I woke up early this morning to do some shopping. It was still dark when I went to the store to pick up some things that I was supposed to get over the weekend. I bought a new surge protector and a filing cabinet with some hanging folders. The surge protector was for my new tv. It doesn't make sense to buy something expensive and not get it some extra protection. I needed a filing cabinet, because the cardboard box I used to keep my records and receipts is more than full, spilling it's contents onto the floor. As I was putting the items in my trunk, I saw in the corner of my eye a man approaching me. Now living in big cities has certainly changed me. Big city life makes you more aware of things, be a little more cautious, and be wary of strangers.
He stopped a few yards from my car and asked, "Sir, do you have any spare change?"
Ah, a homeless man, I presumed. Except, he didn't look homeless--he was clean shaven, his hair trimmed, he wore clean clothes, and he didn't smell bad. But who knows? Maybe he was homeless. And I thought back to the first time I ever saw a homeless person. It was years ago. It was the summer before my last year in high school. It was my first time in the big city. San Francisco to be exact.
I was visiting my cousins, and though it was summer, it was freakin cold! We caught the train into town. My cousin and some friends were showing me around. I took a lot of pictures for the folks back home. It was the first time I had seen buildings taller than three stories. My first thought when I went into a Macy's dept store was, "Wow, is this a mall?"
My cousin laughed and said, "Nah, man! This a'int no mall! It's a department store!"
They indulged me, by taking five flights of escalators instead of the elevators. I had never been on an escalator before--they didn't have those back home! On the way out, we passed by a homeless man, holding up a sign. I was flabbergasted! We had just left a dept store full of nice things and right outside was a homeless person begging for money. It seemed unreal to see such a juxtaposition of wealth and poverty. I was going to give him some money, but my cousin said, "Don't. Just ignore him."
I was a little troubled by this, but I figured my cousin knew better than I. He was a city boy after all. Well I took a picture instead. I'd never seen a homeless person before! They do exist! We didn't have them back home, and boy will the folks back home will be surprised when I bring back photographic evidence of homeless people!
The rest of the day, we explored the city, went down to Fisherman's Wharf, and checked out the views from the top of the Bank of America building. We checked out the beach and parks before hitting Chinatown. We stopped at a McDonald's for a late lunch, and on the way out, I saw the same homeless man I had seen in front of Macy's! I was like, Wow, this guy gets around.
My cousin saw me looking at the homeless man and said, "Cuz, you're too soft! Don't give 'em any money. You've gotta be tough if you want to survive in the big city! Some of these people are con artists. They can spot an easy mark like you from a mile away! Tourists are suckers and easy to fool. These mofos will take advantage of you and easily rob you and kill you without a second thought."
Huh, I thought, that is disturbing. Later on, while waiting to cross the street, we saw a man get out of parked car, walk down to the front of a busy building, sat down and proceeded to hold up a cardboard homeless sign! We laughed when we saw that. I was like, Wow, there really are con artists in the city! *Snap* Another foto for the folks back home.
I was lucky my cousin and his friends looked out for me that summer. I learned a lot of things, gained a little street smarts, and had a lot of fun. But as much as I learned to be tougher and wiser, there have been a few times when I dropped a few coins in some beggar's cup. My cousin would've been horrified. But I think I've gotten a lot harder since then. Most times, I just ignore people standing at the street corner, holding up signs, asking for money. Truthfully, part of me thinks, Hey, if you can stand all day on a busy street corner holding up signs, you need to get a job wearing a sandwich board for ads. A little callous, I guess. But big city living has made me jaded.
My cousin was right. Experience has taught me that it's necessary to be a little hard to survive in the big city. But that doesn't mean you have to be a total jerk. I mean, I still give to charity and I still volunteer for community projects every now and then. I'd like to think that my efforts and my money are going to a good cause and not supplying some drunk or addict with the means to slowly poison himself. Of course, if you're homeless, I guess drugs and alcohol provides the escape you need from a miserable existence. Still, I couldn't bring myself to support anyone doing something so destructive to themselves.
So now I'm looking at this beggar standing next to my car, wearing his blue Nike sports jacket and shiny, unscuffed military boots. He continued, "My girlfriend and I are trying to get a motel room for the night."
I looked around. I didn't see a girlfriend nearby. But I told him, "Sorry, I don't have any spare change."
It was true. I used a credit card. Come to think of it, I rarely use or carry any cash anymore. I've gotten so used to using my bank card for everything. The beggar started to turn away, but trying to be helpful, I said, "You know, there's a shelter just across the street. You can find a place to stay there and get something to eat."
I pointed at the building, but the beggar got huffy and bristled, "I'm not going to any shelter! I just want some money!"
I wanted to say, Then get a job, you bum!
But instead, I held my tongue and watched him stomp away. I got in the car and laughed at absurdity of the situation before driving out of the parking lot.