While walking into the grocery store the other night, there was a rather straggly looking homeless guy by the door begging for spare change. I mumbled that I didn’t have any and avoided looking at him while I quickly ducked into the store. This is what I generally do when I encounter people begging for money, I avoid looking at them. Not because I’m disgusted or offended by them or anything like that; it’s because I know that I’m not going to give them any money and that makes me feel guilty. So I don’t look.
I went into the store, leaving him by the door and started my grocery shopping. But my mind lingered with him. I wasn’t going to give him money, but I was in a grocery store. I could get him some food. Then, as is my natural propensity, I began to over think things. What if I got something that he didn’t like? What if I got something that he was allergic to? Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera, until I happened upon a display of items that were all 50% off and I got engrossed in that. Poof! The homeless guy vanished from my thoughts, and I was absorbed by all of the things that I could get that I didn’t really need, but were 50% off, so it would be silly for me not to get them. You can laugh, but you’ve done it too! The next thing I know my basket, which was missing the four things that I had actually walked in to get, was over-brimming with my on-sale prizes. So I got the four things on my list and staggered up to the check-out lane and gratefully dropped my basket onto the conveyor.
When I got to the checker, and he emptied out my basket I looked with pleasure at all of my great finds. I was quite pleased with myself. Until I looked over and saw at the end of the conveyor belt, the homeless guy clutching two dollars in his hand with a cup of coffee in front of him. All of a sudden my “great finds” felt frivolous and ridiculous. Did I really need a new water bottle? I felt guilty. All of those voices in my head that always said, “Don’t give money to homeless people, they’re just going to use it for alcohol and drugs” was quieted. Someone had given this man money, and he had chosen to spend it on a warm cup of coffee – my particular drug of choice.
To make matters worse, the man in line between the two of us, was clearly offended by the fact that there was a homeless man in line. He didn’t do anything to hide his disgust, and in fact wound up raising such a fuss and being such an ass that he started a fist fight with another customer (but that’s a completely different story). Everybody present knew that this asinine display was caused because of the very presence of the homeless man. He knew it too and I could see the hurt and confusion etched on his face. I personally wanted to punch the asshole in the face for making someone else feel like that. I don’t care if he’s homeless, he didn’t deserve to be treated like that. He deserved just as much respect as anybody else present.
So I did something that I’ve never done before. I leaned in, and quietly told the cashier to charge me for the coffee. To his credit the cashier did so discreetly, without saying a word. However, his demeanor toward me changed immediately. He had been providing me with good customer service, but all of a sudden he was treating me like I was a VIP – was there anything I couldn’t find that I needed help finding? Would I like help out to my car? Would I like a cart to help get my groceries to my car? He was at my service for whatever I needed. I thanked him, told him that I was perfectly content, grabbed my groceries and left. As I was leaving, I heard him tell the homeless man that his coffee had been paid for. He had to repeat this and finally said that I had paid for it, and that the store wasn’t giving it to him for free.
By this time I was out of the store and feeling pretty good about myself. Kind of a warm glow, that in some small way I had been able to tell this man that not everyone was offended by his presence. That some people do care. As I was loading my groceries into my car he came out and looked around the parking lot. When he saw me, he made no move to come toward me, but nodded his head at me. I nodded my acknowledgement and got in my car as he went back to his perch by the door, cup of coffee in hand.
Driving home I felt good about myself. I still feel good about it, which doesn’t really seem fair. It kind of feels like cheating, that doing something nice for someone else (expecting nothing in return), should make me feel so good. That two dollar cup of coffee turns out to have been worth a lot more than that stupid water bottle that hasn’t moved from its spot on my kitchen counter since that night.
I learned something from that night. If you buy a homeless guy a cup of coffee, you’ll want to do it again.