A Holiday Surprise: Learning How to Give

There’s a woman in my town who seems to be everywhere. She is of indeterminate age, and whether she’s at the Metro or the farmers market, she asks passersby for money. Sometimes she sells the homeless newspaper. She usually talks in a kind of sad, downbeat monotone.

Begging hands

I saw her at the market Sunday, and it was pretty cold. When she said she needed a few bucks for a meal at our local cafe, I said I’d walk down with her and pay for whatever she wanted.

I’ve seen her for years, and this is the first time I’ve contributed. I have some vague theories about giving money to people on the street not really helping them, and anytime I read something that confirms my prejudice, I am happy.

As we walked, she started a conversation in a voice quite different from her usual tone. “Are you ready for Christmas?” she asked. “More or less,” I said. I was feeling a bit pleased with myself as we entered the warm, bustling restaurant and headed to the cash register, where she ordered a burger, fries and a Coke to go.

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“Don’t you want to sit and enjoy your meal?” I said, motioning to a table in the front. Here’s where she surprised me.

“No,” she said. “I have to get back out and make enough to get home to the shelter.” For a second, I felt misused. Maybe she took lots of people into the restaurant and was stockpiling the lunches or something. Shouldn’t I be in charge of how my donation was enjoyed?

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What a jerk I am. In fact, I was just watching her incredible work ethic at play. She knew from experience that this Sunday before Christmas at our market was probably the best available time and day for panhandling. Why waste a half hour of prime time sitting and eating?

So, here’s a first New Year’s resolution. I need to give away more money, and once I give it away, I need to let it go.

Photo: Fabian Bockholt/Flickr

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