There were three of us pumping gas at Fastrac at East Main and Union and he went to each of us in turn.
First the lady, to my right, then the guy to my left. He walked up to the guy, into his personal space, and stuck out his hand.
I had intended to put in $20, but seeing that, I stopped at $17 and some change and put away the pump and closed the gas cap.
But he was there already, at the back of my car, where I needed to pass to get in and drive away.
I’ve worked downtown for one month short of 30 years. For all of those years there have been beggars and conmen. People, usually addicts, putting on a hustle, wanting money. It’s just part of life in the city.
But I had a bad experience last week, beside Christ Church, when – out for a run with nothing in my pocket – I told a guy I had nothing and he went off on me, shouting that I was a racist and a slave owner, tensing up like he was going to beat me down.
And this was the first one since then, and I was surprised that this guy shook me.
He was taller than I, and at least 30 years younger, and he seemed pretty altered.
And he wanted money.
I told him I wouldn’t give him any.
Then he said he was hungry. And I looked at him. And told him I would buy him a sandwich. I gestured toward the Fastrac and told him I would get a sandwich if he was hungry.
Then he gestured up the street, toward the Armory and the bridge over the tracks to Goodman Street, and said he wanted Arby’s.
“Four for four,” he said. “Four for four.”
I told him no. I wasn’t going to Arby’s with him, and I wasn’t giving him money. But if he wanted a sandwich from Fastrac, I would get him one.
“Pizza?” he negotiated, and I agreed.
And into the Fastrac I went.
I got a couple of Gatorades and was walking back to the counter when I noticed that the three ladies working at the store were talking about the man outside. A customer had complained and the one lady said he was the same boy who had been there in recent days and they wanted him to go away.
Two of them were black and one was a Latina, all in their 20s, all well groomed and in uniforms that were well kept and pressed. They had an air of busyness and responsibility about them.
Two of them had opened the door and told him that he had to leave or they would call the police, and he said some guy was getting him pizza and they turned to me as I stepped to the open door. I recounted my exchange with the man, said I didn’t mind buying him a meal, but that it was their store and I didn’t want to do anything that would cause them trouble.
In effect, I put it in their hands.
I recognized that if his begging paid off in front of their store, he would come back and do it more, and that would be bad for them. I also respected that this was their workplace, and I was just a passer through.
And they deliberated.
And said it was OK. One of the ladies said the beggars made her sad and she felt sorry for them and that she fed them when she could.
So he waited outside, except to point through the door at the specific type of pizza he wanted, while the lady behind the counter put two slices in a box and rang up my purchase.
By the window, the lady stocking merchandise said that if he put the effort he spent begging into working that he wouldn’t have any problems, and the lady behind the counter said that we all have the same 24 hours in the day and how we choose to use them is on us.
As I stood there waiting for her to take my twenty-dollar bill, I was struck by the wisdom of these three young women. It wasn’t about the troubled young man outside, it was about the three wise women inside. Wise workingwomen. All of whom were away from their lives and families, in uniforms, working hard to tend a store and serve its customers. They were showing compassion and wisdom that must have come from their lives and their upbringings, bearing the fruit of their goodness and understanding.
Old enough to be their father or grandfather, I was proud of them, and admired them.
And thanked them as I took the pizza and the Gatorades and walked out the door.
I don’t know where the young man slept last night, but I know he had something to eat and drink.
And I know that I am a beggar every day. I beg God to one day forgive me for my sins, and to bless my family and me with our daily bread. I beg for peace and peace of mind.
And I am no more worthy of those things than an addict who panhandles while others work.