I see him there just down the street. See the ratty jeans that are too small and the jacket that may have fit once but is now too big. See the hat pulled down over his bushy hair and his empty eyes. And the sign—HOMELESS PLEASE GIVE—that is propped against his left leg.
A few who pass offer him quarters and dollar bills. One brings a cup of coffee. Another a candy bar. He takes them with a nod, but no words. One woman offers him both money and a sandwich from the 7-11 down the road. As she walks away, he stares at her backside and smiles.
The patch on his right sleeve is the eagle of the 101st Airborne. Army. A veteran. But then he turns and I see above his left pocket the globe and anchor of the Marine Corps.
I rub my chin. Something’s wrong here.
Another dollar from another woman, which brings another nod and another leer as she walks away. He tips his cap in salute of her appearance. As he does, he exposes the gold watch on his wrist.
I rub my chin again.
Then I begin to understand.
Such sights are more common than we would like to admit—people who pretend to be homeless, penniless, and hopeless but who in fact are none of the above. They spend their days playing to the sympathies of the public and spend their nights in their own homes mocking those good deeds.
And this, I think to myself, is one of those people.
I remain where I am and study his technique. He’s had practice, this man. He knows how to look and act his part, though the gold watch on his wrist and the conflicting patches on his jacket tell me he hasn’t been at this little charade long.
But his silence more than makes up for his lapses. Silence conveys a sense of brokenness, and he has to act broken. The leering at the women, though, is trouble. He’ll have to work on that if he wants to stay in character.
He tips his cap again to another passerby. I notice more this time. His hand is shaking in an almost violent spasm. He’s sniffing, too. Not a big deal in the winter, but this is a warm spring day.
I think I know where all the money he collects out here goes.
Right up his nose.
The cycle of addiction brings out the worst in people. It’s a reality of desperation and wasting away that is only slightly masked by a false and fleeting bliss. It cradles and chokes you at the same time.
He’s rocking back and forth now. I’m not sure if that’s part of the act of it he just needs to move. Or maybe the drugs are wearing off.
He’s decided to use the shakes to his advantage, drawing people to his decay by holding the sign in his trembling hand. It works. Five out of the next twenty people stop to donate. This time there’s much more green than silver.
What should I do with this man? Pity him? Scorn him? Call him unfortunate or lost? Call him worse? I’m not sure. But I know he’s not what he pretends to be, and I know I can’t stand here and watch him any longer.
As he stands between me and my truck, I have to walk past him. Each step brings a little more pity for the addiction choking him and a little less anger for the lie he’s living. I decide this is a test. Give to the poor, Jesus said. Do good. Whatever bad he does with what I give him is his choice, not my consequence.
I reach into my pocket. As I pass, I put the dollar in his hand.
He says, “Thanks, you stupid redneck.”
He shoves my dollar into his pocket before I could snatch it back. I stare at him, fuming.
I spend my ride home enjoying neither sights nor music. I can’t speak, can’t concentrate, can barely think. Anger consumes me.
Not because he took my gift. Not even because he called me a name.
But because he dared to judge me by appearance alone.