Exiting the parking garage, I looked up and around trying to get my bearings. I had driven downtown for a one-day conference, but I don’t come to the city very often anymore. As I determined which way to go, a young man with scruffy blond hair in dark gray coveralls approached me.
“Could you give me money for breakfast?” he asked. I glanced around me to be sure we weren’t alone. We were. But as I scanned, I noticed a Steak ‘n Shake on the corner.
“No, but I’ll go with you and buy you breakfast, if you want,” I said, pointing toward the restaurant. “Over there at Steak ‘n Shake.”He hesitated for a few seconds, then said okay. He was hungry.
“I can’t stay and eat with you, but I’ll pay, and you can stay and eat,” I explained. Would he really have expected me to stay? Would I have really considered it were I not rushing off to a meeting?
“How are you this morning?” I asked as we walked along the street together. He was careful not to keep pace with me, holding back just a step or two.
“I slept on concrete all night,” he said, stretching a little. “Sleeping on concrete is no good. At least I was warm, though.”
“I’m sorry you had to sleep on concrete,” I said, resisting the urge to ask where he had slept. I tried to remember if I had ever spent a night on concrete, whether I had ever woken up wondering if I would eat that morning.
I relaxed a little when we walked into the restaurant. The familiar sounds of food service and casual conversation offered a sense of protection the deserted street had withheld. Safer now, my mind turned toward appearances. What would people think seeing me walk in here with this man?
“I’ll be right with you,” a waitress at the back of the restaurant called out. Over the next ten minutes, she repeated the phrase with apologies. She was busy delivering freshly made food to other patrons. And I sensed she recognized the man I was with.
“What’s your first name?” I asked while we waited at the counter. His full name seemed like an invasion of privacy.
“John,” he said, “but I go by Mike.”
That’s weird, I thought. Mental illness? Multiple personalities?
“It’s my middle name,” he corrected, reading my mind.
“Oh. My name is Charity,” I offered, extending my hand.
“Charity,” he repeated, and we both understood the irony.
I used to be more charitable, I wanted to tell Mike. I used to give people money for gas and food all the time. But something had changed. Stories of muggings and drug abuse and panhandling schemes filled the newspapers and were retold in personal conversations. Fear, cynicism, even pride, had closed in. And the thought of being taken advantage of or even hurt seemed worse than a man going hungry. If that’s what was really happening here.
“I have an apple,” I said, rifling through my purse for the fruit. “You could have it for later.”
“I don’t want to take your food; what will you eat?”
“It was just a snack,” I replied. “I can buy something else later.” I considered his value system that would allow him to take my money but not my food. Strangely, it made sense to me.
“Okay,” he said, and I handed it to him.
Eventually, the waitress came, Mike placed his order, and I paid with cash.
“Thank you,” he said, as I nervously stuffed my wallet back into my purse. Having my money and credit cards and ID exposed while the waitress counted the change reminded me that this was a stranger I was standing next to.
“You’re welcome,” I replied, putting on my gloves. “And God bless you.”
As I walked out to the sidewalk and waited for the crossing light to change, I heard someone speak. The voice didn’t seem loud enough to be directed at me, but I understood the words as, “where is my friend?” I turned in time to see another man in coveralls walking into Steak ‘n Shake.
Wonder if they’re together? I thought, barely resisting the urge to feel taken advantage of. The whole exchange cost me 10 minutes, a little less than $7, and an apple. I decided I could afford to let that go, regardless of motives.
Then, maybe I should have bought more? I thought. A hamburger, Coke, and apple split between two men would barely stave off the hunger. Maybe I should go back?
Instead, I looked at the time, pulled my jacket a little tighter and my purse a little closer, and hurried down the sidewalk toward my meeting.