By Sheryl McAlister, a writer based in SC
This story isn’t funny. Not even a little bit. But Douglas did make me wonder if there was a comprehensive marketing strategy behind asking a total stranger for money. I’m not talking about a professional fundraiser for a non-profit organization. I’m talking about a random encounter between two people in a public place.
I don’t know if Douglas knew I could see him coming. He was old, used a walker and had a couple recyclable grocery bags tied to either side. The bags were thin. I don’t think there was anything in them. He was dressed in old, dirty clothes; his khaki pants held up by something other than a belt, but I couldn’t determine what.
His face was clean, though, the deep lines a sure sign of hard work if they hadn’t been caused by hardship. He had a gray beard – probably from age but more than likely from tough times. It was late morning, but I could already smell the alcohol. He wasn’t drunk. But he had that oozing-out-of-your-pores smell an alcoholic has when it’s been one day too many with too much booze and not enough anything else.
He had wonderful eyes, and they met mine. He stood close, neither ashamed of his condition nor afraid to enter someone else’s personal space. I was not afraid. Not even a little bit. He was trying to sell a book, he said. He’d had the book since he was in the third grade, and he was hoping to sell it. He also had a fresh flower, he said. And he said his intent was to give it to the prettiest girl he saw that morning. Given how bad I looked that morning, I was wondering if he was blind or hadn’t seen another human being in quite a while.
I took the flower and thanked Douglas, calling him by name. I started to offer mine, but decided against it. I knew where we were headed, but I didn’t need to be Facebook friends. We chatted a few more minutes. For some reason I can’t explain, I didn’t feel a need or desire to get myself out of the situation. I asked him what he needed, and he told me. He left with a smile, and I told him to take care of himself. A stupid thing to say, but see you later seemed even more inappropriate.
We all are approached by people every day who need something, and we choose to respond or not based on any number of reasons that are highly personal. I remember one time sitting in my car in the rain. The window was down slightly, and all of a sudden I was looking at the bottom of some guy’s shoes he had shoved into the open space. His story was that he had run out of gas, and he would trade me his shoes for a few bucks.
There was the story of a young, pregnant woman who approached me at a gas station where I was pumping gas. Her boyfriend had just beaten her up, and a friend was driving her to a relative’s home in another state to escape him. The police had given her a few bucks for gas, she said, but she needed more to get where she was going. I asked her friend if he was the one who hurt her, and they both answered no. I remember asking myself, what if she really was only a tank of gas away from a life free of domestic violence.
Sadly, there are a million stories just like these. What decides who has and who has not? A job, affordable health insurance, good luck? Rising health care costs and tough times in post-recession America have put a whole lot of people one bad break or catastrophic illness away from financial ruin. Maybe Douglas’ good fortune had come and gone. Maybe he never got a break in his life. Whatever his story, I’ll bet Douglas was always a kind man, a good man. I’ll bet he was also a gentleman and a romantic. I’ll never know, of course.
But I won’t forget him.
Copyright © Sheryl McAlister 2016.