the Harbert Building. The event was small but my sin, for lack of a better word, was huge. I’ll be paying that off for a long time.